Gulf, Egyptian Authorities Keep Clubhouse Chat App Users on a Tight Leash
Participants accused of seeking a second Arab Spring
The Clubhouse voice-chat application has caused a sensation in the Gulf countries and led to snitching on and defamation of users, and in some cases interrogation by security authorities.
Authorities in the Gulf, and in Egypt, accuse many app users of trying to initiate a second Arab Spring, 10 years after the original anti-government protests, while participants see Clubhouse as a good platform for cultural exchange.
The accusations in these Gulf states come via “semiofficial” social media accounts, as well as from officials in the security and media sectors.
Groups that receive support from the government run the semiofficial accounts, or what tweeters call “electronic armies.” They claim to be independent, but they all publish the same tweets and posts, during the same period of time and with the same orientation. These accounts were previously involved in campaigns of defamation and accusations of treason directed at opponents of the state.
The Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian electronic armies divide the Clubhouse participants into two groups: The first comprises “leaders,” who create chat rooms to discuss some of the problems existing in their countries, and the second group comprises users who express opinions about social, political or economic problems.
These electronic armies accuse the “leaders” of recruiting young Clubhouse users after first identifying their political orientations, the extent of their “hatred for their country,” or difficult circumstances they are experiencing.
Although Clubhouse does not allow taking screenshots or screen recordings, these electronic armies have published pictures and clips of conversations that took place within this application on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and the people participating in them were defamed.
In addition, security authorities in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have issued users summons to appear for questioning. Many have yet to be interrogated.
Abdullah al-Shammari, a Saudi social media influencer, ran a virtual Clubhouse room where he discussed the reality of unemployment in the kingdom. He was summoned by the security services.
“I never expected that my entry into Clubhouse would bother the authorities, and then I saw my picture and everything that happened inside the virtual room on social media, accusing me of trying to [go against] the state,” Shammari told The Media Line.
“The authorities interrogated me for several hours and asked me whether the room was a personal initiative or if there were foreign or domestic parties supporting me. They did not do anything else and did not arrest me, but I signed a pledge that I would not seek to distort the image of the state or do anything that violates its security and stability,” he said.
“Several people close to me contacted me, asking me if what was being said about me on social media by the electronic armies was true or not, and there were others who temporarily severed their relationship with me. Perhaps I do not blame them, but I did not do anything wrong. After that I decided to leave this field entirely,” Shammari said.
Bader Mohammad, a Bahraini security expert and a former criminal investigation officer, told The Media Line “the problem does not lie in the Clubhouse application itself, but in the people who were the first to enter it, as these are the ones who previously incited the events of the Arab Spring, and they also recruited several young men to carry out acts of violence and sabotage in their countries.”
He explained, “What is going on is that public rooms are being created to talk about some ordinary problems, which everyone can talk about without problems, and whoever manages these rooms monitors people who are ripe for recruitment, and later uses them for incitement and acts of violence and sabotage. They then enter closed private [virtual] rooms, or communicate using encrypted social networking applications, and herein lies the problem.
“The participating people cannot be considered traitors, nor can anyone be restricted from using this application, but youth must be educated and warned that they may be exploited by external parties, taking advantage of some of the difficult conditions that the whole world is going through due to the corona pandemic,” Mohammad said.
Ahmed Anas, an Egyptian journalist, told The Media Line he was called in for questioning after he created a room in Clubhouse to talk about the country’s economic future after the pandemic.
“The security authorities summoned me and accused me of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and seeking to recruit young men using this application, but what I did during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency, attacking them [the Muslim Brothers] in the press and on social media, was able to save me from these accusations,” Anas said.
An Emirati influencer who asked not to be named underwent a similar experience, telling The Media Line the security authorities contacted him, and warned him that the application was being used to incite against the state and its security and that he must leave it immediately.
Nabil Ali, a Bahraini cybersecurity specialist, told the Media Line, “The application is not yet ‘safe’ for use by those who want to incite against security and call for terrorist or subversive operations.
“The application currently suffers some security flaws, as recognized by the company that owns it, and it is not completely safe for terrorist groups that seek to recruit young people, but through the app, it is possible [for terrorists] to monitor people who have a tendency to violence or who carry hatred and hatred against the state, as happened previously in some chat rooms and electronic games,” he added.
“But anyway, those who participate in this application cannot be betrayed. It is good and it is also a good platform for those who want to participate and exchange information or culture or even just spend some leisure time,” Ali said.