Article: Inside India’s Clubhouse of Islamophobia

Mohammad Asif Khan

Clubhouse started as an app for social interaction through live audio, but now it’s a breeding ground for communal hatred and Islamophobia in India. The Clubhouse app gives Hindutva factions an open platform to spread hatred against minorities, particularly Muslims.

Popular Clubhouse groups such as “Hind Hindu Hindutva”, “Akhand Bharat ka Sapna” and “Hindu ecosystem” include people who openly call for a “Muslim genocide” and the establishment of India as a “Hindu Rashtra”.

“It is vile and vulgar to witness the obscene display of power which is rooted in religious supremacy. On days, I feel the need to intervene or even engage with the self-proclaimed right-wingers, and other days it is extremely exhausting and simply futile to do anything,” says Divya Tiwari, a postgraduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia who monitors right-wing groups in the Clubhouse app.

In 2019, the Clubhouse app was launched as an audio-social app to connect people around the world. Its popularity grew exponentially during the COVID-19 induced lockdowns. So much so that it shifted from an iOS-only app to an Android version in May 2021. One can simply log in to the app through an invitation from an existing user of the app and find a variety of rooms consisting of people discussing a variety of topics like politics, technology, world affairs music, and even live sex chat rooms.

Some of these right-wing chatrooms host popular BJP politicians like Tejasvi Surya and Kapil Mishra who have a history of making inflammatory speeches. Nupur Sharma, editor in chief of the right-wing news portal OPIndia, is a frequent visitor to these rooms. The Clubhouse app is uncensored and unregulated, sometimes inciting hate speech, misinformation, and even war-mongering.

These Clubhouse rooms were extensively used to malign farmers’ protest movement in India, branding the protesting farmers as “Khalistan terrorists”. There are audio meetings where these groups discuss fictional issues like “love jihad” and their hatred is not always directed at Muslims or protesting farmers. The speakers in these rooms have made derogatory remarks about Christians, Kashmiris, and the LGBTQ community. Some speakers make bizarre, superficial, and trivial statements like how cow dung cures Coronavirus and how Muslims are taking over the world.

According to a survey by Quartz India, the majority of downloads of the Clubhouse app came in May and June when they shifted to an android version of the app.

The Clubhouse is rapidly growing its user base and has great potential, especially in India. However, it has proven to be ineffective and inadequate when it comes to checking hate speech and Islamophobia, especially in India. Experts have raised major concerns about tracking hate speech in Clubhouses.

Shireen Mitchell, who tracks online harassment and has been actively following Clubhouse activities recently said in an interview to forward “We’ve been tracking online harassment since 2013, and I can tell the way in which it’s showing up and happening on Clubhouse is drastically different from anything we’ve seen before.”

Recently Clubhouse announced that it would be adding a new feature to curb hate speech. As a result of this new feature, Clubhouse can detect and block hate speech and symbols in rooms. Experts say that these new features aren’t effective enough to combat hate speech, since hate speech inside the Clubhouse app is very difficult to trace because some rooms may disguise themselves and their topic of discussion, most people who incite hate speech operate under a false name and identity and the room moderators can’t be held legally responsible for what happens inside the room. Cautious people using the app prefer to write “Presence in a room does not mean endorsement” in their bio to be on the safer side. The new feature also allows Clubhouse to retain audio conversations for investigation and tracing in case anyone reports a room, group, or member.

Recently, a Clubhouse room called “Muslim girl supremacy” was heard making derogatory sexual remarks about Muslim women, Following the incident, the Delhi Commission for Women filed an FIR with the Delhi police. Delhi Police then wrote to Clubhouse app authorities seeking information on people involved in the discussion. On 21 January Mumbai police arrested 3 people involved in this incident from Haryana.

Sara Ather who is a women’s rights activist views this incident as a “direct effect of years of brainwashing a generation of people against the Muslims of this country”.

She adds “Social media platforms like Facebook and Clubhouse turn a blind eye to hate speech which further helps these groups in spreading their communal propaganda”

Such incidents of verbal abuse against Muslim women are only increasing on social media in light of the Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals app incidents. The chairperson of DCW wrote in a tweet “Sulli bai, then Bulli bai and now indecent sexual remarks against Muslim girls on the Clubhouse app! How long will this last?”.

I emailed a list of questions about hate speech on the Clubhouse app to the Clubhouse grievance officer but there has been no follow up on my complaint as of now. — Courtesy Maktoob Media