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What If Dictators and Autocrats Learn to Love Clubhouse, Too?

The popular chat app is exploding in popularity in some Middle Eastern countries. Can it keep its users safe?

A woman checks the Clubhouse App on her phone in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images
A picture taken March 6, 2021, shows a woman checking the Clubhouse App on her phone in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

In Silicon Valley, what passes for innovation often means copying the hot new thing, and right now that new thing is Clubhouse: an app that provides audio chat rooms for people to discuss whatever they want. Facebook, Twitter, and other major social networks are all racing to introduce their own audio chat products as fast as they can cobble them together. Their moment may have already come and gone: According to recent reports, downloads of the Clubhouse app have dropped precipitously over the past month.

But Clubhouse is surging in popularity in the Middle East—with more than a million downloads this year—where it’s being hailed as an important new space for discussing politics, sex, abortion, alcohol, and other verboten subjects. Clubhouse users are “practicing democracy in real time,” Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former Iranian vice president, recently told The New York Times.

The Times’ story struck a somewhat hopeful tone, presenting Clubhouse as a refreshing agora of free speech in “repressive countries,” while burying the reasons for concern. “Privacy advocates have also raised issues about the personal data that Clubhouse collects, which could be even riskier if authoritarian governments can gain access to it,” the piece notes halfway through.

Any time a platform for public expression sets up shop in a country where some opinions are forbidden, the promise of liberation ends up on a collision course with state repressionand the latter force tends to prevail. Clubhouse holds out the promising possibility for change, but it also opens the door to more alarming possibilities. The next time the paper of record has the opportunity to check in on the progress made in the Middle Eastern nations where apps like Clubhouse have wedged open a door to freer political expression, it may not be able to offer much in the way of rosy reports.

After all, we’ve heard this story before. Ten years ago, Twitter and Facebook were supposed to help shepherd in the Arab Spring revolutions, but these platforms were eventually co-opted by a number of regimes as places to propagandize, conduct surveillance, censor, and map protester networks. Now Saudi Twitter is besieged by pro-regime content while exiled dissidents are relentlessly harassed. (Saudi Arabia also recruited spies inside Twitter’s headquarters to glean information on Saudi Twitter users, some of whom were later disappeared.)

Autocratic regimes are already taking notice of Clubhouse’s growing prominence. Saudi officials have held court on the app, which has also been difficult to access in recent days, leading some to wonder if it’s been banned. Oman banned the app outright, as did Jordan and China. The government of the United Arab Emirates appears to be interfering with people’s ability to use the app. In Iran, the regime has been taking an approach similar to the Saudi government’s with Twitter: Iranian authorities are besieging Clubhouse with pro-regime propaganda while prominent leaders like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lecture to thousands of listeners.

Still, there’s obvious appeal, despite the fraught environment for political speech. A man named Mohamed, an Egyptian living abroad, described to The New Republic how he was drawn to Clubhouse: “It was pretty exhilarating, I have to say,” with the app living up to its reputation as a public space for discussing previously forbidden topics. Mohamed joined earlier this year and found an influx of Egyptian users around the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, which in Egypt ultimately led to a military counterrevolution and the installation of a dictatorship. On Clubhouse, Mohamed said, “there were a lot of conversations between people in different political camps (regime supporters, Islamists/Islamist-adjacents, liberal/left opposition) working through things that happened in the last 10 years.” It was something he hadn’t found before. He wondered if the design of the appits way of bringing people together almost face to faceencouraged more civil discourse.

The basic setup of Clubhouse implies a questionable attitude toward privacy. The app requires a phone number—Google Voice doesn’t work—and one’s real name, though some people do use fake names. It’s unclear how heavily the app is moderated for language or abuse, though there are reporting mechanisms (which, I was told, have been abused by trolls seeking to suppress certain topics). There’s also nothing to stop a person from using a secondary device to record streams, and a state’s intelligence service could likely do this on a mass scale, archiving all Clubhouse discussions within a country. It would be a routine matter for, say, Saudi intelligence to monitor chats for statements of political disloyalty.

Clubhouse didn’t respond to a list of questions about privacy and security measures, whether users will be granted the possibility of anonymity, and how the company plans to protect users living under oppressive governments. Should the app continue to grow, it may prove impossible to avoid confronting these questions, especially if demands from censorious regimes that don’t appreciate the freewheeling public space it has introduced start to pile up.

A useful comparison can be found in Yalla, another voice chat app that encapsulates all the complications of tech-first globalization. Led by Chinese executives and engineers, headquartered in Dubai, publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, with Arabic its most popular language, Yalla has become phenomenally successful in the Middle East. But it’s strictly monitored, constantly observed by 200 would-be censors. “The basic rule for the platform is known as ‘PRP’: no politics, no religion, no porn,” according to The Financial Times. “The reason everyone can get along harmoniously, is because we don’t talk about [certain things],” said the company’s CEO.

As for Clubhouse, users are beginning to understand that while anything might go for now, the platform is likely subject to surveillance. Regime outlets in some countries have aired television segments warning about the dangers of the app, and the mere presence of high government officials on Clubhouse is evidence enough that some powerful people are watching.

Azal, who founded Women’s Safety Net, or WSN, worries about regional governments co-opting Clubhouse for their own purposes. While crediting some Clubhouse rooms as being the venue for vibrant discussions, others, she says, feature the whole range of misogyny, bigotry, and abuse that seems endemic to online spaces. “I personally, as the founder of WSN reached out to Clubhouse and offered to assist in providing safety and security solutions for Arabic speaking rooms but received no response from anyone,” Azal told The New Republic.

Azal shared data that she said showed officials from Gulf Cooperation Council states—such as Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of a disastrous military intervention in Yemen—moderating rooms and spreading pro-regime propaganda. Some of the moderators, her team’s research indicated, worked for state security services. “We’ve already received cases of some people being detained by officials [for things they said on Clubhouse]. It’s catastrophic, Jacob, I must say.”

As for Mohamed, he said that his own surveillance concerns come from an unexpectedly “private” place. “Some family members and other acquaintances have joined, and this dampened my enthusiasm for the platform a little,” he said, as he now worries about whether he can talk frankly about religion or sexuality in front of them. “I feel less free.”