During last year’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish faith, a handful of users on the invite-only social app known as Clubhouse formed a chatroom titled “Anti-Semitism and Black Culture,” hoping to have a discussion about anti-Jewish sentiments within African American communities. The conversation quickly devolved into a festival of anti-Semitism.
Launched in April 2020, Clubhouse is an exclusive audio-chat iPhone app that is accessible only by invitation. As of January 2021, the app has more than 2 million registered users and is valued at $1 billion. Celebrities such as Kevin Hart, Drake, Ashton Kutcher, Wiz Khalifa, Chris Rock, and Oprah have embraced the app, while entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have also made appearances.
Clubhouse chatrooms resemble conference calls, where users can listen in or discuss topics of interest. And while Clubhouse records its audio conversations, it automatically deletes the recordings when the chatroom ends unless a user has reported a violation during the chat. This limited form of data retention raises a unique set of moderation concerns when regulating real-time conversations.
The chatroom designated for talking about anti-Semitism and Black culture became one of the most popular discussions on the exclusive audio-based platform, garnering a reported 369 listeners over the course of nearly three hours, including appearances from venture capitalists and staff working for Clubhouse. However, what began as a constructive conversation quickly deteriorated into a cesspool of Jewish stereotypes about global domination and economic control—tropes that have been foisted on the Jewish people for centuries—as well as torrents of disinformation about the Holocaust and the supposed role of Jewish people in oppressing minorities. Instead of facilitating an open discussion about Black and Jewish relations in the United States, the room morphed into a virtual town hall for bigots to marinate in collective anti-Semitism.
“The Jewish community and the Black community do not have the same enemy,” a speaker named Carlyle said during the event. “The Jewish community does business with their enemies. The Black community is enslaved by their enemies.”
The chatroom was moderated by progressive activist Ashoka Finley, who struggled to manage the speakers and mute the anti-Semitic remarks overflowing in the discussion. While Finley later apologized on Twitter to “anyone who felt threatened or harmed” by the discussion, the heated chatroom underscores the challenges facing Clubhouse, especially when it comes to real-time moderation for audio content. It also raised concerns about bigotry and hate speech on Clubhouse, which some critics claim can be found across a wide range of chatrooms on the audio-based platform.
After drawing scrutiny for the app’s handling of anti-Semitism, Clubhouse published a blog post on Oct. 1 condemning “Anti-Blackness, Anti-Semitism, and all other forms of racism, hate speech and abuse,” before announcing changes to the platform that included growing the team, hosting formal moderator training sessions, and improving its moderation tools. While these are necessary improvements, it may not be enough to deal with the explosive growth the app is witnessing at the moment.
Beyond its moderation challenges, Clubhouse has also attracted a selection of far-right actors to its platform, many of whom have congregated in chatrooms dedicated to topics ranging from politics to cryptocurrency. Among those who have joined the app is far-right activist and conspiracy theorist Ali Alexander.
The (Far-Right) Boys Club
“Will be on Clubhouse this evening at 7PM CST to talk about Bitcoin,” Ali Alexander announced on Feb. 24 via the Telegram messaging app, where he has nearly 23,000 followers. “Want to share the story of how I went from opposing [cryptocurrency] to adopting it to making many of my followers a lot of money.”
The bizarre announcement came as a surprise to those who have been following Alexander’s activities over the past few months. The Texas native is best known as the organizer behind the so-callled Stop the Steal movement, which promoted the baseless conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Alexander pushed unfounded election fraud conspiracy theories and embraced adherents of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory as well as the neo-fascist Proud Boys hate group during his rallies.
Alexander also helped organize several rallies that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, including one held a short distance away from the White House the day before the insurrection where he started a “Victory or death!” chant.
In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, Alexander went into hiding while the FBI and Justice Department began investigating his connection to the Jan. 6 rioters. He was also banned from major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which forced him to turn to alternatives such as Telegram and Trovo, a gaming platform that is growing more popular among members of the far right. Just days before announcing his Bitcoin chatroom on Clubhouse, Alexander declared on Telegram that “civil war” was the only outcome available to those who opposed Biden’s presidency.
“Pray for a miracle and prepare for hell,” Alexander continued in his Feb. 14 post on Telegram.
Despite his claim of being forced to keep his physical location secret for fear of being arrested, Alexander started a Clubhouse room called “How Bitcoin changed my mind and me.” During the chat, he reportedlytalked about his decision to adopt Bitcoin before rambling about topics such as asteroid-mining. He also refused to discuss his political activism during the chat, stating, “I only want to talk about Bitcoin, and my future plan is to get more Bitcoin.”
Alexander’s interest in Bitcoin makes sense given his limited avenues to raise funds in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The far-right activist has been booted from major payment apps and processors, including PayPal, Venmo, and Patreon. He was previously using GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site used to raise money for the Proud Boys among others, before his page was deactivated because the site’s payment processor wouldn’t support Alexander. Bitcoin remains one of the few potential avenues for raising funds, which Alexander confirmed during the chatroom when he reportedly told listeners that he was able to make “passive income” from “small donations.”
Over the course of the next few days, Alexander took part in several other Clubhouse chatrooms, including a discussion about “launching brands and businesses in the Brave New World” and another one titled “Regulatory Arbitrage: profiting from the Biden Presidency,” the latter of which also featured far-right conspiracy theorist and con artist Jacob Wohl.
Alexander returned to Clubhouse on March 7, where, according to Media Matters reporter Alex Kaplan, he argued that dictatorships were preferable to democracy and that white nationalists were mostly “peaceful.” Ali’s comments were aired in a room named “I think de-platforming is more dangerous than prevention” and was attended by the likes of Wohl.
Alexander and Wohl are not the only far-right actors congregating on Clubhouse. Jack Posobiec, an One America News Network anchor and far-right commentator who has collaborated with white supremacists, neo-fascists, and anti-Semites for years, is active on the site. Others include white nationalist Nick Fuentes, who was a prominent figure at Stop the Steal rallies leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, Canadian far-right activist and Rebel News founder Ezra Levant, Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson, and Curtis Yarvin, a far-right blogger who argued that democracy in the United States is a failed experiment. (Fuentes’ account was suspended by Clubhouse on March 6.)
Clubhouse is home to several journalists from The Daily Caller, a right-wing news site that published articles by white supremacists such as Jason Kessler and Peter Brimelow, as well as several editors at Quillette, an online magazine associated with the “intellectual dark web.” There are also notable MAGA Republicans on Clubhouse, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, political consultant Roger Stone, as well as a club called “American First”; it’s unclear whether that group is a reference to the Trump administration’s official foreign policy doctrine, or Fuentes’ white nationalist youth group of the same name. The club’s members are hidden from view.
There are also dozens of QAnon adherents on Clubhouse, some of whom distinguish themselves by adding WWG1WGA (a QAnon slogan that stands for “where we go one we go all”) to their bios. Clubhouse also allows a group called “Conspiracy Club,” which references QAnon as one of topics of discussion.
“If you love discussing conspiracy theories, put on your best tin foil hat, get your red string and suspect board, and let’s dive into the deep state, hidden agendas, and unexplained events,” reads the club’s description. ”No theory too far-fetched, no conspiracy off limits!”
On Jan. 12, 2021, entrepreneur Chakabars Clarke reportedly took part in a heated debate with health care professionals about COVID-19 vaccines. Clarke, who also founded the IHeartAfrica charity organization, questioned the validity of the research being presented which led to users reporting Clarke for allegedly discouraging people from getting the vaccine.
“Who paid for the research?” Clarke asked during the discussion, according to VICE. “Who owns the media platforms that that information is spread upon? And who is creating the curriculum to train the doctors that are telling us what we are supposed to put in our bodies and what we are not supposed to put in our bodies? I’m being presented information by a particular ethnic group, mainly Europeans and all of that information comes from that group and all of the research and all of the funding and all of the development and financial benefit.”
As Clarke faced criticism for spreading misinformation, others such as comedian Tiffany Haddish came to his defense. She tweeted afterwards: “Now people on Clubhouse saying I am bullying because I just told the truth.” Clarke later claimed that his words were misrepresented.
The incident emphasizes how easy it is for misinformation and conspiracy theories to permeate topics of discussion on Clubhouse. Over the past few months, the app has seen a rise in COVID-19 denialism, as well as conspiracy theories about 5G satellites and the coronavirus vaccines. There are also issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and harassment. However, due to the fact that Clubhouse facilitates real-time audio that isn’t saved, it faces a different set of challenges when it comes to content moderation.
Clubhouse’s moderation strategy is vague and limited in scope. All users have the ability to start chatrooms and those who do become moderators by default in their rooms. Listeners can send a request to the moderators if they wish to speak. If those moderators aren’t trained or equipped to recognize hate speech, harassment, or misinformation, their rooms will quickly become littered with problematic content.
Unlike text-based social media apps such as Twitter or Facebook, Clubhouse’s dedication to real-time audio means that users do not leave a digital footprint that can be traced or monitored for problematic behavior. While this makes it difficult to root out hate speech and misinformation unless it is reported by users in real time, it also makes it difficult for journalists and researchers to access the content. While Clubhouse announced additional resources to help combat problematic content, it is worth noting that tools to detect hate speech and misinformation in audio are not as advanced as text-based tools used by traditional social media apps. Examining recorded audio is more time consuming and less efficient than examining text, thereby making Clubhouse susceptible to abuse.
While Clubhouse appears to be taking steps to limit far-right activity on the platform, such as suspending Nick Fuentes’ account, the platform remains littered with problematic content and actors, which will likely increase when the app is made available to the public at large. Coupled with its limited tools for tracing hate speech and label misinformation, Clubhouse faces an upward battle to ensure that its popular platform is not overrun by hate.