Is Clubhouse boosting democracy in Iran?

Audio-chat app is being touted by some as a beacon of democracy and freedom of expression. It’s not that simple.

An array of high-level officials, presidential candidates, and figures from across the Iranian political spectrum have used Clubhouse [Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

Tehran, Iran – Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made headlines last week when he made a late-night appearance in Clubhouse, the increasingly popular group audio-chat mobile app.

Even though hours into the conversation he said it was past his bedtime, the country’s top diplomat stayed longer to discuss issues that ranged from Iran’s recent controversial 25-year cooperation accord with China, to its nuclear deal with world powers, to again denying he has aspirations to become president, to his bedtime routine.

The virtual room he was speaking in quickly reached 8,000 participants – the maximum number allowed at the moment – and comprised several other officials, journalists, and Iranians living inside and outside the country.

Days later, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi was in another room, where he said a deadlock over the nuclear deal is breaking as talks in Vienna went ahead and a “childish” debate about who should return to full compliance first, Iran or the United States, was over.

They have been among an array of high-level officials, presidential candidates, and figures from different sides of the Iranian political spectrum to use Clubhouse as a platform to have their voices heard by supporters and opponents alike.

Rooms like this, and others, in which Iranians have also openly discussed politics, technology, internet freedoms – or lack thereof – and played live music among other things, have brought with them a sense of novelty.

In the online debate on the use of Clubhouse in Iran, which only intensified after Zarif joined in, some have said the app is strengthening democracy in the country – where a theocratic establishment has been in power since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

After all, it’s not every day when proponents of a different type of government get to be in the same room – so to speak – as top officials, who are trying to present a different, less formal side of themselves.

‘Disproven utopian vision’

Some are also making comparisons with the early days of Twitter more than a decade ago, when it was being touted as a tool of freedom and fighting oppression.

However, some argue that many of these conversations are rigged from the start.

Aside from the moderator – a local journalist – in the room Zarif spoke in, a handful of reporters outside Iran were allowed to ask questions, which some deemed as being too soft.

After Zarif left, the moderator admitted that journalists from Farsi-language media outside Iran were barred from asking questions as a prerequisite for the discussion.

Gissou Nia, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said these conditions mean that Clubhouse rooms featuring Iranian officials hardly differ from state media interviews where officials answer vetted questions from vetted journalists.

“I do not believe it is accurate to describe the Clubhouse rooms featuring Islamic Republic officials as a promotion of democracy,” she told Al Jazeera.

Mahsa Alimardani, a student of internet history and an internet researcher with British human rights organisation ARTICLE19, said the discourse of technology leading to democracy has been exhausted since Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, and the Arab Spring.

“At its core, the scholarship has proven to us that, no – technologies never create democracies. The utopian vision of technology and the internet has been unpacked and disproven many times over since the early 2010s,” she told Al Jazeera.

“While Clubhouse may give the impression of democratic exchange, it’s very much controlled and being used by political officials in the ways they want.”

Politics and beyond

Upcoming presidential elections in June have had a direct impact on the buzz around Clubhouse in Iran, with most online and in-media discussion surrounding the platform finding a link with the elections.

The stakes are high for the poll, with the next president potentially shaping the course of the country’s nuclear deal with world powers, among other issues.

The parliamentary elections in February 2020 – which ushered in the current hardliner-dominated parliament – showed that authorities need to use every tool at their disposal to entice voters as just more than 40 percent of voters turned out to the polls, the lowest participation since the revolution.

Iran’s recent elections have seen various social media tools surge in popularity. In 2009, Facebook and Twitter in Iran were used to share opinions on the vote. Authorities said they were tools of sedition and blocked access. By 2013, the cross-platform Viber had gained popularity. In the years since, Telegram and Instagram have been dominant while Whatsapp is widely used. Telegram was blocked in 2018 after nationwide protests.

The instant messaging app Signal’s recent sharp rise led to its quick blocking by Iranian authorities.

Beyond Clubhouse’s potential use as a tool for making political gains, the Atlantic Council’s Nia said the platform has more promise when it comes to how it can be used by a broader Iranian audience to discuss important issues and freely express their opinions.

“There are rooms on the app debating what governance should look like in Iran, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants from inside Iran, and that is valuable,” she said.

She also said she has been in rooms where Iranians discussed a wide range of non-political issues, like how they first fell in love or what their favourite foods are.

A textile store owner wears a protective face mask, as he uses his phone, following the outbreak of COVID-19 [File: Ali Khara/WANA via Reuters

A 30-year-old Clubhouse user from Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous, said he has been using the platform both as a listener and a speaker since late January.

Last month, he listened to a room where he said frank discussions were being had – with Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi also in attendance – about the so-called “National Information Network”, a state project that officials have said is meant to boost local internet, but many fear could be aimed at limiting the global internet.

“I found it interesting that the executives of a company that is accused of helping the state with restricting internet access were being grilled about it publicly,” he said.

“Clubhouse definitely has room to grow and offers an exciting opportunity for a new experience … but I don’t think its abilities and scale should be overstated either.”

Risks and challenges

The platform may also pose security challenges to its users, an issue observers have said needs to be addressed.

For instance, despite having anonymous names, individuals registered in users’ contact lists will be notified when users create an account.

ARTICLE19’s Alimardani said this could be dangerous anywhere in the world for privacy reasons, but especially so in Iran, where phone numbers are registered to national IDs.

“There is the potential for the government to automate processes to identify and monitor users, even if they are using anonymous names,” she said.

Clubhouse did not respond to an Al Jazeera request for comment.

What is more, Clubhouse is currently an invite-only app exclusive to iOS, which leaves many users out.

But an unofficial Android version available on Iranian app stores has already been downloaded more than 50,000 times. Even the foreign minister said he downloaded that version to join the conversation.

Meanwhile, the app could potentially be targeted by Iranian censors in the future.

All social media apps are currently blocked in Iran, with the exception of Instagram, which has become a popular platform for conducting online business. Its ubiquity means authorities are reluctant to close it down due to the potential economic impact of such a move, as the country remains under harsh US sanctions and has taken a further hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many have suggested the only reason Clubhouse remains unblocked is due to its effectiveness in the run-up to the presidential elections.

Earlier this year, users inside Iran reported issues with receiving SMS confirmation when trying to signup for Clubhouse, a problem that appeared to emanate from local telecom operators. The issue was resolved as soon as high-profile officials flocked to the platform.

But that hasn’t meant the platform is loved by all. The ultraconservative Keyhan daily newspaper has called for its filtering, a request that has been also echoed by a number of other local media outlets.

Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, said on Tuesday “no decision has been made” about blocking Clubhouse, but did not rule out the possibility.

Source: Al Jazeera