Jewish users on the invite-only social network Clubhouse say they no longer feel safe on the app after a heated conversation Monday night, which many participants felt perpetuated racist stereotypes. Intended to discuss anti-Semitism in Black communities, the event had 369 participants and lasted roughly three hours.
“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 so I’m done with that app for awhile,” tweeted Sara Mauskopf, CEO of the daycare startup Winnie.
Venture capitalist Michaela Hirsh shared similar concerns. “Enters @joinClubhouse,” Hirsch tweeted. “Hears: 1) Non-Jewish folks redefining “antisemitism”, 2) Jews are the face of capitalism, 3) Jews are “weaponizing antisemitism”, 4) Non-Jews asking Jews to tap into unlimited emotional labor to educate. I’m DONE.”
The audio app, currently in private beta, is valued at $100 million. It recently rolled out community guidelines and added a feature that lets users report harassment in the app, but it still lacks the moderation tools needed to navigate large debates.
On Monday, the event was moderated by activist Ashoka Finley, who hadn’t pre-screened panelists and was hesitant to silence people for having a different viewpoint than him. He tried to mute speakers who shared anti-Semitic remarks, but with dozens clamoring to take the stage, it was hard to manage.
The event drove home the importance of careful moderation, beginning with an academic conversation on the roots of the word anti-Semitism but veering into hurtful racial generalizations at various points. “The Jewish community and the Black community do not have the same enemy,” a speaker named Carlyle said, about an hour into the event. “The Jewish community does business with their enemies. The Black community is enslaved by their enemies.”
Another speaker who could not be immediately identified brought up American police officers getting trained by Israeli military. “We still never talk about the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] training police officers that are killing Black kids,” he said. “And that right there does a lot to put the relationship in a complicated space.”
The comments, coming on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, felt insensitive to some listeners. They interpreted the IDF comment as implying that Jews were responsible for police brutality in the United States. The idea that Jews do business with their enemies seemed to perpetuate a stereotype of Jews being conniving and money-hungry.
“I’m not sure what the responsibility of Clubhouse is or should be,” said a Jewish listener who asked not to be identified given the hostility of the debate. “But the reality is this room devolved into anti-Semitic comments, one after another.”
As an audio-only social network, Clubhouse has unique moderation challenges. It can’t rely on the text-based search capability that most social networks use, and there isn’t a simple mechanism for singling out a specific comment as inappropriate. For critics of the app, it’s a messy combination that can spiral out of control when addressing sensitive topics.
This isn’t the first time founder Paul Davison has faced this kind of content moderation challenge. He previously worked at Pinterest, where he oversaw the launch of a “tried it” feature, which allowed users to post pictures of activities they’d completed to Pinterest posts on the same topic. The feature didn’t screen for pornography or harassment. After it launched, Pinterest saw a surge in pornographic content on the platform, as reported by Casey Newton. “About one out of every dozen photos uploaded was a penis for a good while,” a former worker told him.
During the heated conversation on Monday, a female speaker who could not be immediately identified tried to steer the conversation toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, saying: “there has been a movement to make connections between the oppression and ethnic cleansing that’s happening in the state of Israel and Palestine, and what’s happening here to Black people, especially around policing and the brutality and militarization of people.”
A man responded: “I think that anti-Semitism is used as a blocker of the critique of Israel.”
The word “nuance” was used repeatedly by speakers trying to engage with these ideas. To Jewish listeners, it was a way to skate around subtle anti-Semitism. “The moderators repeatedly used the word ‘nuance’ to excuse themselves from taking responsibility for the anti-Semitic statements that were made,” the Jewish listener said. “Just because someone says something isn’t anti-Semitic doesn’t mean it isn’t.”
In follow-up conversations on the app, Finley told listeners he would not be hosting another contentious forum. “The risk to reward is too low for me to do anything like that again,” he said. “I want to talk about white supremacy in the music industry, but I actually don’t have the belief that this is the platform for it, no matter how nuanced this community thinks this is. I don’t see myself engaging heady topics with random strangers on the internet in the near future.”