Clubhouse: A Study in Failed Content Moderation
The audio app quickly became a playground for trolls and harassment, driving many users away. When free speech becomes violent, Clubhouse revealed itself to be like many other platforms.
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Dayo Akinrinade first joined Clubhouse on January 13, 2021, but these days, she’s rarely on the app anymore. When she first joined, she spent time in venture capital and tech rooms and “made a number of fruitful connections.” She connected with investors who went on to invest in her app, Wisdom, a social audio app where users can communicate with mentors and experts.
But by the fall, her experience took a turn for the worst.
In October 2021, her friends alerted her that a man in a Clubhouse room was disparaging her and Wisdom. She never met the man in question, but she suspects that the harassment arose because she didn’t respond to a direct message from him regarding his mutual interest in the tech industry and because she didn’t respond after he contacted her and sent his phone number.
“He was, like, ‘Oh, you know, the Wisdom app is rubbish and, you know, she smells, and she thinks she’s too good for us,’” Akinrinade recalls hearing about the room. “In essence, he opened a room for about three hours, and he was just saying things like, ‘Oh, like, well you know, she’s originally Nigerian, they’re scammers, she’s going to use the app to scam you… Her pussy smells.’ Just ranting about things that had no basis and no founding.”
Two more troll rooms were created about Akinrinade, most recently in April 2022. (Akinrinade shared recordings and screenshots of the rooms with DAME Magazine.) But the harassment didn’t end there—it spilled over onto Twitter and Wisdom, too.
Akinrinade is one of many Clubhouse users who’ve experienced harassment on the app. According to research from a mobile market intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the app saw 9.6 million downloads in February 2021 but new downloads have since dropped to 200,000 as of June 2022. It’s not clear exactly how much harassment and discrimination have pushed people off of Clubhouse specifically, but the problems of racial and LGBTQ+ hate speech and discrimination remains an issue for every major platform from TikTok and Instagram to Twitter and Snapchat.
Founded in March 2020 and valued at $4 billion in April 2021, Clubhouse was ranked #67 among social media apps on the Android chart as of July 28. By contrast, Tumblr is ranked 33, and TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook occupy the top three spots. What happened to the app that held so much promise? The emergence of audio competitors, the re-opening of the economy following COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, and the lack of consistent compelling content on Clubhouse have likely played a major role in the app’s steep decline, sources told DAME. But for some users, Clubhouse’s harassment problem forced them off the platform and left them stuck with trolls who continue their threats across the internet.
Kelly, who asked to withhold her last name for fear of additional harassment, also experienced harassment on Clubhouse that spread onto other apps. She first signed up in January 2021 with the hope of establishing a platform for her women’s rights activism. By the fall, the harassment started.
While on Clubhouse, Kelly hosted multiple rooms about misogyny and patriarchy. And in one of those rooms, she disclosed that she had been touched without her consent while riding the bus in her home country. After sharing that with the audience, a male user told her that the incident of unwanted sexual contact was “not that bad,” which upset her and led her to warn others that he was a rape apologist.
Between September and November 2021, multiple users on the app began opening rooms during which they would insult her. One male user called her a pig. Other users tried to portray her as an “unstable, angry, crazy Black woman.” Other users began circulating a picture of someone’s buttocks alleging that its hers—which she denies—and sent that image to her partner and her father, she says.
Kelly also shared recordings and other evidence of harassment with DAME Magazine.
Like Akinrinade, Kelly’s harassment spilled off of Clubhouse and onto Twitter. But her harassers also contacted her employer three times to complain about her. Thankfully, she said, her employer was supportive and she kept her job. Her Clubhouse harassers also posted information about her father’s address, how to locate him, and a picture of him for reference, Kelly says. Exposing him like that put him in danger in their home country, she says. When she reported the harassment to Clubhouse, she never received a response from the company beyond the automated email sent to complainants.
Much like larger, more established social media apps, Clubhouse has also had problems with content moderation to curb the spread of misinformation and halt harassment, as Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, The Verge, and multiple other publications have reported. However, detecting harassment in an audio chat is different than in text-based platforms, says Jennifer Edwards, professor of communication and executive director of the Texas Social Media Research Initiative at Tarleton State University. For one thing, artificial intelligence technology cannot always detect when, for example, a curse word is used as a term of endearment amongst a marginalized group or if it is used as an insult, she says.
Research suggests that detecting hate speech on Clubhouse is slightly harder for artificial intelligence software because people expressing hate speech aren’t doing so explicitly on the app. In a paper shared during the Joint European Conference on Machine Learning and Knowledge Discovery in Databases, researchers from the University of Houston analyzing data from Clubhouse concluded that users expressed hate speech “with more sophisticated comments,” making hate speech detection more difficult on the app.
Clubhouse has not responded to DAME Magazine’s questions regarding its trust and safety policy updates or whether it has devoted funds to pay content moderators.
In addition to Clubhouse’s problems with harassment and misinformation, there are signs that the social audio boom has cooled. Tech heavyweights including Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, and Discord each released their own audio components. Other newcomers, such as Somewhere Good, Quilt, and others have also emerged. Ogilvy’s Social Media Trends 2022 report noted that while Clubhouse and its imitators demonstrated the limits of impromptu live audience, podcasting remains a key driver of engagement.
Clubhouse laid off an undisclosed number of workers in June, and others left on their own accord as Clubhouse changed direction, according to Bloomberg. Bloomberg also reported that Twitter is pulling some staffers from its Twitter Spaces team and redirecting them toward user growth and personalization roles.
With many consumers tired of using Zoom, Clubhouse rose to prominence as many social media users were sheltering in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but now that the economy has opened up, users have less time to spend on drop-in audio chat, said Kimberley Ring Allen, owner of Ring Communications and adjunct marketing professor at Suffolk University. Though she wanted clients to try out Clubhouse, doing so made less sense given the substantial effort needed to build a following and the declining user base, she added.
“I just couldn’t see spending more time when, especially for consumer products, social shopping started going up on the rise,” Allen said. “If I can spend more effort trying to figure out how to get somebody to click from an Instagram post, that’s time better spent than just trying to get somebody’s ears.”
When Edwards joined the app, she gravitated toward rooms involving higher education, but she has noticed that the rooms focused on those topics that were very active a year ago have since fizzled out. Meanwhile, business, entrepreneurship, and real estate rooms remain heavily attended on the app, she says. In the beginning, the celebrities and investors on the app made it more interesting to engage with. And with everything that’s going on politically, not having more news and informational content is a missed opportunity for the app, she adds. Nina Gregory, who left NPR to oversee Clubhouse’s news operations, recently departed the company, according to Engadget.
“Right now, it’s like Clubhouse sometimes, I feel, does not necessarily have an identity. Is it professional? Is it personal? Is it focused on the side hustle, or betterment of the community? What is its purpose?” Edwards says.
Echoing Ogilvy’s sentiment, Allen also suspects that companies don’t want to spend too much time on live chats on Clubhouse, and instead would rather find ways to repurpose their content across YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, or other social media heavyweights.
“I do think audio and video are going to be on the rise, and podcasts are going to be on the rise. I just think when it comes down to weighing where, as marketers, when we weigh where our users are, we look at that platform and we’re like, ‘They’re just not there.’ If they’re not there, how much can you really invest in it?” she says.
For many companies, adding another platform where they must manage their reputation is a hard sell, because they’re already present on multiple other social media apps, Allen said, noting that hate speech and “cancel culture” remain at the forefront of marketers’ minds no matter the platform. As for Clubhouse’s hate speech woes, social platforms should be held accountable if they allow hate speech to spread, Edwards says. It’s important Clubhouse and its users to know what its non-negotiables are, she adds.
“With any community—even with our communities in our cities and towns, we want to feel safe,” Edwards says. “We want to feel that our voices are heard. We want to feel that we are making a difference through our ideas, whether it’s through a fraternity, whether it’s a church, whether it’s a school, whatever. I think that Clubhouse is the same way, with these groups, with these communities, with these rooms. I think it’s very important for people to know that their opinions are valued by the group, and then also that what they’re saying is said in a safe environment.”
Though a new user on the Wisdom began “a live talk specifically to attack me, body shame me, and being openly xenophobic toward my Nigerian heritage, hurling racial slurs and sexually threatening language at me for days on the very platform that I created,” Wisdom developers eventually were able to block the harasser for good after he created multiple identities to continue trolling her, Akinrinade said.
After receiving an automated response from Clubhouse, she hadn’t heard from the app anymore in response to her complaints.
“From the perspective of a tech founder who is operating a social audio app [that is], of course, a lot smaller, of course with a lot less resources, I’ve followed the principles of safety by design,” Akinrinade said. “What that means is when you start creating an app, when you start creating a community, you acknowledge that safety isn’t something to be added on. Safety is something that should be considered from day 1.”
Reflecting on her experience, Akinrinade wished Clubhouse would dedicate more resources to trust and safety and “stop harm in its tracks,” adding that she is aware of other women who’ve experienced worse harassment on the app. For Kelly, banning people from the app who’ve been repeatedly reported for doxing or other violations would be a better response than the automated ones she received, especially after spending time and energy supplying evidence to the app.
“I feel like, as a platform, Clubhouse has to have some sort of responsibility,” Kelly says. “Do you want your platform to be, like, a platform where incels and dangerous people feel safe to come and degrade a group of people? Is that what you want? Are Black women not people too? Do they not matter?”
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