Harris Zainul was quoted by the South China Morning Post

  • Science minister Khairy Jamaluddin, actress Maya Karin and disgraced ex-premier Najib Razak have all used the audio-chat app to reach out to audiences
  • Describing it as ‘talk radio where anything goes’, one analyst said Clubhouse could end up being overrun by misinformation, including on Covid-19 vaccines

By ,  21 February 2021

The hottest social-networking app on the block – Clubhouse – is making waves in Malaysia as politicians, celebrities, top businesspeople and ordinary folks alike mingle on the audio-chat app.

While Tesla founder Elon Musk and hip-hop artist Kanye West have helped popularise Clubhouse globally, Malaysians including science minister Khairy Jamaluddin, actress Maya Karin, street artist Fahmi Reza and former banker Nazir Razak and his brother, disgraced ex-premier Najib Razak, have also climbed on board.

Each has appeared in Clubhouse “rooms” as a speaker, where they discuss topics of their choosing and audience members drop in (and out) or raise hands to ask questions. The app has become widely popular in the social media sphere, giving Malaysians a chance to interact with opinion makers and politicians even as they are kept largely indoors due to a nationwide coronavirus lockdown and state of emergency.

The app’s appeal lies partly in the temporary nature of a “room” – once the talk is over, the room disappears, leaving no evidence of who said what to whom. This explains the app’s brief popularity in China, where it has already been blocked.

“There is also a lower barrier to participate compared to Zoom and other videoconferencing apps,” explained Harris Zainul, a Kuala Lumpur-based analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

He said one of the advantages of audio-based apps like Clubhouse over Zoom was that participants don’t need to worry about looking good for a camera. He also said Clubhouse users were excited over being part of what he likened to a multi-user telephone call offering unparalleled audio clarity.

And despite the temporary nature of a Clubhouse session, there is still accountability for what is said, as Malaysian senator Wan Ahmad Fayhsal discovered after he allegedly stated during a Clubhouse session he was leading that he did not believe 18-year-old Malaysians were ready to vote – despite a bill to lower the voting age to 18 having already been passed by parliament in 2019 with no opposition.

Wan Ahmad later said that he had been misunderstood and that he had merely meant “the right to vote necessarily comes with the moral duty to do so judiciously”.

Clubhouse’s remarkable success can also partly be attributed to its intimate feel, allowing users to tune in and listen rather than correspond via keyboard.

The app had been downloaded 8.1 million times as of February 16, 2021. The company’s value shot up from US$100 million in December to US$1 billion as of January.

However, Clubhouse’s rapid rise in Malaysia has also raised questions of elitism and societal inequities, given the app’s invitation-only set-up and the fact that it is currently only available for use on iPhones, which are generally more expensive than Android phones.

One Malaysian user tweeted that she had to use her parent’s iPhone to get on Clubhouse and found “a lot of interesting conversations going on, but at the same time it feels very [bourgeoisie]”.

“Clubhouse is an example of the gap between the rich and the poor. Why are the poor not involved in discussions using mediums that are already available?” asked another.

For Jalil Rasheed, who formerly headed a Malaysian government-linked fund management firm and now hosts weekly Clubhouse sessions on investment, reform and economic policy, the app is a valuable source of information, despite the fact that it is only available on Apple phones.

“I think it’s awesome to be able to cut out [third parties] and engage directly,” he said. “It’s easy to use and the audio-only element attracts a wider pool of people including the older generation, who may feel left out on other social media platforms.”

Top Malaysian politicians and CEOs are also active on the app, oftentimes listening in on talks involving politics or business to get an idea of ground-level feelings on certain issues.

There are lots of conspiracy rooms, anti-vaxxer rooms, lots of misogyny and racism

Rachel Gong, digital policy expert

In a recent session organised by a local child rights activist, foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein was listening in.

Digital policy and governance expert Rachel Gong drew a comparison between the popular short-video site TikTok and Clubhouse, saying the latter was more “structured and hierarchical” in that a user gets an invite from someone or buys an invite to “join rooms with people you want to hear from” as opposed to the algorithm-driven suggestions that come with using TikTok.

But she added that misinformation – including attempts to radicalise – was already proliferating on Clubhouse, and described the app as “talk radio where anything goes”.

“There are lots of conspiracy rooms, anti-vaxxer rooms, lots of misogyny and racism,” she said. “There‘s something for everyone … both good and bad.”

But as with most social media, a number of factors will determine what kind of long-term impact Clubhouse has, she said, noting that before it was blocked in China, Clubhouse allowed mainland Chinese, Hongkongers and Taiwanese “to have conversations with each other on topics that they would likely never have been able to discuss in person”.

“In that way it was a bit of the utopian digital public space the early internet was supposed to be,” she said.

In Thailand, the government warned Clubhouse users to obey lèse-majesté laws after monarchy critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun joined the app and quickly garnered over 70,000 followers in just a few days. Other dissidents and critics have also taken to Clubhouse to speak out, news reports said.

In Malaysia, where Facebook and Twitter reign supreme, Clubhouse has also provided welcome relief from screen fatigue and “doomscrolling” – consuming large amounts of negative news at once.

“You can just listen in and jump around from room to room – [it’s] like trying different radio stations,” said Gong, the governance expert. “And unlike radio, if you want to join the conversation, you can.”

Beyond the exclusivity, Clubhouse also brings its users “the thrill of celebrity – you might interact with famous personalities and trade jokes with big shots”, she said.

Although the bulk of chats that gain traction are mostly on popular topics or current affairs – corruption, politics, access to education and Malaysian history – others are more insidious. Anti-vax rooms have cropped up just days before the nation is set to receive its first tranche of Covid-19 vaccines.

“The benefits of allowing human connectivity and networking are clear, but at the same time, the potential for misuse and abuse can reasonably be expected too,” said Harris, of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

“Adding concern here is how some experts are already warning of the technical difficulties associated with moderating audio-based content. Moderation efforts can also be made more arduous due to in-group or society-specific lingo, whose nuances might be missed by moderators outside these groups.”

This article was first appeared on the South China Morning Post on 21 February 2021

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