People Have Private Conversations, Journalists Hardest Hit

Certain sectors of the media have become obsessed with a haunting fear — the fear that someone is having a private conversation somewhere on the internet.

The platform bearing the brunt of the current panic is the new social media app Clubhouse, an invitation-based platform that as of now is only available on iOS devices. Despite the platform not even being a year old yet, it currently has an evaluation of $1 billion and has attracted a sizable amount of press attention. The concept behind the platform is simple; it’s an audio-only platform that allows users to create “rooms” that other users can join, either to join in the conversation or listen along. Think of an old-school telephone party line, except with incredibly famous and influential people on the call.

Much of the controversy surrounding Clubhouse revolves around the fact that the platform offers the ability to have semi-private conversations that are not permanently recorded for later consumption; the recording of any conversation held on the platform by an outside source is also prohibited.

(side note — Clubhouse does temporarily record conversations in order to facilitate any reports of abusive behavior on the platform but it does not retain those recordings)

This has already led to laments from journalists that, due to the lack of digital footprint, there will be no way to fact check the conversations that take place on Clubhouse. Even worse, there will be no way to dig through a specific person’s past statements on Clubhouse to see if perhaps they once said something problematic.

On that last point about not being able to dig up someone’s past statements to use against them, there’s a surprising lack of shyness in stating that intention publicly. As Olivia Smith writes for Grit Daily

“Clubhouse, while positive in many aspects, embodies the ills that all social media platforms eventually fall victim to when users begin to exploit the platform for harm. On Twitter, celebrities and other figures are often held accountable for the things they’ve posted in the past. Users are able to keyword search another users’ profile to see if they’ve posted content with certain words in the past. The feature has contributed to what some might call cancel culture and others might simply call accountability-especially when it comes to inexcusable actions such as acts of racism or sexism. It’s not uncommon to see someone have to apologize for a post they made years ago (or recently) after it circulates the platform.

On Clubhouse, however, there are no screenshots. There is no way to drag up old Clubhouse posts years later like a user might do on Twitter. There is no way to record conversations-meaning there is no way to prove that someone said anything controversial at all. There’s no path to accountability. Users on Clubhouse know, or at least believe, that they can openly speak their mind with zero repercussions. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have implemented robust moderation programs in recent years, a move that has been both praised and criticized by many.

Because of the nature of the app, some of these well known public figures are able to speak freely on Clubhouse without risk of being held accountable by journalists. Unless you were in the room yourself, it’s only hearsay that anything controversial was said at all. Journalists are often the only people able to hold businesses and influential figures accountable for their actions, but they can’t publish what was allegedly said on an app that doesn’t enable them to collect proof. Because of this, Clubhouse enables these actions, creating a safe space for the world’s more privileged and wealthy to say whatever they want without fear of facing consequences.”

Quelle horreur, famous people are having conversations and journalists can’t hear them! There is, however, a tiny part of me that admires the chutzpah of point-blank saying that journalists are angry that they won’t be able to engage in internet muckraking anymore or at least will have to put a little more work into it.

Speaking of journalists who are angry over limited access to the conversations taking place on Clubhouse, Erin Griffith and Taylor Lorenz have recently written a profile of the platform and its users for the New York Times. The profile, which is admittedly much tamer than the tweet the Times sent out to promote it, includes an interesting paragraph that doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the piece but is telling.

“Clubhouse has a ‘blocking’ feature to give users more control over their spaces. That has in turn sometimes created disputes about access, including with a New York Times journalist.”

The New York Times journalist being referenced is Lorenz herself, who has had a few high-profile skirmishes on Clubhouse and has been blocked by several of the app’s more high-profile users. Lorenz has since started a Medium post where she catalogs a “list of incidents” that have taken place on the platform.

It’s not just Clubhouse that is coming under fire — encrypted platforms Signal and Telegram are being discussed as possible platforms for the wrong kinds of private conversations. Signal, a messaging platform that uses end-to-end encryption to ensure all messages sent on the platform stay private, has exploded in popularity over the past few months. Telegram, a similar messaging platform, reported that it added 90 million new users in January 2021 and was the most downloaded app worldwide for that month. The debate over those platforms is already starting, with questions being raised as to if and how the spread of disinformation and the recruiting efforts of extremist groups on these platforms should be monitored. Even within Signal, there is pushback from employees to the platform’s hands-off, privacy-focused stance toward content monitoring.

I noted in my post on the New York Times’ Slate Star Codex story that there is a disturbing trend of journalists being overly concerned about conversations taking place in semi-private forums. It marks a shift in focus — the original debate was over what kinds of conversations should be allowed in public spaces like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al. Now that those conversations are happening in more private spaces, the debate has moved to what kinds of conversations should be allowed in those spaces. How far would journalists like to go in their quest to “fact check” conversations to “hold people accountable?” Do they want access to DMs? Text messages? Emails? Phone conversations? Living rooms?

People are going to have private conversations behind closed digital doors. Yes, sometimes they will exclude certain people for various reasons. No, journalists do not have a right to be privy to them, especially for the purposes of weaponizing those conversations at a later date. In fact, most of those conversations will not be worthy of conversation. I didn’t think any of this needed to be explained.

At least now we know that the debate was never about where certain conversations should take place, but that if those conversations should be allowed at all.

Originally published at

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