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The ‘Clubhouse’ Dictatorship of Ideas

The ‘Clubhouse’ Dictatorship of Ideas

Al-Ahram, Egypt, July 18

Clubhouse is one of the most popular and controversial mobile apps to enter our lives this past year. It was launched with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly gained followers all over the world. At its core, the app allows users to enter virtual rooms where they can engage in live audio conversations with other users. When I spoke to one of my friends who is an avid user of Clubhouse, she claimed to feel “real freedom” when engaging in conversations on the platform. She also lauded the ability to listen to diverse opinions about various issues. While I certainly agree with her that people need to engage in more dialogue, we must also ask ourselves who exactly is using the Clubhouse platform to amplify and spread their messages? My friend, for example, didn’t hide the fact that in many of the conversations she attended, including those revolving around issues of political transformations in the Middle East, the speakers identified as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. When I spoke to her a few days later, I found her tuning in to a Clubhouse conversation she described as “wonderful.” That session featured the head of the political bureau of one of the Palestinian armed factions, who spoke for over an hour about Egypt and its recent involvement in the Gaza war. My friend listened in awe as the man described his movement’s struggle against the occupation. And this is precisely what is so dangerous about Clubhouse: whoever creates a room immediately controls the conversation. He or she can determine who has the “mic” at their own discretion. If they so choose, they can let others speak or invite specific audience members to comment. Conversely, if they want to dominate the conversation, they can leave everyone else in attendance as a listener. I asked my friend whether she spoke or not. She replied that despite “raising” her hand and requesting to participate in the conversation, she was denied again and again by the moderator. It was therefore clear that the speaker prepared his talking points in advance and didn’t want anyone else to participate in the conversation. Herein lies the problem: a platform cannot claim to facilitate free discourse and exchange of ideas when, in reality, it consists of rooms dominated by one single voice. Without the ability to challenge the speaker, push back against his rhetoric or simply ask questions, the Clubhouse platform simply becomes a soapbox on which anyone with enough power can spread fake news and misinformation. For example, one of the recent rooms I stumbled upon consisted of about ten people who talked about an impending revolution in Egypt. They claimed that a coup would take place within just a few days. I believe in dialogue – but it must be real dialogue, one that enables contradicting opinions; not one in which one person speaks and the other subserviently listens. – Sharif Aref (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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