Clubhouse app a new platform for political debate

PHOTO: Clubhouse, dissidents move from the street to their phones.

Clubhouse, a popular audio social media app, is attracting political debates, despite the Thai government threatening prosecution under the Computer Crime Act. The law forbids posting against the monarchy or government, but the app creates a perfect channel for government and politicians to directly connect to targeted social groups.

The appeal of the Clubhouse app comes in its exclusivity, as it’s invite-only, and by bringing some humanity to online interactions through the use of voice instead of clicking away at a keyboard. Members create private groups where they can schedule speakers in a virtual room to address their group. These events are live and not archived or rewatchable, thus adding to the immediacy and exclusivity of Clubhouse activity.

In February, a user named Tony Woodsome invited users to a chatroom on the Clubhouse app called “Those who were born during (the) Thai Rak Thai Party’s era come join here”. The speech attracted 30,000 listeners, who attended in rebroadcasting virtual rooms to sidestep Clubhouse’s 5,000-user limit per room. Tony lectured on human rights, the protests by younger Thai people over the last year, economic recovery and the government’s lack of support for start-ups and small and medium enterprises.

But Tony was not your average activist. He was revealed to be Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in Thailand’s 2006 coup. The self-exiled leader hadn’t spoken out to his followers for a year before he surfaced on the app in this Clubhouse meeting.

Thaksin is one of many politicians, academics and celebrities using the Clubhouse app to connect directly with fans and discuss topics that may be taboo elsewhere. The current Minister of Public Health uses the platform, as well as the leader of the Kla Party, founders of the Future Forward Party, and Thai monarchy critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has yet to make the leap and try communicating with the Thai people through the Clubhouse app as other leaders like South Korea’s prime minister. Some see it as an opportunity for PM Prayut to engage civilly with opponents, but others worry that connecting with these young activists hasn’t been Prayut’s strong point, and flubs in Clubhouse could do more harm than potential good.

With its privacy and lack of recorded proof, the Clubhouse app has become an outpost of free speech, and a thorn in the government’s side, with people often able to speak out against the monarchy. Officials have threatened legal action for violating Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws by smearing or distorting the monarchy or government. They cite the Computer Crime Act, designed to prosecute bad-mouthers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and now Clubhouse. So far, many of the government’s threats have gone unheeded and have not discouraged users from speaking out.

Clubhouse has functioned as a mediator and an equaliser, both allowing people of opposing viewpoints to have an unrestricted dialogue, as well as allowing average citizens that previously could only listen to lectures to have a 2-way conversation with powerful and elite people.

Participating in discussion and anti-government conversations on one’s mobile phone is much safer than the demonstrations in the streets that have pestered the government for nearly a year and allows activists to connect with the young generation of Thai people through their phone. The Clubhouse app is currently for iPhones only, but an Android app is expected this summer, broadening its reach considerably.

SOURCE: Channel News Asia

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Neill Fronde

Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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