BEIRUT (AP) – They are noisy, quarrelsome, sometimes just hilarious.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the Arab world turn to the Clubhouse, a fast-growing audio chat app, to tease, shake off longtime managers, discuss sensitive issues ranging from abortion to sexual harassment, or arguing over where to find the best sha cheapest shawarma sandwich during an economic crisis.
The discussions are endless because they are breathtaking.
More than 970,000 people from the Middle East have downloaded the new platform since launching outside the US in January. It has offered a space for personal conversation in an age when direct contact is the mercy of the epidemic, it has united them both at home and in exile or abroad.
But mostly it offers to release bottled-up frustration in a region where violent clashes և autocrats have prevailed և where there is little means of change or even a voice, if any, that seems stable.
“It is an open cafe that penetrates what is forbidden by the political regimes in the region,” said Lebanese journalist Diana Mukalle, who closely follows social programs. “The clubhouse has made people come back to argue with each other.”
Middle East accounts for Clubhouse’s 15.9 million 159 million downloads, which launched in the United States a year ago. Saudi Arabia does not. According to San Francisco-based mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower, there are more than 660,000 invitations to download globally on a global scale of just over 660,000, just behind Thailand առաջ ahead of Italy.
One of the reasons for its popularity seems to be the forbidden atmosphere, which is fueled by the vibrancy of group conversation.
The Saudis had set up rooms to discuss who could replace their aging king with his ambitious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They argued with the Egyptians over what they considered democracy, and with the Lebanese’s Jordanians over their perception of their kingdom in their affairs.
Other rooms deal with taboo topics ranging from atheism to homosexuality. A Saudi woman has debated whether it is permissible to have an abortion in the kingdom, provoking hot and cold.
The platform also became a place for the exchange of information, challenging the state-dominated media in the region.
Minutes after the news of a coup attempt in Jordan last week, Jordanians inside and outside the country gathered in a room to share information on government-sponsored, controlled and confusing reports. The families of those arrested in the sweep that followed shared their news. Some users defended King Abdullah as supporters of his brother-in-law, accused of plotting a coup, vowed to rally behind him.
In the past, there were incredible debates between sections of the public who otherwise avoided each other or blocked other social media.
Opponents were discussing supporters of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group. Elsewhere, Lebanese have come out against private banks, which they accuse of their country’s economic decline. The bankers were in the room.
In another room, Iraqis, mostly exiles, criticized how their country was affected by the many religious militants in their lives. The moderator, from the southern Shiite city of Najaf, now living in Europe, recounted how his conservative family tried to form “like them” by sending him to universities where men and women mingled. He interrupted a man who offered to exaggerate, saying that he had not tried what he had done.
The moderator went on to describe the powerful Shiite militias as caring leaders, saying he would see them break the rules set for others. During the free conversation, the supporters of the militia often interrupted, causing a torrent of managers among the host և others և, until they were forced to leave.
“They controlled the ground with their muscles,” the host said of the militia. “But social media needs brains. This (space) is ours. ”
Among the hundreds of rooms discussing the war in Syria, some users decided to ease the mood. Opposition activists have given a false interview to a man posing as President Bashar al-Assad.
It made me laugh, but it was also a sharp reminder of how the 10-year conflict had devastated the country. “I ran away from you, you are still chasing me to the Clubhouse,” a fake Syrian deportee told Assad.
But fears are growing that the open space could quickly fall under the same government control or censorship as other social media.
A decade ago, Arab Spring protesters gathered on Twitter and Facebook to offer similar free space. Since then, authorities have come to use the sites to target, arrest, and propagate their own propaganda.
Oman has already blocked the Clubhouse app. In Jordan, it is blocked on certain mobile networks, while in the United Arab Emirates, users have described unexplained errors.
Pro-government commentators on TV shows and newspapers have attacked the Clubhouse, accusing it of plotting terrorist attacks, distributing pornography or harming religious and government figures.
First, the Clubhouse invited human rights activists and political activists. Then came the supporters of the government.
“This room has grown because Salman’s people are here to protect him,” shouted one of the roommates, who was opposed by opponents of the Saudi heir to the throne.
The debate over the release of Saudi ombudswoman Luja al-Khathuli’s ombudsman turned into a panic when several participants threatened to identify the participants and report them to the authorities. The conversation soon ended.
Insulting recordings of Clubhouse conversations, such as the acceptance of homosexuality, raised fears that pro-government Saudi users were keeping the pages of critics. One of the participants asked to leave the conversation among Lebanese when it turned out that he was Israeli, in part because some users feared that they might be prosecuted under Lebanese law prohibiting interference with Israelis.
Some people are afraid that security agents are secretive in the rooms.
Most of the app users, which remains exclusive to iPhone users, use real names, sometimes with detailed biographies. But growing numbers are using fake names.
Without anonymity, the Clubhouse controversy could have turned into real-life violence, said Ali Siba, Beirut-based digital rights social media consultant SMEX.
He said the club’s “uncertain” policy was also a cause for concern. The company says it is temporarily holding talks to investigate the abuse. But that does not say how much or who is reviewing the Arabic content, raising questions about whether unknown third parties could be involved, endangering the safety of participants, he said.
Daraj, an editor of the independent online media Mukalle, says it is not surprising that the authorities have taken control of the Clubhouse.
But he said something else would come.
“As long as people do not feel involved in the decision-making process, they will find these programs.”
AP writers Basem Mron in Beirut, Isabel Debren in Dubai, and Calvin Chang in London contributed to this report.