Private Social App Clubhouse Courts Fresh Controversy

Controversial private social app Clubhouse was again the target of criticism on Monday, after a conversation with hundreds of listeners devolved into a platform for what some saw as anti-Semitic comments.

The flareup highlights a potential weakness for the voice-based community app, which has drawn ire for its policies on harassment, even though it’s not available to the the public. Despite remaining invitation-only—or perhaps because of it—Clubhouse has generated a level of buzz disproportionate to its number of users, and has raised funds from Andreessen Horowitz and other top investors at a $100 million valuation, just a few months after its debut. 

On Clubhouse, users can drop in and out of different chat rooms and hear the live audio of conversations among other users or panel discussions on certain topics. The app’s creators wanted to build a social media platform that allows for a more free-flowing form of communication, but critics also say the lack of records and light moderation allows harassment to flourish unchecked.

Monday’s discussion, which a Bloomberg reporter listened to on the app, was hosted in a virtual room called “Anti-Semitism and Black Culture.” Around 10:30 p.m. New York time, more than 300 people were tuned in as a Clubhouse member claimed that the Black and Jewish communities differed because of their relationship to economic advancement. “The Jewish community does business with their enemies; the Black community is enslaved by their enemies,” the member said. Other people pushed back and said that the speaker was perpetuating a harmful stereotype about Jewish people.

Later in the conversation, another user explained that the conversation was particularly painful because it was taking place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. “It’s a day of grief and reckoning and fasting and introspection, so that makes a conversation like this have a higher emotional charge than it may otherwise,” the person said. The stereotype of Jewish people being wealthy is harmful, she said, and steeped in a long history of bigotry.

On Twitter, some audience members said they were disgusted with the tenor of the conversation. “There’s a room on clubhouse right now that is literally just a bunch of people talking about why it’s OK to hate Jews,” tweeted Sara Mauskopf, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur. Later, the conversation’s moderator, activist Ashoka Finley, apologized on Twitter, saying “I apologize to anyone who felt threatened or harmed by anything said in the CH room I started tonight. I had no intention of negativity.”

Clubhouse, which is popular with venture capitalists and others in the tech industry, has thousands of users despite not being publicly available. It’s also notable for the occasional heavyweights  in the audience. Among the hundreds of listeners in the room on Monday were Clubhouse backers Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen, according to the list of attendees in the app.

Spokespeople for Clubhouse and Andreessen Horowitz did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Clubhouse has come under fire before for not having stronger options for users to mitigate harassment. A recent conversation on the app featuring tech industry denizens complaining about members of the press exacerbated those questions. 

Paul Davison, one of Clubhouse’s founders, has built other apps in the past that sought to experiment with social behavior, including Highlight, which encouraged users to share their camera roll on their phones with users who were nearby. After Highlight was acquired by Pinterest, Davison worked there before starting Clubhouse.

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