Echo chambers, trolling, attempts to hijack conversations, and coordinated efforts to de-platform certain people have all been part of my journey since I joined the invitation-only social networking app, Clubhouse. However, in spite of these strange experiences, I have been thrilled to be a member of this group.
Unlike other social media platforms, Clubhouse offers a unique opportunity for audio social communication, which is more intimate and productive than other text-based social media platforms.
Because I yearn for smart discussions, mature debates, and building bridges amidst the current depolarised atmosphere, joining Clubhouse was like a dream come true. As I moved from room to room, I encountered good discussions on various topics with refreshing respect, although content can sometimes be of average quality.
But my honeymoon on clubhouse did not last more than a week. Unlike others who preferred to stay as listeners and refrained from contributing to debates, I decided to immerse myself fully in Clubhouse and engage in various debates; I even hosted small rooms to discuss hot topics. Unfortunately, it did not take long to discover that there were many pitfalls. I once moderated a room in Arabic, but failed to spot some derogatory insults in a certain Gulf accent against another Gulf State. However, I eventually handled the incident and expelled the troll.
Challenges in the moderating room:
In real life, there is unwritten etiquette among attendants of any symposiums or webinars to respect each other and, more importantly, to respect the moderators. Sometimes such etiquette vanishes, especially in heated discussions, and especially in discussions on tricky Middle-Eastern topics, like the situation in Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I watched a supporter of the Mullah regime bullying an Iranian moderator in a most ugly manner. Moreover, this supporter (who enjoys life in a Western country) opened a Twitter account solely for the purpose of accusing the moderator of “spreading misinformation” about Iran. In other rooms, discussing the Israeli-Palestine conflict, it was hard not to notice an organised group of pro-Palestine activists who skilfully put pressure on moderators, regardless of the actual topic posed, to steer the arguments towards past grievances and to stop any discussion on practical future solutions. In one room, for example, an anti-Zionist Jew claimed that I have no right to speak on Jewish issues because “I am not a Jew.”
The trap of deplatforming
Alarmingly, I encountered an ugly incident where a group of Egyptians reported a certain speaker “for insulting Islam’s holy book” after he casually joked about a verse in the Quran. I fear this trap could happen again and again, especially after many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and many regime supporters have joined Clubhouse.
Evolving echo chambers
Perhaps the greatest risk of Clubhouse, whether from Middle East observers or other participants, is the danger of creating convenient echo chambers that silence opposing voices either overtly by bullying them or subtly by not allowing them a chance to speak and express their views.
There is a genuine risk that Clubhouse will descend from its current valuable audio-communication offerings and instead become a target of trolling and harassment in which obnoxious speakers dominate conversations, turning them into terrible listening experiences.
That said, I have had many positive experiences on Clubhouse, especially in my efforts to build bridges. It was inspiring and refreshing to hear about a Jewish journalist who helped his Gaza-based Palestinian friend during Israeli attacks, an Egyptian expat who befriended a Jewish Egyptian in New York City, and an Egyptian Muslim who understood the concept of a homeland for the Jewish people after meeting a German holocaust survivor and her family.
Because of those refreshing encounters, I still believe Clubhouse offers the opportunity to engage in unique and enriching human interactions and that its members should be supported and protected from the divisive bullying of social media saboteurs.