Loud voices

Saudis arrive in Clubhouse

As the audio social network Clubhouse began to open its ajar door further last month, Saudi users who have long dominated Twitter and Snapchat flocked to it in droves as the voice chat app exploded in popularity. First, it was the entrepreneurs and founders of tech startups, but it wasn’t long before many, many others followed. I joined Clubhouse in mid-December after receiving an invite from a friend in the United States. Registering for the app still requires an invite but the team behind it, fuelled by $100m in new funding from investors, has significantly increased the number of available invites in recent weeks as they seek to accelerate building a user base for the app that launched last April.

When you look at the ubiquity of text, image, and video-sharing social networks, it feels inevitable that an audio platform along the same lines would eventually emerge. Paltalk, a voice chat programme founded in 1998, had a sizable following during the early internet days in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi arrival on Clubhouse has evoked nostalgia among some: the excitement and debates felt reminiscent of the good ol’ days on Twitter. More specifically, Arab Spring Twitter. Before the electronic armies, the trolls, the misinformation operations, and the real-life consequences for people who said things in the heat of the moment that came back to haunt them down the road as governments across the region began to crackdown retroactively and in real time.

As Eman Alhussein noted:

The clampdown on Twitter affected people’s participation on the platform. While some have entirely abandoned it, others opted to become mere spectators steering clear from engaging in debates and sensitive discussions. Similarly, WhatsApp, which, to a large extent, has replaced text messaging, has also lost millions of subscribers since the announcement of its new privacy policy, giving it the right to share users’ data with the broader Facebook network. This has accelerated the process in which many individuals from the Gulf and other Arab countries had already started migrating to competing apps, such as Signal and Telegram, to discuss political and personal views. Unique to these apps is an option to automatically delete messages, which provides users with some sense of security.

Being a new invite-only platform where conversations are not stored means that Saudi users on Clubhouse are feeling a bit freer than on Twitter which, thanks to state surveillance and the domination of ultranationalist voices, has become a hellscape. That newfound slight freedom can be seen in the titles of rooms in recent weeks that discussed a wide range of topics from regional politics to questions such as “Is there Najdi privilege?” and “Cannabis legalisation.”

Some conversations have been good. Some conversations have been poor. That is to be expected, depending on the speakers and moderators of each room. With a limit of 5,000 users per room, it has become common that popular or controversial rooms would give birth to multiple “reaction” and “follow-up” rooms.

Government officials joined the party too. One of the notable early conversations featured Bader al-Asaker, a close aide to the crown prince who heads his private office and chairs his influential foundation Misk. Other senior officials who appeared on the platform or participated in chat rooms include Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdullah al-Swaha and Osama Nugali, the Saudi ambassador in Egypt. While their rooms were well-attended, much of the attention has focused on rooms discussing controversial social issues such as dating, homosexuality, feminism and atheism.

In one case, a group of women started a parody “matchmaker” room, but hundreds of people joined without being in on the joke. The idea of men and women openly talking about the traits and specifications of their desired spouse was too much for some. A “reaction” room was opened where the moderators urged users to report the original matchmaking room until it was shut down. In another case, a parody room where women jokingly talked like misogynistic men was occasionally interrupted by angry bros. “You feminist whores,” one of them said quickly before being kicked off the stage.

After prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison, a room that was opened to discuss the topic quickly descended into chaos when some speakers accused other participants of being traitors and threatened to take screenshots of the names of attendees to report them to authorities. The room was quickly shut down.

However, what appears to scare people in power and those close to them the most is the fact such conversations are taking place outside the usual surveillance and monitoring apparatus that has been in place for the past few years and pretty much killed any serious debate in the country. It did not take long for the tone of coverage around the app in Saudi media to move from curiosity to scare-mongering. Leading the charge of Clubhouse detractors have been commentators in state-controlled outlets and social media influencers. Salman al-Dosary, a former editor of Asharq al-Awsatwrote last month:

Today, a fascinating application joins the social media clique. Clubhouse has generated a robust societal debate, at least in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, not because of its concept of voice chat rooms in which various issues are discussed, but because of its debates’ ability to make noise. The acrimony that its discussions can generate could harm society as a whole without any organizational or ethical constraints. From racist, tribal and sectarian debates and accusations to horrific conversations questioning people’s beliefs and religions, to rock bottom, with unethical, shameful stories told in these rooms, offending people’s principles. The most open of societies could reject these discussions, so we can imagine how they impact societies that are more than a little conservative!

The talk about the different values of different societies here is selective and self-serving. After all, Dosary and other supporters of social reforms introduced as part of the “Vision 2030” project do not seem to object to changes that conservatives would see as alien concepts being pushed to westernise Saudi Arabia. Dosary, who previously called on the government to develop local alternatives to WhatsApp and other tech platforms, later concludes:

These applications also create rifts within entire societies without receiving real approval from the organizing bodies, which find themselves unable to defend society’s interests because of the absence of the legislation needed to do so. Of course, the intention here is not to suggest that everything emerging from these applications is evil, and there is no doubt that they have taken entire societies to an easy and comfortable world and helped to make their lives easier and facilitate their work, time management, and expand their knowledge. However, as the saying goes, everything has a hefty tax, and the tax of the tide of social media platforms so that some of the applications are incredibly harmful.

The continued absence of constraints to prevent harm and offense to societies- instead of leaving them to multiply and grow- is untenable. A time might come when it is hard to control them and their negative consequence on most society.

Mansour al-Rugaiba, a Snapchat personality, called Clubhouse a “disaster that tears down social values”. He acknowledged the existence of rooms with useful, constructive conversations but said that was not enough to limit the damage from other rooms that discuss taboo topics. He cited several cases where participants called for normalising gay relationships and premarital sex, before saying that he would never allow his wife or children to join the app. He then posted a screen recording of himself deleting the app from his phone. (One more potential reason why Rugaiba is not a huge fan of Clubhouse: the app’s nature does not make it friendly to influencer marketing and sponsored content, but that might change soon as the app makers consider monetisation options)

State news television al-Ekhbariya and other channels aired reports warning local users about the app from a data privacy perspective. The concerns about Clubhouse’s privacy and data practices are genuine, but the Saudis appear far more worried about the inability to control what is being said in these chat rooms.

“Today, [there is] pornography and inappropriate content —religiously, ethically, etc.— and it cannot be regulated. Why? Because it is live broadcasting”, said a local tech expert on MBC, explaining that while Twitter and YouTube can delete objectionable content, this is not the case on Clubhouse where conversations take place in real time. “Clubhouse’s biggest downside is that it cannot be controlled. Any anonymous person can create a room and broadcast content that promotes hatred or that is hostile to the nation and then nobody can track him or find him”, he added.

This is actually inaccurate because Clubhouse can, and does, record conversations. According to the app’s privacy policy:

Solely for the purpose of supporting incident investigations, we temporarily record the audio in a room while the room is live. If a user reports a Trust and Safety violation while the room is active, we retain the audio for the purposes of investigating the incident, and then delete it when the investigation is complete. If no incident is reported in a room, we delete the temporary audio recording when the room ends. Audio from (i) muted speakers and (ii) audience members is never captured, and all temporary audio recordings are encrypted.

The app warns users who capture conversations via screen recording features on smartphones, but that did not stop clips from many rooms circulating on Twitter and WhatsApp groups in recent weeks. Users can also record conversations using a second device. “I do fear it’s only a matter of time until someone is arrested for what they say on the app”, Timothy E Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said in a Twitter thread about Clubhouse in Egypt, where a similar dynamic to Saudi Arabia is playing out at the moment. He expects that the app would eventually get blocked (China has already done that), but the kingdom has usually stopped short of that step, preferring to co-opt and engage social media platforms rather than fully cut access to them.

It is also worth noting that Clubhouse’s policy states that personal data may be shared with law enforcement authorities “if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to (i) comply with a legal obligation, including to meet national security or law enforcement requirements...” This is relevant because Saudi Arabia has a history of content takedown and user data requests from foreign tech platforms and telecoms based on the kingdom’s broad anti-terrorism and anti-cybercrime laws. The practice has raised questions by human rights groups who accused the government of using that tactic to silence critics.

Considering the government’s long-term investment in manipulating and controlling the online narrative on Twitter, it is not surprising that the rise of a new platform where such dominance is harder to achieve would not be welcome. The presence of officials and other prominent pro-government voices from Clubhouse has notably decreased after the initial two weeks in February. It is unclear if this is the result of instructions from the top to avoid the app in a bid to stem its growth and popularity in the kingdom, or a temporary pause while decision-makers figure out how they want to tackle the challenge posed by the features of a new platform.

Saudi dissidents abroad have been active on Clubhouse, but many citizens inside the kingdom have been reluctant to join conversations in their rooms out of fear that they might be monitored by state security and intelligence services. The presence of critical voices was cited as one major reason why Clubhouse poses a risk to Saudi national security, according to Fahad Mutlaq al-Otaibi, a history professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, who recorded a 20-minute video to warn against using the app. Such warnings have been the main theme of many articles by commentators in local media as they urged the Communications and Information Technology Commission to “build mechanisms and management plans to be part of the event and the ongoing social debate around it.”

Nayef al-Asaker, a pro-government preacher, called Clubhouse a weapon of war deployed under the guise of free speech to control the minds of the public.

“By tracking discussions in this application and participating in many of its chatrooms, we found some of them seeking to undermine confidence in religious figures and national symbols, distract society with trivial issues, and abuses against Arab and Muslim nations by targeting their conservative reputation, and I have heard this myself as many people have seen it. This is one of the plans that the enemies use, especially after they failed with the symbols of the terrorist [Muslim] Brotherhood to destabilize the people or influence them, and it would not be surprising if we saw in this application calls and calls that are rejected by sound minds and instincts,” he said, offering examples such as “intellectual and moral perversion”, promoting homosexuality, spreading frustration, and defamation of religious and patriotic principles.

“As a message from an honest, loving and sympathetic advisor, I tell all participants in Clubhouse to beware and beware of it, as it targets your communities and your religious, national and moral values.”