Why Clubhouse Could Help Thailand’s Pro-Democracy Movement

The audio chatting app could shield protesters who want to discuss risky topics like the powerful monarchy.
Thailand, protests, Clubhouse
Pro-democracy protesters give the three-finger salute while holding up their mobile phones with lights outside the Prachachuen police station in Bangkok on Oct. Photo:
Jack TAYLOR / AFP

In a country where defaming the monarchy can lead to 15 years in jail, Thais eager to discuss taboo topics safely are flocking to the audio chat app Clubhouse, an overnight sensation in a country where communication apps are becoming the new battleground between pro-democracy forces and the government.

In a pattern similar to China and Indonesia, where Clubhouse became a popular place for people to discuss a broad range of topics freely, authorities are threatening to block access to it after a surge in popularity. On Thursday morning the hashtag #ClubhouseTH was trending on Twitter, with over 280,000 tweets. A warning from the ministry responsible for online regulations has apparently only stoked more interest.

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“I believe there’s less monitoring from the government because it is difficult to get access to the application in the first place,” Em told VICE World News, using a pseudonym to discuss her participation in the app safely. “Since you only use your voice, it is quite private. I think this will make people braver.”

The discovery of Clubhouse is serendipitous for a pro-democracy movement that gained worldwide attention during nationwide protests last year in which demonstrators called for reforms to the previously unassailable monarchy, which is protected from criticism by harsh lese-majeste laws.

“Since you only use your voice, it is quite private. I think this will make people braver.”

Protesters broke the silence over discussing the palace and its allies in government. But many of its leaders have now been hit with royal defamation charges and the movement is trying to recover its momentum, with a new round of mass protests planned for Saturday in Bangkok.

Since November, 391 people have been charged for attending political rallies in Thailand. Fifty-eight people were accused of breaking the country’s lese-majeste law. Ten of the 391 people facing charges are also minors.

As Twitter and messaging apps like Telegram have played key roles in the protest movement, the government’s campaign to silence critics has caused fear and anxiety over what you can and can’t say whether on or offline. 

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For some, that’s why Clubhouse could not have come at a better time.

Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, a prominent democracy activist living in Thailand, told VICE World News that he believes many are moving over to the app to partake in civil discussion about the palace, whose assets and influence have attracted unprecedented levels of scrutiny over the past year.

“They want a place to talk about reform of the monarchy, and many people agree [it should be reformed], but they still do not express themselves openly because they are afraid of Section 112,” the 24-year-old said, referring to the part of the criminal code governing royal defamation.

“Of course [they will block the app], we know the government will do everything to silence dissenting people,” he said. “Nowhere is safe in Thailand.”

Panupong is currently facing royal defamation charges himself, and his lawyers say he could be imprisoned soon. Other key protest leaders Anon Nampa and Parit Chiwarak are already in pre-trial detention for the same alleged offenses. The protest leaders have given the government until Feb 20—this Saturday—to release the activists, or face another wave of rallies.

On the Radar

Created by software developers Alpha Exploration, Clubhouse launched in 2020. Within a year, the app was valued at nearly $100 million. By the end of January 2021, it surged to $1 billion.

Clubhouse features a range of virtual rooms on many topics, including music, business, dating, and political discussions. It’s brought in at least two million active users since January and the number of people signing up is rising fast, making it the talk of the town in Silicon Valley.

But it has now caught the attention of the Thai government. Digital Economy and Society Minister Putthipong Punnakan said this week that the app could pose problems.

“Our own observations and reports from the media revealed that political movement groups and various other groups have used this application to express opinions and provide disinformation, which causes damage and may lead to violations of the law,” he said.

He added that if Thais start using the application in any way that would break the law, then authorities would have no choice but to prosecute them with cyber crime legislation, which can result in five-year jail terms. 

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Others who work on combating online disinformation and digital rights said the app has indeed taken the country by surprise, but that it might not be that threatening to the establishment.

“The Clubhouse community in Thailand has grown massively over the past days as it rapidly emerges as a new platform for once-taboo discussions of the Thai monarchy. It didn’t take long for it to now be on the government's radar,” said Supinya Klangnarong, a Thai media rights advocate and founder of anti-disinformation group Co-Fact.

She said that the Thai government might actually prefer sensitive discussions to take place online in places like Clubhouse rather than on the streets.

Representatives of Clubhouse did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Is Clubhouse Really a Safe Space?

Almost immediately following the app’s boom in China, where users took to it as a way of discussing sensitive topics like Uigher internment camps and issues surrounding Hong Kong and Taiwan, authorities banned it.

The censorship didn't surprise many experts, as China already blocks Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and hundreds of other sites and applications. But experts say that Clubhouse could also have security issues when it comes to user data and privacy. 

“Arguably here, the bigger concern is probably not the outright blocking of Clubhouse but authorities finding ways to exploit potential security vulnerabilities,” said Michael Caster, Asia Digital Program Manager of Article 19, a London-based freedom of expression group.

Caster, who recently wrote about internet security in Myanmar for VICE World News, said that Clubhouse is run by a joint U.S.-Shanghai-based firm called Agora. The fact that Agora has operations in mainland China raises a security concern as Chinese laws empower authorities to make local firms hand over user data, according to Caster. “It can also compel companies to collect information, i.e. spy,” he said.

He highlighted a recent study by the Stanford Internet Observatory about Clubhouse that found individual user IDs and chat room IDs are unencrypted. This makes it easy to track the metadata of who is speaking, he said, adding that the same study saw that chatroom metadata is being relayed to servers in China, where he says the data can be “easily captured.”

“This raises some pretty big concerns, and not just for Chinese Clubhouse users,” he said. “In Thailand, for example authorities could feasibly contact their Chinese counterparts to request support in obtaining Clubhouse voice and video content flowing across Agora servers, potentially filtered through audio-key word searches for specific content.”

In a statement to the Stanford researchers, Clubhouse said it would strengthen its data protection and prevent network data from being sent to servers in China.

For now, Thai users are cautiously optimistic about the app, while some also think it could be just a temporary space to tackle hard conversations.

Additional reporting by Teirra Kamolvattanavith