Dr Siyab Panhwar was just trying to do something nice. It was June, and thousands of Dr Anthony Fauci’s emails about the early days of the coronavirus pandemic had just been released. Panhwar thought that a Clubhouse room with doctors talking through the details could be useful – that is, until he saw another room emerge.
“There was another room made mocking us, with people changing their profile pictures to ours and putting the Chinese flag in the background,” said the cardiology fellow, who has been involved in research on COVID-19’s impact on the cardiovascular system. Hostility, threats and trolling are now what he, and his colleagues, expect if they attempt to share health information on the audio-only app.
“Right now there is a room going on about how expectant moms should not get the vaccine,” he told VICE World News. “200 people at this moment. It’s been active for hours. Probably thousands of people have passed through this room.”
Panhwar is part of a group of doctors who have tried their best to counter misinformation on Clubhouse, which has about 2 million weekly active users. Many were excited when Clubhouse first came on the scene; emergency physician Dr Rocky Jedick in Utah created a club with other doctors called The Evidence Base to provide, as the name suggests, an evidence-based approach to answering difficult questions.
But soon, he realised that Clubhouse rooms were spiralling out of control. He recalled the controversial evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein one day telling almost 1,500 listeners that Ivermectin was “100% effective as COVID prophylaxis,” and that health agencies restricting access to this medicine were “killing millions.” Weinstein has 59,000 followers on the app.
Now, many of the doctors are fed up. “Most of us have decreased our time on Clubhouse,” said Dr Danish Nagda from St. Louis, “especially in COVID rooms because anti-vaxxers are actively disruptive on the stage. I have reported account after account with zero feedback or actions taken from Clubhouse.”
Clubhouse faces a challenging misinformation problem. The content is synchronous – real-time – and tools that moderate live audio lag behind those which monitor text and images. Clubhouse deletes its recordings of live sessions if there is no immediate user report due to its commitment to being ephemeral audio, meaning that it is reliant on users themselves to alert the app of troublemakers. In the meantime, thousands of people can easily listen to misinformation on the app.
A Clubhouse spokesperson told VICE World News: “Every single day, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals on Clubhouse are leading discussions about COVID that answer questions, assuage concerns, and challenge incorrect information about the virus and/or vaccines.”
“Our published guidelines and our trust and safety systems allow for conversations where people can learn, while also permitting us to take action against conversations that may be dedicated to intentionally misinforming people.”
But back in February, VICE World News reported that black doctors were being targeted and harassed on Clubhouse for trying to share accurate information about the pandemic and vaccine, and they heavily criticised Clubhouse’s moderation system. Several months later, it seems like doctors from all backgrounds and specialisms are going through the same experience.
In one room this week, VICE World News was able to hear myths like “nanobots are in the vaccine,” “the medication they give you is to stop healing yourself” and, in reference to President Joe Biden and the Democrat party, “these motherfuckers are demonic paedophiles.” Wholly absent from these conversations were doctors, though one vaccinated individual did try to promote vaccine use – something that saw him speedily muted by the room’s moderators. When VICE World News reported some of the users in-app, we never heard back from Clubhouse about whether any action was taken. Clubhouse does not send notifications to users when it does take action, meaning that you never find out if the person you reported has been dealt with or not.
Names of rooms in particular seem to freely promote anti-vaccine rhetoric, such as “2021 will be remembered as the year of medical tyranny 💉😷”, “Sellouts in the Black Community Promoting the 💉 Jab!!” and “Government doesn’t want to show the 💉 is Full of Sh*t.”
Trying to report repeat offenders now feels futile for the doctors. For Dr Graham Walker, an emergency doctor based in San Francisco, it’s pointless: “Some rooms you end up reporting multiple people, often the same people, room after room, day after day, and very little happens.”
Walker said that when an account copied his bio text and claimed to run the website he created, he felt intimidated. “They are dirtying our reputation and good name. These trolls can go on Clubhouse while we are asleep or seeing patients and represent us, giving out false information.” His troll did get removed in the end, after a room discussing impersonation on Clubhouse mass reported them. “I’m sure it helped that at least 50 people or so reported the profile at once,” he said though in other instances, mass reporting hasn’t helped him. “Guaranteed there are at least 10 particularly egregious misinformation accounts out there, reported repeatedly by dozens if not hundreds of people with ‘MD’ in their name and no action is ever taken.”
David Barker, a London-based developer who’s been following the experiences of doctors on the app, said: “It got so bad with people copying bio text (even outside of healthcare) that people had to start adding a random word or set of characters that was unique to them so they could then search Clubhouse to see if anyone had simply copied and pasted the whole block of text. A bit like when cartographers add fake places to see if other cartographers are copying them.”
Walker has chosen to invest his debunking time in Twitter instead; Panhwar now has a successful TikTok account. Walker said he wasn’t actually active in misinformation-debunking until Clubhouse came along in the first place; “I joined because I saw people on Twitter who were using it. All of us originally met because we were just in rooms providing medical education to medical students and residents.”
Dr Shyam Murali, an emergency doctor in Ohio, agreed. “I was not active in dispelling misinformation before Clubhouse came along. Medical education was prominent in the beginning and we could have interdisciplinary discussions. As more physicians left, those discussions stopped and some of us turned to public education.”
He sent VICE World News screenshots of a room in which Steve Kirsch, a man who promotes himself as a tech expert who has recently been fact checked for his erroneous claims that the Pfizer vaccines kill more than they save, gave inaccurate information about the number of deaths “due to the vaccine...based on some really shoddy math and terrible assumptions.” In the same room, Ali Alexander was moderating, one of the organisers of Stop the Steal, one of the groups behind the Capitol insurrection on the 6th of January. Many of the doctors have already reported these individuals, but whether action was ever taken by Clubhouse or not, they are back.
Some of the doctors are despondent but occasionally persevere on the app. Others see an enormous missed opportunity. For Nagda, the doctor from St Louis, “lack of action from Clubhouse has allowed a safe space for intelligent discussion to devolve into echo chambers for hate and disinformation.”
“It is absolutely heartbreaking, because it all could have been avoided.”