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Clubhouse's rising popularity raises misinformation concerns

Clubhouse, an emerging social media platform born during the coronavirus-driven lockdowns, has given users a chance to connect through intimate audio conversations with virtual strangers even while isolated at home.

But as the platform continues to grow, the same model that has allowed users to connect while physically apart is raising concerns about how the app will handle the spread of misinformation.

Unlike traditional social media platforms, where a user’s footprint is more permanent, Clubhouse’s chat room conversations are not recorded by the app, making it "essentially impossible" to discern the spread of false information or harassment, Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Hill.

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“Because your words don't follow you the same way that they do with a Twitter account, you do feel more relaxed, and that means the app is working as intended. But of course, it means it also poses particular dangers,” Brooking added. 

Brooking said Clubhouse’s model allows users to feel inclined to speak freely, without necessarily contemplating whether they’re sharing accurate information — or the consequences of spreading misinformation.

Clubhouse is designed to allow users to go in and out of chat rooms focused around wide ranging topics. A listener can choose to participate by virtually raising their hand, and a moderator can then enable them to become a speaker in the room.

Moderators, or the user who starts the Clubhouse room, can also add or remove other speakers, allowing them to guide the conversation.

Clubhouse has provided a platform for people to host informal panels across a wide range of fields, while traditional conferences and events have been cancelled due to the pandemic.

But the informal nature of the app has already led to reports of the spread of misinformation, including the spread of false claims about the coronavirus and the coronavirus vaccine, as Vice reported earlier this month. Such false claims have also continued to plague traditional social media platforms, even as Twitter and Facebook have pledged to crack down on the content.

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“It’s a huge concern right now that this might be an ideal gathering place for members of the anti-vaccine community, because it gives people an opportunity to convene sympathetic clubhouses that are talking and elevating anti-vaccine content. And they can control the course of conversation so other voices may not be heard,” Brooking said.

Clubhouse’s rules for users ban the spread of “false information or spam,” as well as abuse and harassment. And while Clubhouse does not typically record its sessions, the platform’s guidelines state that it has a temporary audio recording for the purpose of supporting incident investigations. If a user reports an incident in real time, the platform is prompted to retain the temporary recording.

But if a user reports an incident after the room has ended, the platform will not have access to the room’s audio to support the investigation, according to the guidelines.

As the app continues to grow, so could the issue of misinformation.

The platform first launched with a smaller set of users in March of last year, around the time the global lockdowns began. Despite still being in an invite-only phase, Clubhouse has quickly risen in popularity, surpassing 10 million installs globally as of Friday, according to data from app analytics company Sensor Tower.

A Clubhouse spokesperson did not respond for comment to confirm how many active users are on the platform to date, but in a blog post from Jan. 24, Clubhouse estimated it had roughly 2 million users that week.

Since then, the number of installs has spiked. In the three weeks between Jan. 25 to Feb. 14, Clubhouse saw about 6 million installs globally, up 400 percent from the three weeks prior, based on Sensor Tower’s data.

People who download the app and are not yet invited are allowed to input their information to receive their invitation to join through a mutual connection who's already a member, or to receive a notice when the app is opened to the public at large.

The app has already drawn high profile users, from Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskEnergy Dept to restart Obama-era loans to renewable energy companies SpaceX rocket explodes after successfully landing after high-altitude flight Japanese billionaire offering free trips to moon MORE to Lindsay Lohan, boosting the platform.

“I think that it's the new ‘it’ place to be, in a time when you have no place to be,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University.

“A lot of people who first started on this were influencers. Even they were stuck at home during this pandemic,” Grygiel added.

Clubhouse may have one leg up in terms of mitigating the spread of viral misinformation compared to its traditional social media counterparts, according to experts.

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Unlike nearly every other platform, including Twitter and Facebook, there’s no “reblog” function to allow users to share each other’s posts, which is often how posts, including misinformation, are spread to wide audiences.

“If there’s anything that really sets it apart, it’s the diminished capacity for virality built into the platform itself,” said Aram Sinnreich, a professor at American University’s School of Communication.

While some have raised concerns that misinformation might spread more freely because conversations disappear after a chat room has ended, Sinnreich downplayed that concern. Users prone to having a wide audience would be wary of the conversations being archived or surveilled from an outside source, he said.

“I think anybody who is in the business of being an influencer — a public figure, a celebrity, a professional spreader of propaganda or disinformation, political organizer — anybody with that kind of a job a description is going to be aware of the limited security and capacity for surveillance and archiving on Clubhouse and are going to act accordingly,” Sinnreich said.

“And anybody who is unaware of that, and feels freer to express themselves than they would on say Facebook or Twitter, is an ignoramus who doesn’t understand social media and therefore has limited capacity to include other people,” he added.

As more people join the platform, though, and if it is opened up to the public, the shifting user base could change the culture of the app and potentially lead to further risks of misinformation spreading, experts warned.

“There's a future a few years down the road where if Clubhouse went the path of Facebook ,a demographic over the age of 65 would begin to join the platform en masse,” Brooking said, noting that Facebook launched as a site reserved only for college students.

“And instead of being a place for Silicon Valley elites to have very tech oriented conversations, it would become basically the future of talk radio,” he added. “And if we went down that path, then the dangers of dis-and-misinformation would be a lot more pronounced.”