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“You Become Hostage to Their Worldview”: The Murky World of Moderation on Clubhouse, a Playground for the Elite

In late October, freelance journalist Wanna Thompson created a chat room on Clubhouse, a buzzy invite-only app. Users—often celebrities, venture capitalists, and the occasional journalist—can create or enter audio-only chat rooms that can be wiped clean after a conversation ends, and choose who to follow. Thompson wanted to start a conversation about Clubhouse as a platform and the algorithms that make it work. She called her room “Clubhouse isn’t our friend, it’s an app.”

The discussion turned to the fact that the platform had allowed Tory Lanez, a Canadian rapper who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he shot Megan Thee Stallion in July. Lanez had been nominated to join Clubhouse by fellow rapper Tyga. In Thompson’s room, one user took the stage—meaning requested and was granted speaking time—to share Tyga’s explanation for adding Lanez, stressing that users should wait until the court case is resolved to pass judgment.

The shooting, and the public reaction to it, had become part of a larger dialogue about the mistreatment of Black women in America. Thompson knew there was a chance that members of her room, especially Black women, might be disturbed by the apparent defense of a Black man taking the side of another Black man accused of shooting a Black woman. She quickly removed the user from the stage and blocked him, despite his repeated requests to retake the virtual mic. “When I hold conversations, I always position Black women as the priority,” she said. “If there’s anyone in the audience I felt like may get triggered or had to listen to that ignorance and didn’t go into the room for that, I had to make sure I removed him and also blocked him from ever accessing any space that I curate online.”

As Clubhouse continues to grow in its beta stage, reportedly raising at least $10 million from Marc Andreessen’s venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, and attracting a ballooning audience of the blue-check variety, the app has landed squarely in the middle of the debate around moderation—a topic that has become more urgent in light of renewed scrutiny on racism in the tech world, and one that’s even muddier in an audio-only format. In the bubble that is Clubhouse, pseudo-intellectual monologues from powerful users can go unchecked, leaving them free to promote racist ideas under the guise of posing legitimate questions or playing devil’s advocate. It’s the type of dialogue that wouldn’t necessarily be flagged on Twitter or Facebook either, but that seems especially common on an app with relatively less scrutiny and relatively more big-name users, who may feel comfortable airing views that would likely get ratioed elsewhere. One anonymous Clubhouse user who works in tech recalled listening in on discussions where music-industry insiders surmised that Megan Thee Stallion was lying about Tory Lanez shooting her, claiming that she was trying to ruin Lanez’s career, and alleging that Black women routinely try to derail the careers of Black men. “The issue that I see with Clubhouse is the people with the largest platforms outside of that app…tend to be the only voices in the conversation,” the user said. “And so you become hostage to their worldview.”

Another user, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being harassed, shared recordings and screenshots of a discussion that segued into an examination of terrorism in Paris. At one point in the conversation, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris-based writer and fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, said, “We’re not even sure how many Muslims there are in France…We’re not sure how many of those are quote-unquote ‘Islamist,’ meaning people who would support sharia law…And of course, being an Islamist doesn’t necessarily mean you support terrorism, there’s basically a spectrum, right? But the number of people who are problematic is quite large.” Gobry went on to ask how to deal with “potentially millions” of Muslim citizens in France who “fundamentally reject everything that the nation stands for and fundamentally want to either destroy it or replace it with a sharia law regime.” (When Vanity Fair contacted Gobry to ask about his participation in the conversation, he replied “no comment.”)

In response, a user who the source identified as a prominent Silicon Valley executive asked, “Is part of the problem that you have a religion that is co-traveling with a totalizing philosophy that has not been seen in other idioms at this extent and at this level?…We don’t have language for pulling apart these things. And what I find is that people have some way of making excuses, so they don’t have to become Sam Harris–like in trying to go after these things and then get pilloried for it.”

The exchange, part of which seemed to falsely suggest a concrete link between Islam and terrorism, struck at the heart of the debate over what sort of speech should be policed on tech platforms, and how to do it. And it showcased how the app allows elite users to speak in a kind of vacuum. For instance, last week, Tom Hanks’s son Chet Hanks joined a Clubhouse discussion in which he reportedly defended his choice to speak patois, comparing it to faking an English accent. (“English people were not oppressed,” one user is said to have pointed out.)

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