Earlier this month, Hidaya Saban and Alees Elshiek opened the video chat website Omegle for what they described as a social experiment.
Omegle, which has been around for approximately a decade, allows users to be paired with strangers in a video chat at random — although Saban, 19, and Elshiek, 18, said they entered the college student section of the site where they were able to pick certain topic tags in order to be paired with those who have similar interests.
They tried a range of topics, including “Black Lives Matter,” as well as its acronym “BLM,” “KKK,” for the Ku Klux Klan, and “racist.” In an encounter the pair recorded on a phone and later shared to TikTok, a masked man told the pair a racist riddle, implying that people of color commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Another video Saban posted to TikTok shows a montage of racist, xenophobic rhetoric aimed at the two women from Omegle users.
“It was extremely shocking when we entered ‘BLM.’ When we first entered it, we assumed, of course, we assumed there would be people who opposed BLM on there, but the amount of people who are against BLM or are basically racist is what shocked us,” Elshiek said.
Saban and Elshiek said they chose those tags because they had seen a growing TikTok trend, in which people film racist interactions they’ve had on Omegle and post them to the short form video app.
“We wanted to see how accurate it would be or if maybe it’s only a few and they’re just like editing the clips together,” Saban said. “We got the first-hand experience to know that it’s 9 out of 10 we will get a racist experience.”
Users taking it upon themselves to record and share racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic encounters on Omegle has become a new form of vigilantism on social media, with users saying their purpose is twofold: Hold those perpetrating the racism accountable, and show the rest of social media how pervasive racism still is online and in the United States.
“I think these kinds of racist incidents have occurred since the inception of Omegle, but the mobile device has enabled us to capture our computer screen. When users film these incidents, they are using their phones to freeze the evidence. Social media then allows them to amplify the abuse in ways we couldn't do before,” said Allissa V. Richardson, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the 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 is not a new website, but it has seen a recent resurgence as more people spend their time online during the coronavirus outbreak. During the summer, The New York Times reported on the explosion the site had seen in use. In addition to giving people a way to connect with strangers during a period of isolation, it allows college students to enter an .edu email address to speak with other college kids and offers a more suggestive “adult” version of the site. Omegle is free and somewhat anonymous in that, even though users are video chatting, there is no account needed to use the site.
Omegle also appears to have almost no form of moderation on its platform in the way more mainstream social media platforms such as Twitter or Instagram have policies for reporting a certain user’s behavior if the terms of service are violated. However, some users say they have been banned from Omegle.
Last month, the Anti-Defamation League warned extremist trolls were using Omegle to both radicalize users and harass minorities.
“White supremacists and racists use these roulette-style chat opportunities to ‘troll’ and harass women and minorities, and to attempt to recruit others to their extreme ideologies,” the ADL wrote in a statement on its website.
It’s unclear who is currently running Omegle, but the site was developed by Leif K-Brooks, who created the platform when he was 18 years old. NBC News has reached out to K-Brooks for comment on the resurgence of and racism on Omegle.
While Omegle’s use appeared to spike in April and again in May, according to Google trends, searches for the site have skyrocketed from November to December. One theory for the rise in the platform's use is the TikTok trend of filming interactions on Omegle, which often gain sizable attention after being posted to the app. The #omgele hashtag has approximately 5 billion views on TikTok.
“TikTok really is a trendsetter,” said Martin Urzua, 18, who has shared videos of his own interactions on Omegle to TikTok. “I saw this other content creator upload a video and I was, like, let me give it a shot.”
Urzua said the boredom of quarantine was another factor that pushed him toward using and recording Omegle. In one video posted to TikTok, he captured a user calling him a homophobic slur before disconnecting from their chat.
“They want to get a reaction out of you. And I just learn to, like, not give them that, like, whenever I do get harassed online or whatever, I really just learn to, like, not give them the reaction they want and just kind of, like, go about my day,” Urzua said.
But for some, like Saban and Elshiek, the racism they experienced cuts deep and has left 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, in part, to show others what Black Americans experience both on and off line on a daily basis.
“It’s very difficult knowing in this chain of the human race that Black women are at the bottom and once you realize that Black women are at the bottom of the chain, your life just seems so irrelevant,” Saban said. “... For the people who have hatred toward me for my skin color, I’m not upset at them. I just feel sadness for them because that hatred takes energy.”
Saban and Elshiek said, often, when someone espouses racist vitriol at them, the antagonists cover their faces to hide their identity. However, in cases where the person has shown their face in a video recorded and uploaded to TikTok, users will work to identify the person in the video and hold them accountable.
One such case happened in November when TikTok user Jovan Bradley posted an Omegle interaction in which two teenage boys called him the N-word, a “slave” and made whipping noises. After Bradley shared the post to TikTok and Twitter, the teens were identified and their school released a public apology about its students’ actions.
The Shoreham-Wading River High School in Shoreham, New York, did not publicly identify the students, nor did Bradley, and NBC News has not confirmed their identity. However, in a statement posted to the school's website, Shoreham-Wading River Central School District Superintendent Gerard Poole said disciplinary action would be taken in accordance with the school’s code of conduct.
“The commentary provided in the video is both reprehensible and in clear violation of the core values of our school district,” he wrote.
Bradley released a statement saying one of the boys reached out to him and apologized, which he accepted and said he was grateful for, asking that the boy listen to people of color in the future. In the statement, Bradley said the other boy in the video did not reach out.
In a statement to NBC News, Bradley said he hoped the entire ordeal causes the teens to think twice about their actions online.
"I think accountability is important but my main takeaway from the whole thing was just hoping the kids would use this to really learn and grow as people," Bradley said. "Maybe this stops them from saying these things in the future and prevents another person of color from having to hear these sort of things in the future."
Despite the trauma those on the receiving end of the racist encounters on Omegle reported to NBC News, the trend of exposing racists on TikTok does not appear to be slowing down. Saban and Elshiek said they’ve taken on Omegle racists in an attempt to show people the hate they face and with hope they might be able to help some unlearn that hatred.
“There are people who have the privilege to say racism doesn’t exist, to say Black people are just imagining things … we want to spread awareness,” Saban said.