ANKARA: A growing number of people in Turkey are turning to a new audio-only application for free speech and using it as a source of direct information.
Clubhouse is a San Francisco-based app that was launched last year and requires newcomers to be invited by existing users before they can join. It offers a selection of audio chat rooms that are divided by topic. Turkish citizens, in particular, have been drawn to the medium for political expression.
“Political discussions generally receive the best ratings among all Turkish prime-time TV shows,” political strategist Fatih Guner said. “What we see on Turkish Clubhouse is no different. The most popular rooms are about politics.”
About 125,000 people in Turkey have downloaded the app, according to Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. It is currently available in 154 countries and is No. 1 most-downloaded app in Germany, Japan, Slovakia, and Turkey.
The app has also attracted the interest of some of the world’s most powerful people. Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, reportedly sent an invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to join him for a chat on the social networking platform.
“It would be a great honor to speak with you,” Musk, the world’s richest man, tweeted in Russian.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call: “In general, this is of course a very interesting proposal, but we need to understand what is meant, what is being proposed. First we need to check, then we will react.”
In Turkey, Clubhouse started to gain popularity last month when countrywide protests broke out after a new rector, Melih Bulu, was appointed at the country’s most prestigious Bogazici University.
Thousands of people in Turkey turned to Clubhouse chat rooms for accurate and real-time information that they were unable to find in the mainstream media. Some rooms quickly reached the 5,000-person limit.
Rooms consisted of students, alumni, journalists, lawyers, academics and politicians seeking their right to free speech and discussion. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s former prime minister and the founder of the breakaway Future Party, which is critical of the ruling government, was the first Turkish politician to speak on Clubhouse.
Several lawyers shared spontaneous information about the detained students during the protests to prevent disinformation. Meanwhile, several moderators in a Clubhouse room were detained for a couple of hours for hosting a discussion on the students’ protest.
The lack of a visual component on the app gives people more freedom to interact with each other and focus on the content of the discussion. This new social media tool is also likely to trigger a new wave of citizen journalism and turn into a center of attraction for activism despite strict censorship in the country.
Experts note that the accelerated polarization in Turkey — where journalists and politicians have been jailed for criticizing the government — as well as the lack of independent and objective mainstream media channels have contributed to the app’s new popularity in the country.
About 90 percent of Turkey’s traditional and politically “captured” media environment belongs to pro-government conglomerates.
Guner is cautious about the immediate impact of Turkish Clubhouse.
“The entry barrier is the first challenge,” he told Arab News. “Early adopters who have newer iPhone models, which are unreasonably high-priced because of extravagant taxes, seem to have moderate opinions on democratization and other matters about society.”
Because of this entry barrier, not all political views have been expressed within the platform yet, Guner said.
“When Clubhouse becomes an Android-friendly platform, we can surely say that the deep polarization of the country will reach Turkish Clubhouse as well,” he said.
The other challenge, for Guner, is the creator-consumer relationship. When rooms are created in Clubhouse, as many as 5,000 people can listen to the panels and the discussion, which could be about sensitive topics. But he said only 60-70 people will raise their hands to contribute to the discussion.
“Contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants to speak whatever comes to their mind,” Guner said.
For Dr. Sarphan Uzunoglu, a digital communications expert from Bilgi University, an application that is only open to the iOS ecosystem is unlikely to be a solution for the country’s freedom of expression problem.
“However, it does not mean that the rapid spread of this practice is coincidental,” he told Arab News. “In this narrow ecosystem, it is possible to say that there are creative and comfortable conversations in certain echo chambers for now. This also attracts people.”
But Uzunoglu thinks that over time, as the number of users increases, people will lose their “speaking privilege.” He predicts this will lead to people being forced to listen to different voices, which most people avoid and then the medium will lose its momentum.