Racism is rampant on Omegle. Teens are working to hold racist trolls accountable.
Earlier this month, Hidaya Saban and Alees Elshiek launched the video chat website Omegle for a social experiment.
With Omegle, which has been around for roughly a decade, users can be randomly paired with strangers in a video chat - although Saban, 19 and Elshiek (18) said they entered the college student area of the website on which They were in Select specific topic tags to combine with people with similar interests.
They tried a number of subjects including "Black Lives Matter" as well as the acronym "BLM", "KKK" for the Ku Klux Klan, and "Racist". In an encounter the couple recorded on a phone and later passed on to TikTok, a masked man told the couple a racist riddle, suggesting that people of color are committing disproportionate levels of crime. Another video Saban posted on TikTok shows a montage of racist, xenophobic rhetoric aimed at the two wives of Omegle users.
“It was extremely shocking when we entered 'BLM'. When we first walked in we naturally assumed that there would be people speaking out against BLM there, but the number of people who are against BLM or who are fundamentally racist is what shocked us, ”said Elshiek.
Saban and Elshiek said they chose these tags because they saw a growing TikTok trend with people filming racist interactions on Omegle and posting them on the short-form video app.
"We wanted to see how accurate it would be, or maybe there were just a few and they're just like they're editing the clips together," Saban said. "We heard firsthand that if we were 9 out of 10 we would have a racist experience."
Users who take it upon themselves to record and share racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic encounters on Omegle have become a new form of vigilance on social media. Users say they have two goals: hold those who perpetrate racism accountable and show the rest of social media how widespread racism is still online and in the United States.
“I think racist incidents like this have happened since Omegle was founded, but the mobile device has allowed us to capture our computer screen. When users film these incidents, they use their phones to freeze the evidence. Using social media, they can increase abuse in ways we couldn't before, ”said Allissa V. Richardson, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of“ Bearing Witness While Black : African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism. "
Experts like Richardson describe Omegle as the "wild west" of the internet.
Omegle isn't a new website, but it has seen a boom recently as more people spend their time online during the coronavirus outbreak. During the summer, the New York Times reported on the explosion that the website had seen in use. In addition to allowing people to interact with strangers during a time of isolation, college students can enter an .edu email address to speak to other college kids and it becomes a more suggestive version of the website for Adults offered. Omegle is free and somewhat anonymous, although users video chats do not require an account to use the site.
Last month, the Anti-Defamation League warned extremist trolls to use Omegle to radicalize users and harass minorities.
"White supremacists and racists use these roulette-style chat facilities to" troll "and harass women and minorities and to try to recruit others for their extreme ideologies," the ADL wrote in a statement on its website.
It's unclear who currently runs Omegle, but the website was developed by Leif K-Brooks, who created the platform at the age of 18. NBC News asked K-Brooks for a comment on the Omegle resurgence and racism.
While the use of Omegle seemed to increase in April and again in May according to Google Trends, searches for the website skyrocketed from November to December. One theory behind the rise in platform usage is the TikTok trend of filming interactions on Omegle, which often receives considerable attention after posting on the app. The hashtag #omgele has approximately 5 billion views from TikTok.
"TikTok is really a trendsetter," said Martin Urzua, 18, who posted videos of his own interactions on Omegle to TikTok. "I saw this other content creator upload a video and I wanted to try."
Urzua said the boredom of quarantine was another factor that led him to use and ingest Omegle. In a video posted on TikTok, he caught a user calling him a homophobic arc before breaking up with his chat.
“They want to get a reaction from you. And I'm just learning not to give them that when I'm being harassed online or whatever, I'm really just learning not to give them the reaction they want and just start my day, "Urzua said.
But for some, like Saban and Elshiek, the racism they have experienced is profound and has lasting effects on their mental health. But Saban, who said she lost a family member to police brutality, said she and Elshiek decided to expose racism in this way to show others what black Americans experience online and offline every day.
"It is very difficult in this chain of humanity to know that black women are at the end of the chain, and once you find that black women are at the end of the chain, your life just seems so irrelevant," Saban said. "... For the people who hate me because of the color of my skin, I'm not upset about them. I'm just sad about them because this hate needs energy."
Saban and Elshiek often said that when someone uses racist vitriol against them, the antagonists cover their faces to hide their identities. In cases where the person showed their face in a video that was recorded and uploaded to TikTok, users work to identify the person in the video and hold them accountable.
One such case occurred in November when TikTok user Jovan Bradley posted an Omegle interaction in which two teenagers called him the N word, a "slave," and made slapping noises. After Bradley shared the post on TikTok and Twitter, the teens were identified and their school released a public apology for their students' actions.
Shoreham-Wading River High School in Shoreham, New York has not publicly identified the students, nor has Bradley, and NBC News has not verified their identities. In a statement posted on the school's website, Shoreham-Wading River Central School District Superintendent Gerard Poole stated that disciplinary action would be taken in accordance with the school's code of conduct.
"The comment in the video is both reprehensible and a clear violation of the core values of our school district," he wrote.
Bradley released a statement saying that one of the boys turned to him and apologized. He accepted this and said he was grateful for it and asked the boy to listen to people with color in the future. In the statement, Bradley said the other boy in the video didn't answer.
In a statement to NBC News, Bradley said he hoped the teenagers would think twice about their online actions because of the whole ordeal.
"I think accountability is important, but my main takeaway from the whole thing was just the hope that the kids would use this to truly learn and grow as people," said Bradley. "Perhaps this will prevent them from saying these things in the future and prevent another black person from hearing such things in the future."
Despite the trauma reported by those on the receiving end of the racist encounters on Omegle NBC News, the trend of exposing racists on TikTok does not seem to be slowing. Saban and Elshiek said they took on Omegle racists to show people the hatred they face and with the hope that they could help some unlearn that hatred.
"There are people who have the privilege of saying that there is no racism, of saying that black people only imagine things ... we want to spread awareness," said Saban.
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