Is Clubhouse being manipulated by a disinformation campaign?

Extremists and hostile actors are inflaming antisemitism on the app

Foreign influence campaigns against the U.S. follow familiar patterns:

  • Find a wedge issue that pits Americans against each other
  • Exploit and inflame the issue with incendiary social media content
  • Get Americans to spread it, either in solidarity or in outrage
  • Watch as it rips through the fabric of society
  • Repeat ad infinitum

That playbook is being deployed on Clubhouse as it relates to antisemitism and the Black and Jewish communities. That’s my suspicion, at least, as someone who has spent the past few years studying how information circulates on the Web. We may be in the midst of an active disinformation campaign on the trendiest social media platform.

A new social media app inevitably means some bigotry and racial tension will emerge. Many of us hoped Clubhouse would take an innovative approach to combatting it. We’ve been disappointed. (More on that in a bit).

But a series of recent antisemitic rooms has begun to feel like no coincidence:

  • In mid-April, a room emerged that praised Hitler and the Holocaust;
  • Another room on the same day echoed those sentiments;
  • A third room that day denied the Holocaust occurred;
  • A few days later, another room opened on the same subject.

There was a lull until last week, when more rooms opened up:

  • Denying the Holocaust;
  • Praising Hitler;
  • Quoting Neo-Nazis;
  • Claiming that Jews control / are responsible for the slave trade, the media, capitalism, pornography, homosexuality and 9/11 (among other things).

Jewish users were also sent death threats, including one account DM-ing a Jewish man that, “We wipe yo ass out of this country and world.”

That DM raised my eyebrow because it included a black & white photograph of Adolf Hitler’s meeting with Muhammad Amin al-Husayni in 1941. al-Husayni was a Palestinian nationalist who negotiated a pact with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy to violently oppose a Jewish homeland. He was a complex figure, an Arab leader who began his life moderate and grew more radicalized. In death, he’s been lionized as a revolutionary by Islamists and vilified as a Nazi collaborator by Zionists.

Partial screenshot from a direct message sent via Instagram to a Jewish Clubhouse user. The DM included the message, “We wipe yo ass out of this country and world.” The original image depicts a 1941 meeting between Arab nationalist Muhammad Amin al-Husayni and Adolf Hitler. Original image licensed by Getty Images.

Tracking how historical imagery and memes become weaponized on the Internet is part of my forthcoming book. This particular image has circulated on a variety of antisemitic and anti-Israel sites for years including Russian blogs, Islamic militant chats, Hitler adoration pages and websites such as The photo, licensed by Getty Images, has also appeared in media outlets such as The Guardian, Le Monde and Deutsche Welle.

Which brings us back to Clubhouse. The recent antisemitic rooms have been coordinated by extremist groups such as the Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites. They’re engineered to draw attention through incendiary headlines, large numbers of participants and vile commentary, sometimes with the help of celebrities like LaKeith Stanfield. They tap into decades-long tensions between the Black and Jewish communities, stoked by bigots such as Louis Farrakhan. They’re intended to inflame us and have us amplify them through our networks, granting them more visibility and pitting one segment of the population against another — a hallmark of foreign influence campaigns.

Are these Clubhouse users foreign agents? Not likely. But the participants in these rooms have developed a hatred towards Jews due to disinformation spread by foreign agents and hostile actors that they have encountered in other places on the Web: chat rooms, blogs, private forums, extremist Websites, email forwards, memes, social media ads, Facebook pages, YouTube videos and within their own communities. That’s precisely how these campaigns are meant to operate: circulate massive amounts of disinformation and hate speech across numerous platforms; incite people to interact, share and spread it in their communities; and sit back as we tear each other apart.

This formula has been used time-and-again, from the 2016 election to Black Lives Matter protests. Russian disinformation agents (and others in Iran and China) have purposefully targeted Black Americans with these campaigns. They channel the anger at racial injustice within Black communities and steer it towards the media, elected officials in both parties, and global Zionist conspiracies. Those forces become simple scapegoats for complex problems, an easy place to direct anger and disenfranchisement. Once the poisonous ideas have penetrated deeply into communities, they spread on their own.

The use of historical memes — such as the 1941 Hitler-al-Husayni photograph — to help spread these narratives is particularly effective. Memes spread ideas quickly, powerfully and anonymously at rapid speeds. Eventually they wind up in DMs as hate speech. The messaging informs antisemitic tropes on Clubhouse.

Which brings me to why so many of us are disappointed with Clubhouse. Clubhouse seems to believe that its platform operates in isolation. But disinformation campaigns span across platforms by nature. They’re coordinated across blogs, chats, Tweets, videos, ads and memes with the intent to flood the ecosystem with poisonous ideas and sew as much hate as possible. To presume that shutting down a hateful room after it opens is sufficient is to combat disinformation ignores the global, cross-platform nature of these attacks, initiated by malicious actors with tens-of-millions of dollars of funding — not to mention a past decade of social media influence campaigns.

To seriously combat this challenge, Clubhouse should (at minimum):

  • Permanently ban all instigators of antisemitic rooms.
  • Permanently ban any clubs that sponsor antisemitic rooms.
  • Designate Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites as extremist organizations, in accordance with Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center designations.
  • Hire a team of outside experts to devise a sophisticated, long-term approach to combat antisemitism on social audio that is cross-platform and multi-lingual in its approach.
  • Hire Jewish employees who can better recognize hate speech, Holocaust denial and antisemitic conspiracy theories as they are taking shape.
  • Make data and room recordings available to disinformation researchers to begin to understand how Clubhouse is interconnected to the broader disinformation ecosystem.

It should be re-stated that, for now, this remains solely a hunch based on pattern recognition. Disinformation agents and political activists often use similar tactics on the Web. Are these rooms the result of a coordinated anti-Israel campaign by political actors? (Holocaust denial is a tool of anti-Israel messaging, as the Holocaust is often cited as a justification for Israel’s existence. Arguing the Holocaust never occurred is meant to undercut the moral imperative for Israel.) Or, are these rooms part of a push by the Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites into Clubhouse to spread propaganda and recruit new members? Without access to more data, it is difficult to know for sure. But the ammunition for this information war is either, in full or in part, being supplied by malicious actors operating across multiple virtual spaces with the intent to divide and harm.

It’s a playbook that should be familiar to us by now.

Jason Steinhauer served as founding director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest; is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; and is a contributor to CNN and TIME. He’s currently writing a book about how history gets communicated on the Internet, and hosts the History Club every Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET on Clubhouse. On Twitter @JasonSteinhauer; also on Substack.

Writing a book about history on the Internet. Host of the History Club on Clubhouse.