Inside Clubhouse India: Is It The New Ground For Polarisation?

One of the first rules of Clubhouse is you don't share what happens in Clubhouse outside of Clubhouse. The rule may sound familiar, but Clubhouse isn't Fight Club, neither is it Las Vegas. What is common between them though is, what happens there, doesn't quite stay there.

The choices on Clubhouse, just a month ago, the audio-only social networking platform, were between a room to 'shoot your shot' or to listen to Shubha Mudgal or hear a bunch of entrepreneurs share tips on how to be one. Now, there are groups on cancelling veg biryani, debating aliens' existence, on Ayurveda, and on how to conquer Love Jihad or become an influencer.

We spent a couple of weeks on Clubhouse, attending various rooms as a listener to get a sense of the latest sensation in the social networking space.

Clubs or Echo Chambers?

For a week now, Leher Sethi has been facing threats on her social media accounts. One of those many abusive comments on her Instagram post called her a 'prostitute'. "I was attacked across all my social media platforms," the activist and columnist said.

It all started with a Clubhouse group called "Don't be jealous, Sanghis have standards". In it, a speaker told the 500+ attendees that the Hindu scriptures have lessons on how to deal with someone with an opposite ideology. One of them is to kill a person who doesn't agree with their ideology. "She did say killing is not an option but at no point did the moderator intervene," Leher narrated. Someone in the group then called people with Left ideology "mentally retarded". This is when Leher reached out to her friends and followers on the chat feature and created another group in response to the one some of them were attending.

"Sanghis have standards- Double Standards" became their topic of discussion. The new group soon got filled by angry users who leftthe first group. There were now 500 people in the new group that Leher created, discussing the ongoing conversations in the other group and what triggered them.

As the conversation went on, a girl came on the virtual stage to say, "F*** you, Leftists". She was joined by another man who called the moderators "anti-national". Hours after the conversation ended, Leher started receiving threats on her social media accounts.

It took a while for Clubhouse to catch up to India, but now it is reminiscent of primetime television. Between 8 pm and 11 pm, the hallway is crowded with clubs on 'Right Wing Extremism and Toxic Misogyny', 'Ayurveda, the magical cure', 'women patriarchy in Islam' and 'Bhaarat ki Baat' to name a few. It has become a space for Indians to express the beliefs they are often unable to on other social media platforms and find others with the same thoughts. In a way, it has also become 'echo chambers'.

One Clubhouse group came under attack after a leaked audio clip revealed that one of the speakers said that he sometimes "thirst for these very hot Sanghi types" on dating apps. The conversation was on the topic: 'Do we only date hot people?' A Twitter user who shared the audio called it 'sex jihad' and demanded strict action against the members of the room, tagging National Commission For Women (NCW) and Union Minister Smirit Irani. The tweet has been retweeted nearly 4,000 times. As the clip started going viral, more Twitter users began tagging the Delhi police, Union Minister of Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad, Twitter handles of BJP groups and Hindu IT cell.

The threats and attacks to some social media influencers who were a part of the group followed.

Leher, who runs a club called The Citizen's Collective, said that although she knew that the speakers who attacked her in the live conversation were BJP supporters, she didn't mind giving them the space to talk. "I knew they were both BJP supporters, their profile said that. But, we believe in creating a democratic space," Leher said. The incident and what followed after left Leher a bit shaken.

"I thought Clubhouse is a safe space, but this was a lesson for me. I am going to be careful about who I pass the mic to," she said. With over 4.3k followers, Leher runs a fairly popular club along with Rajat Handa, lawyers, journalists, authors and filmmakers.

Raheel Khursheed, co-founder of Laminar Global, said that "staying within your echo chambers" makes the experience better and safer on Clubhouse. "I wouldn't step into a room that is unsafe. The app is set in a way that everything is a voluntary process," he said.

'Echo chambers' are easy to spot on Clubhouse. Moments after a discussion on 'fake feminism' began, some of the members left to start their own group- 'There is nothing called fake feminism'.

A popular club called 'Hind, Hindu, Hindutva' with over 4.4k followers, regularly hosts discussions. One such was a 'Civil conversation on Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra' where one of the speakers said, "Hindus are being killed every day. This is our house, Hindu Rashtra is our identity." Over 600 people were listening to it. When Tejasvi Surya, BJP MP from Karnataka dropped into the conversation, the speakers started whispering loudly, "Tejasvi is here!" "Is he real?" "Tejasvi, will you talk?"

Tejasvi did. "We need to be more resilient. I mean resilient with a lot of intent. We must also see this as a long-term battle. Many times ideological affiliations make people short-sighted. But understanding that this is a long civilisation journey, we need to see the big picture," the BJP leader said on the audio-only platform. He encouraged the group to host more such discussions.

In yet another 'civilised discussion' on 'Ram Mandir' one of the speakers announced, "I was one of the kar sevaks of Ram Mandir".

There is also a group where someone reads the Hanuman Chalisa for 3 hours, every morning. Yet another group where the sound of whales plays. And one more for writers where there is complete silence.

Hate And Attacks: On Audio

A Clubhouse conversation titled 'Christian Youths, This Way' organised by some Christian groups spent hours over three days discussing 'Love Jihad'. The conversation was in Malayalam.

Dilip Nenmelil, one of the attendees, said that the group was trying to spread 'communal hatred'. "The propaganda was vile and no opposing person was allowed to speak," he said. Nenmelil said that a Jency Binoy started the group. Quite a few priests were speakers there too. Jency Binoy's Clubhouse profile says she is a nurse who works in Israel. She has nearly 2,000 followers on the platform.

"They were targeting the Muslim community. They said Christian girls are kidnapped in the name of love and taken to Syria. They were cherry-picking incidents and blaming a community whereas the truth is far from that," he said.

Anand Sivaram, who too, attended the discussion said the moderators didn't allow anyone outside of their community to speak. A journalist from Deccan Chronicle was allowed in as a speaker. But that, he said, was only because he had a Christian name. "They had specifically said that they would only allow people from that faith to speak," Nenmelil said. However, within minutes, as the group found that the journalist's views didn't match theirs, they removed him as a speaker without even a warning. "Clubhouse is going to be another space for polarisation," said Sivaram.

Two days after this conversation, the group organised another one titled "Love Jihad: Don't expect to conquer through fear".

The group created quite a furor. Muslim scholars in Kerala initiated efforts to start a dialgoue between the two communities. Sunni scholar Basheer Faizy Desamangalam said that some of what was said in the session were not just anti-Muslim, but also anti-human. "Speakers referred to incidents such as chopping the hands of Professor T J Joseph, which was condemned by all Muslim organisations. They were harping on 'Love Jihad', a charge that has been dismissed by all investigating agencies and the courts," he told New Indian Express.Faizy also said many from the Christian community came forward to denounce the comments. One priest, he said, apologised too.

One of the users said that Clubhouse often tends to have discussions with a title that is contrary to the conversation in there. One such group, he mentioned, was called "Condemn All Hindu Israel Simps". "You would think they are talking about their support for Israel," he said. However, the room was where the speakers expressed their hate for Muslims. No one, with opposing views, was entertained.

Inside Clubhouse India: Is It The New Ground For Polarisation?

Many fear that misinformation and hate speech will spread fast on the platform. The company, meanwhile, has said that it's working on improving them.

Who's Going To Control Hate And Disinformation?

"Clubhouse has become a hub for hate speech against minorities in India," a journalist tweeted last week.

The platform has some measures to prevent abuse — create private rooms, ability to block users, and to report incidents. However, Clubhouse, with a valuation of $1 billion, has been criticized for its inefficient and inadequate moderation tools.

"Clubhouse is an audio-only platform which by definition will be much more complicated to moderate than other platforms that either have text or pictures on which content moderation is automated and uses algorithms to identify objectionable words and hashtags," said Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director at the Software Freedom Law Center (SLF).

Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), agreed. He said that the platform has a "much more challenging operational environment" where content moderation has to be done on live audio. "It may not only lead to targeted attacks on communities. Not just on Clubhouse, it can be offline too, especially in such a political climate," he said.

Without any archive of rooms, he said, practical enforcement of any rights will be difficult.

In April, Clubhouse announced that it "shut down a number of rooms" in the wake of complaints about anti-Semitism. A Twitter user with the handle @EliKohn3 wrote about a chat on Clubhouse that discussed "Jewish Privilege", where they said users were repeating and promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes. Later that day, Clubhouse announced that it had shut down groups that violated its anti-discrimination policies.

A detailed community guideline that was last updated on April 5, 2021 lists down some of the basic rules. Only an adult over 18 years using a real name or identity can join the app. Engaging in abuse, bullying, harassment or discriminating, threatening violence or harm are not allowed. Neither is sharing other people's private information without permission.

Without any form of archive or evidence of sessions, there's no way to trace back a conversation on Clubhouse. The company keeps a temporary encrypted buffer recording of the audio of the room, which is solely used for the purposes of investigation. "If a user reports a Trust and Safety violation while the room is active, we retain the audio for the purposes of investigating the incident, and then delete it when the investigation is complete," the guidelines note. The recording is deleted if someone does not report the room.

"We want to make sure the creator is in control. We want Clubhouse to be a safe space for them," Paul Davison, CEO and co-founder of Clubhouse, said at a press conference, reported Indian Express.India-born Rohan Seth is the co-founder.

The creator and thereby the moderators are given quite a few responsibilities. The moderator is defined as the speaker with 'special power'. Guiding the conversation is the moderator's job. "Take their questions when appropriate, or feel free to focus on the current speakers—it's totally up to you. When you do take questions, it's okay to return a listener to the audience after the question is answered," one of the guidelines for moderators read.

If a user is blocked by multiple users in one's network, there will be a "!" icon on the person's user profile.

The rules are clearly not being followed. In some rooms, speakers have acknowledged they are not 18; fake profiles with fake names have emerged too.

"Moderation in the form familiar to us will not really work on such a platform," said Mishi Choudhary. On any such platform, she said, moderators will be given more control and responsibilities. "Proactive moderation, detection of objectionable content will be much harder on these spaces especially in view of the ambitious plans of scaling and covering large live events these platforms have," she added.

Every major social media platform—from Facebook to Reddit, Instagram to YouTube— social media companies publish detailed 'transparency reports' meant to give some insight into their moderation practices. There has been no such report published by Clubhouse yet.

There are privacy concerns too.

Even if one doesn't create an account on Clubhouse, but someone else in their network does, Clubhouse may still get access to your phone number. It is because the app requires users to upload their entire contacts database to send invitations.While it was on beta mode, one of the chats on the closed platform was streamed to a third-party website.

"It turns out that your privacy on Clubhouse depends not just on what you do but also on what those who have your information in their contacts do," notes this Vox article on privacy concerns of Clubhouse.

What's Your Belief? Find YourCult Club

Ten months after it was launched, Silicon Valley's breakout social audio app crashed after Elon Musk made an appearance in February 2021. Within weeks, the app hit 8.1 million downloads from 4.6 million users. Musk made a debut on The Good Time Show, a late-night chat hosted by Sriram Krishnan and his wife Aarthi Ramamurthy where he spoke about memes, Mars and GamesStop. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, and several other high-profile guests have also appeared on Clubhouse. Oprah, too, has been there.

In India though, the popularity of Clubhouse spiked with the launch for Android devices and so did the range of topics. The invite-only platform has crossed two million downloads now in India. However, the founders have not yet disclosed the number of users it has here.

On Clubhouse, members are not hesitant to put many of their beliefs out on the public platform. A group, attended by thousands, ran for five days discussing "Do aliens exist?" There are hundreds of clubs on aliens, many of them with hundreds and thousands of followers. 'Extraterrestrial evidence', 'unidentified flying objects', 'Bigfoot', 'sasquatch sightings' and 'secret government conspiracies' are some of the words that are often flung around in these groups.

"There are no aliens, only humans in a modified form. Aliens are not getting in touch with humans because they are humans," one of the speakers said in a conversation on 'Deep space, aliens and black holes'. It was followed by an impromptu rap by another speaker.

"India is obviously not a single community but many communities all across India and it is one of our top markets now as a whole," Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison told reporters in a virtual briefing to the media. One of the Indian communities that is a top market for Clubhouse is the Malayalam-speaking community.

A few days after its launch on Android, a Kerala-based group of theatre persons performed an audio play on Lakshadweep on Clubhouse.

In one of the rooms that was started by a Malayali and attended by over 500, a full debate happened around an imaginary Turkish filmmaker and the post-modern impact on his films. In another one, some fierce Parotta loyalists created a group to discuss 'Can a Parotta be a Parotta if it looks like a Chapathi?' The group had 8,000 listeners at some point, the maximum allowed in a Clubhouse room.

The food loyalists cut across all languages. Another 'big debate' attended by over 5,000 people was on whether "veg biryani should be cancelled?"

There are also influencer groups with promises: 'How to get to 1K followers, Come In'. The moderator identifies a new member on Clubhouse and asks the members to go and follow the member. A shout-out in quite the literal sense. In a discussion on 'Instagram feed review' by 'Bengali creators club', the moderator went through Instagram feeds of the audience to give them real-time feedback. In yet another group, a three-hour-long discussion was held to debate 'jet spray vs toilet paper'.

Raheel Khursheed has been hosting sessions across multiple clubs. In Storyteller Sessions, conversations with actor Swara Bhaskar, Konkona Sensharma, filmmaker Hansal Mehta and recently TM Krishna went on for hours with over 2,000 listeners.

He said that the 'barriers' on the platform and the real-time voice feature make it easier to fact-check people. Unlike other social media platforms, the former Head of News for Twitter India said, that Clubhouse doesn't award you with more 'likes' for more outrageous things you say. "It takes away the intense effort for producing a podcast and gives you a platform for deep engagement," he said.

Deep engagement can be dangerous too, if not moderated. Days before they stormed the Capitol to carry out Donald Trump's demands to overturn the results of the presidential election, a constellation of far-right Americans had been organising and inciting violence on Facebook groups, Instagram stories, Reddit, TikTok and Twitter.

"There is an underlying link between hate and disinformation and it leads to widespread bigotry," Apar Gupta, the executive director of IFF said. "Clubhouse need not have the excuses that social media platforms had 10 years ago," he said.