Is Clubhouse the latest new media technology for change in the Middle East?
Dina Matar, Chair, Centre for Global Media and Communication
The story of the popularity of the audio chatroom app. Clubhouse, in the Middle East seems to follow a well-trodden route – the platform is launched in the region and elsewhere; the app is quickly taken up by users eager to talk about anything- from what to wear in Zoom calls to discussions of taboo topics, such as honour killings in Egypt to sexual identities in Iraq; the app is blocked by some authorities in the region, citing different reasons including unspecified threats to national interests. For example, in Oman, the app was banned for not having a “proper license;” In the United Arab Emirates, people have internet throttling which made them wary of posting sensitive material; in Egypt, state television reported the application is a place for “terrorists” to gather—referring to the banned Muslim Brotherhood; in Saudi Arabia, users have reported intimidation in chatrooms and in Iran, conversations have been screen-recorded and posted on Twitter.
Clubhouse is a buzzy social-media audio-only app that was launched last year at the height of the global Covid-19 pandemic. It relies on verbal communication, a more effective and intimate mode of communication than other social media applications, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, particularly in societies where language and story-telling matter. Since its launch, it has gone viral in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan. In the Middle East, more than 970,000 people have downloaded the platform since it launched outside the US in January, reaching about 6.1 percent of the 15.9 million global downloads. Within the region, Saudi Arabia ranks at number seven globally for the invitation-only downloads, with over 660,000 downloads, just after Thailand, according to San Francisco-based mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower. Given the way the app functions (users open chatrooms for discussions), Saudi nationals have used chatrooms to discuss who could replace their aging king instead of his ambitious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They have also reportedly argued with Egyptians over what they considered democracy and with Lebanese and Jordanians over their kingdom’s perceived meddling in their affairs.
In Turkey, student protestors opposing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of a ruling party loyalist as rector of Boğaziçi University used Clubhouse to express their anger. In Jordan, minutes after reports of an attempted coup in Jordan at the beginning of April, Jordanians inside and outside the country congregated in a room to share information on the confusing reports released and controlled by the government. In Lebanon, users created rooms to debate the deteriorating political landscape, the role of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group in state politics and private banks in the economic meltdown — with bankers in the room. In another room, Iraqis — mainly exiles — criticized how their country’s many religious militias impacted their lives. In a room discussing the war in Syria, opposition activists organised a spoof interview with someone posing as President Bashar Assad. In Iran, a member of the ruling elites, a women’s rights activist, and a hacker all joined a discussion centred around whether or not the hijab should remain mandatory in Iran. Last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made an unannounced appearance in a virtual conversation on the audio-chat app in which he addressed a range of topics, including the recent agreement with China, Iran-US relations, and the June presidential elections.
However, along with socially and politically controversial issues, many rooms host people talking about the latest fashion, what to wear, which social media influencer to follow or just having fun beyond socio-political and socio-cultural restrictions people face in the public.
The popularity of the app in the Middle East has attracted the attention of Western media including the Economist in the UK, with some commentaries making comparisons with the 2011 Arab protests when thousands of activists turned to Twitter and Facebook to contest political power and demand more voice in constrained public spaces. As then, commentators emphasised the potential of (Western) social media platforms for change and for democratisation in the region, debates that are underpinned by tired old Euro-centric exceptional narratives about the region and the capacity of the region’s populations to change, ignoring the long histories of organised and unorganised activism in diverse cultural platforms. The optimistic view of new technologies and the opportunities they bring cannot be discounted, particularly when considering ease of access, how they are used, by whom and in which situations. However, what needs to be challenged are the views that Western technologies are engines for change, a view that offers a limited and largely deterministic approach to media power while neglecting the agency of those who use them. What should also be challenged is the focus on the present and the here and now, a tendency in much of the debates about the role of media that tends to ignore histories of media use and adoption of different new media and technologies in the region, such as writing, print, graffiti, radio, film and photography, by diverse populations, including marginal groups. What needs to be discussed is whether new actors, new publics and new modes of participation emerge as new platforms are adopted and adapted, and whether and how these actors and publics can shift political cultures, and entrenched power.