Every few years gives rise to a novel social media app that takes smartphone users by storm. Clubhouse, the invite-only, audio-based app that feels like TED Talks meets 1980s radio call-in show, has rapidly grown in recent months, offering a platform for social media users in pandemic lockdown to converse in an entirely new and intimate way. But like every new and exciting application that springs into the mainstream, Clubhouse now faces the same growing pains of those trailblazing apps that came before it—being just big enough to scale its service but too small to police its platform.
Last month, Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison outlined an idealistic vision for the startup, stating that the platform would be able to serve work-related meetings as much as it would be capable of hosting large political rallies. However, as word-of-mouth quickens the rise of Clubhouse from an insulated beta phase, questions regarding the app’s ability to regulate itself from malign influence, disinformation, and hate speech remain largely unanswered.
In practice, Davison’s vision is already validated by notable instances of ingenious use, ranging from unlikely cross-strait conversations between Taiwanese and Chinese users—which led to the app’s demise in China—to providing an open forum for political dissenters in Turkey. But with the potential to embolden and build bridges among unlikely communities, Clubhouse has also opened the door for those who may wish to bring discord into them. If social media has illustrated anything since the dawn of YouTube in the mid-2000s, it is that when popular new services arise, bad actors soon arrive to pounce.
Over the past few weeks, a number of sanctioned Russian and Ukrainian influencers—some designated for past election interference efforts related to U.S. elections and all significant influencers in the information environment—have joined Clubhouse. Among this slew of influencers are two recently sanctioned Ukrainians: Petro Zhuravel and Dmytro (Dimitry) Kovalchuk, whom the U.S. Treasury Department designated for their roles as part of the “disinformation apparatus” that supported U.S.-sanctioned Ukrainian MP Andrei Derkach’s 2020 election interference efforts. Derkach, who the Treasury reported in September 2020 has been an “active Russian agent” for more than ten years, pushed his “NABU Leaks” information campaign throughout the 2020 election in an effort to denigrate then-Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, through claims of corruption in Ukraine and leaked audio files.
According to the Treasury sanctions, Zhuravel was responsible for Derkach’s media management, providing the technical support behind Derkach’s 2020 election interference campaign. Zhuravel nominated Kovalchuk, who “provided profiles on U.S. political figures” to the Derkach team, to join Clubhouse.
Other U.S.-sanctioned individuals that have recently made their way onto the app include Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin, Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, and Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich. Maria Butina, the Russian gun activist previously jailed in the United States after she pleaded guilty to being directed by a Russian government official, also recently joined the platform. Alexander Ionov, the founder of the “Anti-Globalization Movement” NGO, who helped fund Butina’s legal bills upon her return to Russia and who has organized conferences that hosted American secessionist groups, is another recent platform addition.
In 2018, Malkevich ran the website USA Really, an outlet that sought to amplify right-wing anger in an effort to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. USA Really is reportedly a spawn of St. Petersburg-based RIA FAN, one of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media holdings. Prigozhin, often referred to publicly as “Putin’s chef,” has been the Kremlin’s key conduit for spreading disinformation on social media as the owner of the notorious Internet Research Agency (a.k.a the Russian “troll farm”). He has also conducted numerous foreign influence activities via his paramilitary company Wagner Group and several other media ventures in Africa. Through his Telegram channel, where he has more than 12,000 followers, Malkevich has urged his followers to join him in organizing and participating in various Clubhouse conversations.
For his part, Alexander Dugin’s anti-globalist views resonate with international groups on both ends of the political extreme, particularly as frameworks upon which to launder narratives supportive of fascism, illiberalism, and xenophobia. A skilled multilinguist and lecturer, Dugin has relied on technologies such as Zoom to communicate with audiences all over the world amid the coronavirus pandemic. Clubhouse represents another such opportunity for Dugin to reach audiences despite lockdowns and cancelled in-person conferences.
Collectively, these individuals represent some of Russia’s most prolific agents-of-influence who have repeatedly harnessed the power of social media platforms and used online manipulation to forward the Kremlin’s strategic messaging, propaganda, and disinformation in attempts to undermine the United States and other Western democracies writ large.
By allowing ephemeral audio conversations on the go, Clubhouse has shown a capacity to bring people together in ways that its social media peers haven’t—for better or worse. And while Clubhouse’s innovations are as apparent as Davison’s vision, so too are the ways in which threat actors could enlist the platform to further splinter our collective reality. With existing counter-disinformation practices largely fixated on text and visual-based communication, the burden falls on the app’s leadership to explore ways in which to mitigate vulnerabilities in what is currently an underdeveloped audio domain.
Although radio’s appeal in the United States is waning, it remains one of the most trusted mediums for news consumption in Europe and throughout the developing world. Much like podcasting, Clubhouse is not far removed from the same allure; perhaps more importantly, it has the capacity to disseminate influence that is both more immersive and arguably more effective in shifting perceptions and altering behavior. In its infancy, Clubhouse has the rare opportunity of setting the standard for audio-based apps—whether by developing and implementing a content-moderation approach that works, or by serving as a cautionary tale to its impending competition.
Ultimately, we should also ask how any technology startup—operating on a comparatively shoestring budget, short staff, and facing competition from tech giants—should be expected to scale and compete while policing an unknowable set of malign global actors who come to roost on their platform. Here, Western governments or the social media industry as a whole could assist by creating a consolidated listing of all individuals and entities sanctioned by democratic governments and those who have been de-platformed for malign influence by the biggest tech companies. Such a dataset would not only assist small tech startups from having disinformation cancers infiltrate their platforms, but it would also improve the health of the entire social media ecosystem and protect the underpinnings of Western democracy.