Porn, bullying and body-part auctions: Inside Clubhouse India's content moderation struggles

#18+ rooms, #A16Z, #Clubhouse, #Clubhouse India, #Paul Davidson, reportedly now valued at $4 billion

“I feel violated and disgusted. Nobody, no woman, likes their body parts being auctioned by a troll army,” said Swaty Kumar, an IT professional, her voice cracking as she recounted the events of the past week. Kumar was one of the women auctioned in one of social audio app Clubhouse’s rooms last week.

On the evening of November 28, Twitter was abuzz with a two-minute video of a Clubhouse room, where a group of men were auctioning women. This is how some of the conversations played out in Hindi.

“I will pay Rs 5 for that woman (name not included to protect identity),” said one user. Another shouted that it is not worth a single paise. “I will pay Re 1 (another woman’s name), brother,” laughed another. The video was tweeted and handles of US-based Clubhouse, its co-founder, Rohan Seth, and Aarthi Ramamurthy, Head of International, were tagged.

The club named Singlepur has since been deleted after the video caused outrage on Twitter. The speakers and room, clearly in violation of Clubhouse’s community guidelines, were reported as well.

But Kumar said she has yet to hear from Clubhouse on the issue. The whole episode has been traumatising, she said.

This is one of the many issues that is plaguing Clubhouse in one of its largest markets. The app took the internet by storm when it was launched in March 2020 during the pandemic.

Almost two years later, the Andreessen Horowitz-backed company, reportedly now valued at $4 billion, is struggling to grow, seeing a sharp decline in addition of new users.

After clocking 5.9 million downloads in June, Clubhouse witnessed 262,000 downloads in October, and 411,000 in September. Globally, Clubhouse saw 0.93 million downloads across Android and iOS in October, down from 1.2 million downloads in September and a peak of 7.7 million downloads in June.

This decline has come at the back of a couple of reasons. The company was slow to roll out features such as chat and recording options, the declining number of users as offices and travel opened up, and lack of monetization on the platform, according to reports.

Slowing growth apart, Clubhouse faces a deluge of 18+ rooms, adult content, and bullying it is unable to keep a lid on. Upset users are now turning their backs on the platform.

Moneycontrol pieced this story from conversations with nearly a dozen people who are users, creators, psychologists, industry experts, and civil society organisations. Together, they painted a picture of a platform that is struggling to get moderation right, even after millions of downloads, and facing an uphill task to stay relevant to the right kind of audience it wants to attract.

Clubhouse becomes porn hub

When Clubhouse became popular in February 2021—Elon Musk’s appearance was a trigger—there was FOMO to join. Rahul* (name changed to protect identity), a techie, was one of the thousands who became a user early this year.

Back then, discussions were veered towards Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and tech. Rahul felt left out.

Clubhouse was filled with celebrities in February, according to him. “It did not feel like a place for someone like me,” he told Moneycontrol.

But in June, conversations shifted from highbrow to the mundane, making it less elite and more enjoyable for Rahul. He started making friends and spent hours on the platform.

Rahul and some of his friends wanted to inject “some fun” into the platform. What they settled on—a club where they could talk dirty.

“When we started the group in August, there were hardly 18+ groups, barring one or two,” he recalled. They had a good run in the first few weeks. The room was attracting a throng of people, sometimes as high as 1,000.

“We could go on all day long, from 2 PM till 3-4 AM the next morning,” Rahul said. It was all fun. Until it wasn’t.

The club was not always about dirty and adult talks in the beginning, according to Rahul. For some time, it also served as a sex education class. “When we started, many MBBS students joined the room, who used to field wide ranging questions, from masturbation to marital sex. We were surprised to know that there were a lot of married men who did not know much about intimacy.”

As the club got popular, the group started getting a lot of complaints. “I am not sure if we are doing anything wrong. The community guidelines do not say anything about not creating such rooms. We don’t force anyone to talk … it is all consensual,” he said.

Rahul is no longer the part of the club he started, which now has more than 40,000 members.

There are scores of others willing to fill this, well, gap. Dubbed as ‘red rooms’ by users, Moneycontrol spent time in multiple groups, most of them in regional languages such as Tamil and Hindi, boasting a minimum 5,000 members, and an average audience of 100 listeners.

This is what we found. Some of the clubs host as high as 100 rooms a week and through the day at that. Apart from exchanging nude pictures and going for private video sex chats, there are rooms that offer live audio porn, with or without commentary from fellow moderators.

In two rooms, for instance, where this reporter was present, conversations went like this: “There are so many women as mods. You just need to do three things – follow our club, moderators, and after doing these two, send us your number, where we can share the nudes. Do it fast, we are starting the countdown 1, 2…and 10.”

Once the countdown ended, two men came up “on the stage” to confirm that they did indeed get the nude photos of women. After another round of the same instructions, the host announced, “You can also take this on a different platform for live video private chats.”

In yet another room, amid the moaning and panting, you could hear a host, who sounded in his 20s, giving people similar commands, so that “they can have fun soon”.

There are also rooms for exchanging WhatsApp numbers, and harmless flirting. Take Karthiga* (name changed to protect identity), a 19-year-old music college student.

She started ‘Cash or Exchange’ rooms back in July during her prolonged semester break with her friends who are over 18. This is how it works.

The hosts let people on stage one by one and asks guy/girl to choose the opposite sex they would want to exchange numbers with. If consent is mutual, they exchange contacts, or they say ‘cash’, which is the polite way of declining. “We did not want anything sexual. This is just to have fun and meet others,” she said.

Even these rooms do not remain harmless for long, when some men cannot take no for an answer, and start harassing women. “Yes, I have faced harassment when some men start using vulgar language to insult me. But so far it has not escalated to more serious issues,” she said.

“But we had a girl who had to raise a complaint for harassment,” she admitted. Karthiga is not sure what happened to the complaint.

This brings us to the next issue: harassment and bullying that stems from Clubhouse but goes far beyond that.

Bullied and harassed

Take the case of Kumar and other women, whose private body parts were auctioned in Clubhouse last week. Kumar filed a complaint with Hinjewadi police under violation of modesty of women, and Pune cybercrime soon after the incident, but she is yet to hear from Clubhouse.

This total lack of response from Clubhouse on the issue, is uncalled for, according to Kumar. To be sure, she isn’t new to insults on social media. “I get unsolicited DMs on social media platforms,” she said.

While Twitter, she found, has been the most proactive, Facebook and Instagram have been responsive as well. “If anything, the least they do is acknowledge the complaint,” she says. Clubhouse, she said, does neither. “Nobody from Clubhouse has approached us,” she says.  For her, the absolute lack of empathy on the part of the founders is staggering.

“Well, they have time to organise a welcome room on Clubhouse and respond to random tweets tagging them. But they will not respond to tweets or reach out directly to users, who report and are affected. This just shows that Clubhouse is not a safe place,” she added.

This is not the first complaint to be filed in India against Clubhouse. Civil society organisations have been receiving multiple complaints over the last six months against the platform.

Raj Pagariya, a technology lawyer, and Partner, Cyberblog India, which works with victims of cybercrime, said that he joined Clubhouse in June, when they started receiving complaints about the platform. “I usually join a platform to understand how they work,” Pagariya explained.

One of the initial complaints was from a person, who identifies himself as queer, and in his early 20s. Six months ago, he joined a discussion on LGBTQ+ on Clubhouse and had expressed his opinions on some of the issues queer folk face in India.

One of the listeners took exception to the views and started harassing him from multiple social media accounts. In another instance, a college student, a girl, who heads campus activity, was a part of a Clubhouse discussion. Suddenly she started receiving WhatsApp messages from strangers, for reasons she could not understand.

A listener was able to find her real identity and her number from her college website and started harassing her. So far the organisation has received more than 50 complaints.

Such accounts/people can be reported on Clubhouse. It can be done through ‘Report room title’ or ‘Report a recent speaker’ option available on the top right corner of the rooms.

To be sure, complaints that the organisation receives are just 4 percent of the total they get from platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But the real issue, Pagariya said, is that it goes beyond Clubhouse to other platforms.

“It is not difficult to find your online identity, and people have gotten good at cyber stalking given the number of social networks that we are on,” Pagariya pointed out. But the issue crops up, when the police and legislature are not playing catch up fast enough.

Pagariya explained that many times their team had to explain to the police what Clubhouse is, since many are not aware of how social audio works, which are live conversations without pictures.

The second problem is filing a complaint. Complaints related to social media platforms, such as images, videos, or comments left online can be filed under POCSO Act for abuse of Children, and Information Technology Act, and given the time they have been in the market, they are also easier to understand. However it is tougher to file cases related to Clubhouse under these sections, since audio is live, and not all conversations are recorded.

Janice Verghese, a lawyer and independent consultant, said the complaints can be filed for harassment in public space.

Complaints can be filed under Section 499 and 500 of IPC Act for defamation. If a woman is targeted, a case can be filed under Section 354A of IPC for sexual harassment. Section 509 of the IPC, which refers to any act, work or gesture that has the potential to insult the modesty of any woman, too can be used for filing a case. While in some cases complaints are filed and action is taken by the police, Verghese said, “In many, police have refused to even file a FIR and it is a major problem.”

A source, who works with the company, agreed that this is an issue with the social audio platform but refused to elaborate further since he works with the platform.

It is even more of a concern, when young children and teenagers have easy access to the platform, given that learning is now moved online.

What is Clubhouse doing about this?

Moneycontrol sent a detailed email query to Clubhouse about how the company tackles 18+ rooms, harassment and moderation. The company has not responded to the queries.

According to experts, the platform’s moderation efforts, and community guidelines leaves people wanting.

Take for instance the profile pictures that are allowed on the platform. For instance, in social media platforms, algorithms detect nudity and don’t allow such content to be uploaded on its platform.

Moneycontrol found two display pictures that were of male genitals in full view on Clubhouse, and have screenshots of the same. Most of the display pictures of moderators and 18+ room club are sexually suggestive. Clubhouse did not respond to this specific query Moneycontrol had shared.

“You may not engage in abuse, bullying, or harassment of any person or groups of people,” states one of Clubhouse community guidelines. Given the number of complaints that have been raised on harassment and bullying, it is not clear if the platform plays a proactive role in tackling these issues.

Case in point is the Clubhouse room ‘Singlepur’ that was auctioning women. Moneycontrol sent Clubhouse two emails, a standalone and a query part of the detailed mail, regarding this particular issue. Both did not elicit any response from the platform. In an updated blog about community moderation, Clubhouse said that each report is investigated immediately, and corrective actions are taken.

Though the community guidelines state that the platform is for 18+ audience, enforcement is far from easy, especially when all one requires is a smartphone, mobile number and internet connectivity, which adolescents and teenagers have access to.

In one of the 18+ rooms this reporter dropped in, a teenager came up on stage for “unfiltered conversation”. He gave himself away, when one of the moderators asked if he was over 18, and forcefully removed him from the room. Karthiga*, who was cited earlier too, had shared that they had removed minors a couple of times from the room, but agreed that there are many they might have missed.

Iman* (pseudo name), who spoke to Moneycontrol in a closed room on Clubhouse and did not reveal his identity, said that with online learning, many young kids are getting hooked on to 18+ rooms since they have unfettered access to smartphones.

“What is happening in Clubhouse does not stay in there, and is moving to other platforms. This could be harmful, especially for women and young girls, since it is easy to get trapped into this,” he said.

Nirali Bhatia, cyber psychologist and founder, CyberBAAP, a cyberbullying awareness platform, said while sex education is important and teenagers at that age are curious, it has to be channeled. Dropping into rooms with unmonitored and unfiltered content will only cause more harm, as it would give them a lopsided view of society, and form a value system that is not rational or logical.

The sheer volume of ‘red rooms’ that come up on the hallway also raises questions about the company’s ability to detect and remove such rooms using algorithms.

At the heart of the issue, according to a founder working in the audio space, is that moderation was not built in. The entrepreneur said he and his co-founders had the moderation built-in from day one and has dedicated a third of the workforce to moderation.

This is on top of algorithm that weeds out content that is not up to the mark, including pornography. According to the founder, Clubhouse started taking moderation seriously after they grew too big. By then it was probably too late.

Sreeraman Thiagarajan, CEO, aawaz.com, a podcasting platform, pointed out the amount of care other social platforms take to weed out such content so that they do come to define the platforms. There are ways to control the spread such as using machine learning, flagging/reporting tools, and also deprioritising such content so that they are not visible on the hallway, he said.

If Clubhouse is making an effort to address this issue, it is not clearly showing, according to Thiagarajan.

During the recent media interaction with journalists in India, Paul Davidson, co-founder & CEO, Clubhouse, said, “Live group audio is really different from other mediums since you don’t know what people are going to say and what the content is going to be in advance. That presents a certain set of challenges,” he said.

To tackle this, Davison said one has to build out a very specific set of knowledge for that medium. “There’s no silver bullet to deal with this issue. What makes audio special is that it has nuance, but that can also make enforcement trickier.”

The company currently has 85 team members, from eight to nine in the beginning of the year, but it is not clear how many of them are dedicated to moderation.

Even as the company looks to solve these issues, these incidents could already be hurting its brand image, business prospects, and worrying creators as well.

Hurting brand image, business

A Clubhouse creator, who did not want to be named, said these rooms will impact the brand image and hurt the monetisation opportunities for creators.

Ajit Narasimhan, chief marketing officer, Sundaram Finance, said the company initially had plans to expand its marketing efforts to Clubhouse. But now, the company is rethinking its strategy.

This is in part due to the availability of other platforms such as Twitter Spaces, where the company has already built its brand. But the growing number of 18+ rooms is also a concern, he said.

Clubhouse is not the only platform that struggles with adult or porn content. In fact, Instagram or even Tiktok faced similar problems. The issue at stake is how much this content defines the platform.

According to him, for brands, it is important to be associated with a platform that sets the right image to identify and attract customers. “Otherwise, it is better to stay away from the platform.”

Thiagarajan of aawaz.com said, “If you open Clubhouse at 9 am, there is cringe porn. At 8 am, there is good morning sex. It is there no matter what time you open.”

This is a problem, according to him. Because if the platform is not immaculate, he said, advertisers will not touch it.

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