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On Clubhouse, Women and People of Color Face Abuse

Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth, the creators of Clubhouse, set out to create a whole new kind of social media platform before its launch in 2016. In that regard, they succeeded. There is nothing else on the market right now that is quite like it.

The first time I ever heard about Clubhouse was in a story that detailed how Kevin Hart said his teenage daughter was displaying “hoe-like activity” in a Clubhouse room. It’s not a great opening for a social media platform, but the hype surrounding Clubhouse continued to grow even as people forgot about that moment. As one of the biggest new social media apps, the company has earned a spot among the top performing social media sites in recent months.

Clubhouse is currently available on the Apple App Store as an invite-only platform, meaning an existing user has to invite you to join before you can make an account. The app allows users to participate in voice conversations through “rooms” that act, essentially, like live podcasts or conference calls. Topics on the platform range from wellness, to business advice, to celebrity gossip. Any user can launch a room, and any user can join a room (though some may not be able to speak unless invited to do so).

Davidson occasionally pops in on Clubhouse rooms to talk about the platform and its success. In one conversation I was in he talked about the aspects of Clubhouse that he was most proud of: the authenticity and intimacy that the app cultivates. These are unquestionably the strengths of the app, but the problem is that the creators seem at least partially blind to the flaws. The company has put in place a set of community guidelines, but beyond that, Clubhouse is essentially a free-for-all because rules are not often enforced. Without strict moderation, the darker corners of the app will only grow as the app itself continues to expand to new audiences. We saw this happen with Parler, another social media company that had written community guidelines but was not enforcing them. Earlier this month, Parler was taken offline after mass calls for violence—including calls to assassinate Vice President Mike Pence, were left online for days.

Clubhouse, while positive in many aspects, embodies the ills that all social media platforms eventually fall victim to when users begin to exploit the platform for harm. On Twitter, celebrities and other figures are often held accountable for the things they’ve posted in the past. Users are able to keyword search another users’ profile to see if they’ve posted content with certain words in the past. The feature has contributed to what some might call cancel culture and others might simply call accountability—especially when it comes to inexcusable actions such as acts of racism or sexism. It’s not uncommon to see someone have to apologize for a post they made years ago (or recently) after it circulates the platform.

On Clubhouse, however, there are no screenshots. There is no way to drag up old Clubhouse posts years later like a user might do on Twitter. There is no way to record conversations—meaning there is no way to prove that someone said anything controversial at all. There’s no path to accountability. Users on Clubhouse know, or at least believe, that they can openly speak their mind with zero repercussions. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have implemented robust moderation programs in recent years, a move that has been both praised and criticized by many.

Content on Clubhouse is moderated by the community itself. If a post violates the rules, a user can report it as a “Trust & Safety” incident or room moderators can choose to silence or remove a user if they want to. If the room is still active, the company will temporarily record the audio for the purposes of an investigation, and delete that audio when the investigation is done. Consequences for rule violations include warnings, removal of a room, disabling or removing an account, or notifying law enforcement, depending on the severity. The problem is, by the time the offense is reported, the audio is often gone. Unless the offending person brings it up again, there’s no way to prove an offense occurred. The app relies heavily on the moderators of each room to foster a safe environment on the app, and anyone can be a moderator. But while this might be an effective approach for flagging calls for violence or real-world activity, it doesn’t hold users accountable for fostering hateful and toxic environments, especially if the moderator doesn’t feel that there is a problem.

At its best, Clubhouse sparks fascinating conversations about the world, ethics, culture, and anything under the sun. I’ve listened in on some truly wonderful conversations on everything from Gwyneth Paltrow to Donald Trump’s latest impeachment. When moderated by responsible folks, and with the right people in the room, Clubhouse conversations can be something truly special.

There is, however, a clear dark side to the platform as well. Because there are no qualifications for being a moderator, moderators might not be helping to keep the environment safe. Some moderators are fostering intelligent conversations, while others are cultivating toxic communities that are havens for sexism, racism, and bullying. These less-than-perfect conversations are often geared towards self-promotion and create an atmosphere that embodies the worst aspects of our society.

Last week, activist Allyson Byrd posted her experiences in Clubhouse on Instagram. She detailed her experience in a Clubhouse room, where she was allegedly subjected to racist, misogynistic harassment and abuse. The abuse started when she tried to speak up on the misleading title of a room, which was designed to draw in listeners.

Her experience is not unique. In the hours I’ve spent on Clubhouse, listening in to a multitude of different conversations, I’ve heard an alarming amount of casual sexism. In 2020, a room full of Silicon Valley venture capitalists were exposed for using the app to discuss whether journalists had too much power. Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times journalist who covers social media culture, joined the conversation after learning she was being discussed. When she tried to chime in on sexist remarks made against her in the room, she was harassed for playing “the woman card.” Like the Kevin Hart incident, this was a significant moment for the app and defined its direction. While Lorenz went public, her story resulted in very few changes to how Clubhouse functions.

In one room I was in, the male moderators were continuously talking about the value of female energy and opinions in the workplace, but then the men would continually cut off any woman who tried to chime in before they could talk. This was a relatively mild example of the ways in which Clubhouse fosters an unsafe environment for anyone that isn’t—well, white and male. In this case, at least, the moderators were not openly hostile.

Other rooms fair far worse. In a room dedicated to helping new entrepreneurs find success, a panel made up of 90% men advertised that they would be discussing ways for young people to find success in business. Instead, it was mostly the main speaker, a successful South-Florida business man, stroking his own ego and soliciting investors for his own ventures.

Then the figure said that he needed someone to work with him on a project. A woman spoke up and detailed her experience, saying they’d actually worked together in the past, and that she’d be happy to interview for the role. After an awkward silence, he said he was kidding and that did not actually need someone to work for him. The moment was uncomfortable to listen to, but was not an isolated incident in the long conversation.

The next time a woman spoke up, the figure invited her down to Miami to go “big and hard.” It was a clear sexual innuendo in front of a room of almost 1,000 people.

Because of the nature of the app, some of these well known public figures are able to speak freely on Clubhouse without risk of being held accountable by journalists. Unless you were in the room yourself, it’s only hearsay that anything controversial was said at all. Journalists are often the only people able to hold businesses and influential figures accountable for their actions, but they can’t publish what was allegedly said on an app that doesn’t enable them to collect proof. Because of this, Clubhouse enables these actions, creating a safe space for the world’s more privileged and wealthy to say whatever they want without fear of facing consequences.

After listening to about an hour of the aforementioned conversation, I joined another room, moderated by women that were dedicated to detailing their experiences in the room I was just in. The entrepreneurship conversation went on for a full 3.5 days with different moderators taking over in shifts, but the need for a secondary room that acted as a support group, it was clear that none of the moderators were dedicated to fostering an inclusive environment.

Folks in this room told stories of their experiences with men in the entrepreneur success room. One man in particular seems to be the worst offender and often speaks over women and people of color. If anyone tried to speak out about this in any kind of way, moderators either kicked them out of the speaking section into the audience or out of the conversation entirely.

According to the women in this conversation, the entrpreneurship room was originally started by Black men until a prominent white business man came in and took it over. The man started by becoming a moderator and inviting his associates to moderate with them, eventually pushing out the people of color that the room was meant for in the first place. In this conversation, both women and BIPOC repeatedly made clear that they felt unsupported by the platform. One woman, in particular, was upset to the point of tears over the abuse she received.

In a different conversation with many of the same moderators that seem to dominate Clubhouse discourse, I witnessed more of this first hand.

In another room, a young man who appeared to be Latino asked a question to the main moderator on whether he should aim to rent or buy a home. He said his mother always told him to buy. The moderator asked his mother’s net worth in a deeply condescending tone and when the young man responded zero, the moderator chuckled rudely, told the young boy to buy his book, and then booted him out of the speaking section without letting him get a word in edgewise. Other users have reported cases of anti-semitism, including discussions about Jews being “the face of capitalism” and other perpetuations of anti-semitic stereotypes.

In the time I spent listening, some people were allowed to pitch their own businesses and investment opportunities whereas others were immediately shut down. Everyone who was shut down and booted out of the speaker space while I was listening was a woman, a person of color or both. Sexism, antisemitism and racism aren’t the only issues in rooms like these. The goal of these rooms, whatever the official title may be, is to build the business and reputation of the moderators. Under the guise of giving advice, these moderators are really just using the platform for self-promotion.

This seriously fosters the sense of elitism that already proliferates on an invite only platform. Established businessmen are stepping on their younger peers by acting condescending toward those that are just starting out in the business world or did not have access to an Ivy League education and professional network. When successful figures on the app do actually give advice, they throw out quick little investment tidbits with no context, information or resources to back their advice up. They can say absolutely anything here. There would be no consequence for giving terrible investment advice, so why not.

Mostly, the goal of these rooms is to gain social media followers and attract investors. These businessmen are pitching whatever project they’re working on, constantly directing potential investors towards the project. It’s essentially one long advertisement.

There is no way to confirm the legality of these speaker’s business ventures. These people could very well be pushing Ponzi schemes, and the average joe who’s looking to be a millionaire like these guys would have no idea. At one point, one speaker even took it as far as to taunt the SEC, saying “I never disappoint and you can tell the SEC I said that.” With no way to prove that they said anything at all, the app provides a large platform with virtually no pathway to accountability if someone were to, say, provide bad investment advice or incite mass violence.

With this lack of accountability inevitably comes the most prominent social media problem of our time, misinformation. In a room on Wednesday night, a moderator was actively spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine. A doctor, who happened to be a Black woman, spoke out against this misinformation. A celebrity got involved, and this doctor ended up being bullied so badly that she left the conversation. Later, on Twitter, there were some reports that the doctor had attempted suicide.

On many social media apps, there are tags and notifications to help stop the spread of misinformation. Facebook implemented tagging on any posts that mention COVID-19 on both Facebook and Instagram in 2020, and again for election-related posts on the platforms. Twitter and TikTok quickly followed suit, recognizing that their platforms were being used to spread potentially life-threatening misinformation. There is nothing of the sort on Clubhouse. This speaker was able to spread false medical information to a large group of people and was not silenced for doing so, with no method of accountability from the app because the in-room moderators were not interested in reporting the abuse. Even if they were, the damage had already been done.

As of this reporting, Clubhouse hasn’t taken any action on this particular incident, even though it was widely discussed on Twitter and reported to the app.

In order to truly foster a surviving, thriving social media platform, Clubhouse needs to make some changes. The company need to implement a widespread moderation system that falls in-line with its terms of use and allows users (both speakers and listeners) to report abuse, hate and violence with ease. Clubhouse should also need to reconsider the ethics of an invite-only platform. The company claims the invite-only is only for the purposes of the beta version, and the app will go public in the future, but after four years of being invite-only, it’s already canonized itself as an environment reserved only for those on the guest list.

Editor’s Note: Grit Daily has chosen to leave names of individuals and Clubhouse rooms out of this piece both for legal reasons and to prevent the spread of harmful abuse and misinformation. Clubhouse did not immediately respond to Grit Daily’s request for comment.

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