In May, when the Clubhouse app was made available to Android users, Anubha downloaded it out of curiosity. “Everyone was talking about it, people who’d used it told me it was a good platform to discuss niche subjects,” says the 30-year-old Pune-based IT consultant.
The invitation-only social media platform, which allows people to voice chat and have live discussions, started gaining traction since its release over a year ago. However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing, like with every other app, this one too comes with its own set of pitfalls offsetting the benefits.
“While social media platforms like Twitter conveniently let us remain in our own echo chambers, it wasn't the same on Clubhouse,” says Anubha. It had been a while since she had interacted with people on the other end of the political spectrum but Clubhouse changed that. She entered a ‘room’ that was discussing feminism in Hindutva, one that she believed was peddling misinformation. “Because the moderator is someone with a certain political bias, everything that I was saying was getting twisted around,” she recalls. Anubha says that men spoke over her as she tried to make her points, some even made comments about her display picture. "That was one triggering experience where I wasn’t allowed to say what I wanted and I was moved to the audience,” she remarked.
She immediately noted an influx in her Clubhouse followers, most of whom were men with evidently opposing political views. As her handle on Instagram and Clubhouse were the same, they also followed her to other social media platforms. “These were clearly people who wanted to troll me or harass me, that was scary,” she recalls.
She cites another example of a woman known to her, and who went on a panel and said that a man on the same panel had sent her rape threats. The moderators enquired about it and the man acknowledged that he was harassing her because she had allegedly insulted his religion. In reality, she had only spoken about how in her experience of the religion, she had felt oppressed by it. “He followed her from room to room to say things to her,” says Anubha.
For women and people from marginalized communities in India, these kinds of experiences can be trauma-inducing and difficult to navigate especially when reporting abuse on such platforms is a convoluted process.
Lack of regulation
The fact that Clubhouse is an audio medium that facilitates live chats, potential harassers and misinformation spreaders naturally find it to be a more conducive ecosystem simply because live chats can’t be suitably regulated. “Since conversations happen in real-time, it is hard to trace what has been said,” says Arpitha Desai, a tech policy lawyer. According to Desai, Clubhouse claims it keeps recordings of rooms on a temporary basis for investigation if any user reports the room while the conversation is live. If no incident has been reported within the live window, Clubhouse deletes the recordings leaving no room for any recourse in the future.
“At present, there are not many legal safeguards people can seek on such audio platforms given how content is exchanged on the platform,” says Desai. She remarks that there have been reports that central government agencies such as the National Intelligence Agency and the Central Bureau of Intelligence have been authorized to track discussions on Clubhouse under Section 69 (1) of the IT Act, 2000 read alongside the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring, and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. Desai also points out that the government having access to such conversations raises several other questions on state-sponsored surveillance.
The larger problem
In a multicultural country like ours, the problems that the platform runs into only expand in scope.
Clubhouse is not an Indian platform yet many rooms take place in diverse regional Indian languages. “How are they going to regulate it,” asks Anubha.
“There are lots of rooms about women and feminism that don’t have women moderators and are usually run by men,” she says. She feels that this mimics the system in real life where women are underrepresented. Men are known to resort to infantilizing women while giving opinions. Using terms like “arre devi ji,” making comments on their bio, all contribute towards creating an unsafe environment for people from oppressed communities.
Clubhouse also has a worrying number of problems with its safety features. You have to provide access to your entire contact list in order to be able to invite others, which is an invasion of privacy to those who haven’t consented to it. As soon as someone from your contacts joins the app, you get a “walk them in” notification. Tapping on it, even by mistake, puts you both in a private room, along with other users who also had them in their contacts.
It's not very effective to block people on Clubhouse; you can still see them if they’re on the speaker panel. The app automatically sends notifications to people on your contacts who also have it that you’re on the platform. It also sends out notifications to followers if you start a room. “I don’t see it becoming a great platform because it can’t be regulated,” Anubha remarks.
Desai agrees that such platforms need to be more transparent on how content is monitored, by whom, and what action is taken against users disseminating problematic content. “Merely having community guidelines does not translate to having robust measures to create a safe environment for vulnerable users,” she says. At the end of the day, social media communities should foster open conversations and dialogue without censorship, while upholding personal safety, privacy, and dignity.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)