There has always been something attractive about talking to strangers on the internet—even more so when the conversations are invite-only and allow for anyone with access to have a platform.
This is the allure of Clubhouse, the audio-only app being hyped by influencers and venture capitalists that hosts conference-style chat rooms, allowing speakers to invite people onto a virtual stage and participate in discussions. Much like Black Twitter, Clubhouse is becoming a hub for vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Black doctors are often working double duty, treating patients during the day and combatting misinformation on Clubhouse at night. Some of the doctors that have done this tell Motherboard that they have been harassed and threatened by vaccine skeptics and their followers.
Much of this has centered around Chakabars Clarke, an entrepreneur, wellness influencer, and anti-vaxxer with a million Instagram followers moderated a room on Clubhouse where he questioned the validity of vaccine information being presented by “mainly Europeans.” Clarke has 15,600 followers on Clubhouse and his rooms regularly reach upwards of a thousand audience members.
Like most viral rooms on Clubhouse, the conversation spilled over to Twitter, where users have condemned Clarke.
In January, Clarke screenshotted and tweeted about several Black doctors, including Dr. Jessica Isom, a psychiatrist who criticized him on Clubhouse.
On Twitter, Clarke called Isom along with other doctors “anti African self-righteous, jealous mfs, who got [his] account suspended because they were saying [he] was a celebrity spreading misinformation,” according to screenshots of now-deleted tweets.
“I did speak up and say that race is not biological, that biological race is a tool of white supremacy. That it's attractive to say that Black people are special and different. However, you are essentially using a tool that is just disadvantageous for our group,” Isom told Motherboard.
He also tweeted that the COVID vaccines are "European poison," and claimed without evidence that the Black doctors criticizing him on Clubhouse "are being paid to trick us.”
Black doctors who have spent time debunking antivax conspiracy theories say they have been threatened by some of Clarke's followers, which has become a major topic of conversation among people in these rooms and became a broader discussion on Twitter, with comedian Tiffany Haddish defending Clarke.
Clarke did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard, but told Insider that he denied "spreading information about the vaccine." At one point, Clarke was temporarily suspended from Clubhouse.
Isom tweeted that she was included in a “target” list that was being read out in one of Clarke's Clubhouse rooms. “I think that is why my name ended up on this list—one, because it was originally a part of his thread, but two, because I was also associated with others who he believed to be bullying him,” Isom told Motherboard.
“As a psychiatrist, every human being in this convo needs to recognize the deadly consequences of bullying," Isom tweeted. "Speak up. Speak out. Save a life. There are many people who are actively complicit in pushing a Black woman to the edge. And targeting others.”
Ninoshkka Paul, a writer and Clubhouse user, decided to start her own Clubhouse room to discuss the events. The room originally started as a call-out towards Haddish and her actions in defense of Clarke but, according to Paul, “everyone stayed because the conversation shifted into the importance of the COVID vaccine” with input from Black doctors. The room grew to have over 800 members in the audience.
During the peak of the room’s popularity on Clubhouse, a woman was removed from the stage for repeatedly misgendering other speakers, Paul said. “We're not gonna let you incite violence on folks who don't necessarily have to be here, but they're taking time out of their day to sit down in a Clubhouse room for hours, educating other Black folks about the COVID-19 vaccine,” Paul told Motherboard.
The woman then went on to start her own room that was soon joined by Haddish. The audience in that room grew to about 3,000 people. It was in this room where audience members posted Paul's other social media accounts and were allegedly told to mass-report her.
“You can't have more than 5,000 people in one room. So to have 3,000 something people is a lot of people. And to tell all of them to report my account and my Instagram and all of that is insane,” Paul told Motherboard.
On Twitter, users posting under the #chbullying hashtag called on Clubhouse to respond and do something about the situation, but Clubhouse remained silent. Paul and Isom say they both sent emails to Clubhouse and received no correspondence back.
In December, Clubhouse released a statement condemning “all forms of racism, hate speech, and abuse.”
A January 14th update to the app fine tuned the ability to report and remove trolls from a Clubhouse room, stating that “Clubhouse has a zero-tolerance policy for trolling. If anyone intentionally disrupts your conversation, they are permanently removed from Clubhouse.” Prior to this update, Clubhouse already had a one-strike policy towards trolls; however, it took multiple reports for trolling for an account to be suspended or removed completely. And reporting someone for trolling doesn’t immediately remove a person from the room unless the moderator themselves does so.
But like reporting features on other social media platforms, that ability can be easily abused. To users like Ninoshkka Paul and her fellow room moderators, the feature is a double-edged sword.
"Trolls can do that to doctors who are trying to just help the Black community by explaining to them what the vaccine is and what's in it and how it will affect you,” Gabrielle LaRochelle, a journalist and one of the moderators of Paul’s room, told Motherboard.
Paul also told Motherboard that when reporting someone for trolling, “there's no questions asked on Clubhouse’s part, and it's not like you can email them to get your account back. Because again, they're not answering emails.” However, Clarke’s account was eventually reinstated after he was reported and suspended from the app.
Clubhouse did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment on these incidents. "The Clubhouse team is receiving an overwhelming number of media requests. Unfortunately, we are not able to respond to all inquiries," reads an automated response sent through the app's press contact email.
"There's been so much literature and research already in the space of social media studies on harassment," said Caroline Sinders, a design researcher and artist who studies online harassment, told Motherboard. She added that Clubhouse should have been designed with moderation in mind, given the high-profile moderation failures of other social media networks.
Sinders noted that when reporting someone’s tweet or Facebook post “there is an interface design change that I [can] see. If I still have a copy of the URL of someone's tweet, [and] I go to it and it's been taken down, it will say taken down or deleted. And so I can see the moderation at play.”
This is something that doesn’t happen in a readily transparent way on Clubhouse.
Unlike Twitter, which notifies users of what the outcome of their reporting was and the action being taken, Clubhouse states “In general, we do not comment on specific action taken against a user due to privacy reasons. As well, corrective actions taken against accounts may not be visible to you. For example, warnings and suspensions do not visibly change or remove a user’s profile from the platform, but are intended to prevent further harm.”
Clubhouse users will often create breakout or decompression rooms in response to other rooms that may be more chaotic or tense. However, these conversations don’t just stay on Clubhouse. Often, they spill over to apps like Twitter and Instagram where users can more easily and readily document issues. In situations like with Dr. Isom and Ninoshkka Paul, users aren’t only receiving harassment on Clubhouse—they’re also being targeted on all their other social media applications.
Whether they recognize it or not, influencers on Clubhouse are not only using the power of their followings but also histories of medical malpractice and mistrust against Black people to further endanger those communities. “It's the extremes that are the most dangerous on Clubhouse. It's more of like an indoctrination process that plays on people's vulnerabilities,” Isom said.
Clubhouse has been routinely called out for misinformation and violent rhetoric that have specifically bubbled up in rooms with influencers. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, Black users are already more at risk of experiencing harassment online. On Clubhouse, not only are Black users being targeted with false and misleading information, but oftentimes, the people spreading that misinformation are members of those same Black communities.
“Black folks can never escape violence, especially when we're on the internet," said Lucina Kayee, another moderator in Paul’s room. "It’s the easiest way for people to have access to us.”