The World’s Conservatives Gather in Budapest
23 September 2021
Ever fantasise about cosying up with your pets on the sofa and telling your favourite (or most hated) politician exactly what you think of their work? Perhaps it is still too soon to imagine yourself grilling Orbán through an app on your phone just yet, but maybe Clubhouse can soon make that dream a reality by revolutionising the way politicians and citizens communicate with one another.
Clubhouse is a drop-in audio-chat application or app, which since its launch in March 2020 has grabbed the attention of venture capitalists and techies from Silicon Valley. Because of Zoom-fatigue many now mingle via this audio app while quarantined at home. It only premiered in Central Europe over a month ago and already has created a step up for political discussions online.
The app has blown worldwide since a heated conversation on 31 January 2021 between Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla, and Vladimir Tenev, the CEO of Robinhood, a stock trading and investing company, regarding GameStop’s short squeeze drama. So far, the app has amassed over eight million downloads, despite still being in the pre-launch phase.
You can only enter Clubhouse through an invitation from an already active user, and only via an Apple iOS device (reportedly, the app’s Android version is in the works).
When you join the app you can follow other users, topics, and ‘clubs’ you are interested in. Based on the people and topics you choose to follow, the app suggests ‘rooms’ and discussions, of which many happen daily or weekly at a scheduled time. You can also turn on notifications to know when a person you follow starts speaking.
Next to scoring a huge following among the business and start-up community, the novelty has struck interest in the world of political communication. On both sides of the Atlantic, tech-savvy politicians have been using it as a way to reach out to and directly interact with their voters, with Central European politicians not missing out on the trend. In Czechia and Slovakia, the app has become a hit, with MEPs from these countries amassing over a thousand followers on their profiles and hosting discussion rooms regularly.
Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský, affiliated with the KDU-ČSL and the European People’s Party explains the particular popularity of Clubhouse in Czech politics with the fact that it was launched before the Senate and regional elections that took place in October 2020. Having over 1,300 followers, Zdechovský has been actively using the app for his work as a politician, he uses Clubhouse to talk about current affairs and his work with the Czech speakers who follow him:
“When I voted on an issue in the European Parliament, I was immediately asked to join a Clubhouse room and discuss my position. They mentioned my position on the issue during my election campaign and asked why I voted the way I did. I had to explain myself to my constituents. I think it is the perfect tool for holding the politicians accountable.”
The experience of app users confirms Zdechovský’s idea about the app serving as a tool that could help legitimise politicians in the eyes of the voters.
Jakub Kobera, a 25-year old young professional from Slovakia, who now uses Clubhouse mostly to follow discussions related to business and emerging trends in Slovakia’s start-up community, says that he would put more trust into a politician who he could see was active on the app: “if I saw a politician on Clubhouse, communicating directly with the voters, and talking about the ideas they have and presenting their views, I would be more willing to trust them.”
MEP Zdechovský thinks the app can also act as a new conduit for communication between politicians and the media: “I think it is a possible new bridge-building tool between politicians and journalists. “I was once asked by a journalist on Clubhouse to react to something that was just mentioned on state television,” says Zdechovský.
Perhaps, the cosiness of Clubhouse rooms creates a space where politicians feel less subjected to media bashing and are able to provide more in-depth explanations of their views and opinions.
“Once I was having a conversation on the app with a journalist who is often very critical of me. After the discussion, he wrote that before the talk he thought I was ‘a typical populist’ but that after speaking with me, he has changed his mind,” Zdechovský told us.
Additionally, Clubhouse holds the potential to become a pan-national facilitator of dialogue among politicians and the international relations community.
Zdechovský positively recalls his experience from an international political discussion: “I was in a closed discussion room with politicians from the US, Canada, and the UK. It was quite interesting to hear their reactions to the US presidential election, the situation in America, security issues, Iran, Iraq, and other things. These are politicians I knew from Twitter or from some articles, but it was a completely different experience to actually listen and hear how they discuss issues.”
Polish MEPs and politicians, with only a few accounts and few followers, have been rather slow to catch up with the new trend. So far, among the Polish politicians we managed to find on Clubhouse, it is the representatives of the Polish leftist Lewica Razem (Left Together) Paulina Matysiak and Krzysztof Śmiszek, who lead the followers’ count – with 153 and 172 followers respectively. From the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition, we spotted Michał Szczerba (83 followers) and the party leader Borys Budka (30 followers).
On the other side of the barricade, not many sights were observed, with the exception of Artur Dziambor, a member of the Polish Parliament from the conservative-libertarian KORWiN, and his 30 followers.
In Hungary, it seems only one party has caught on to the new app. The liberal Momentum Movement and its spokesperson Balázs Nemes can be found on the app as well as MEP Katalin Cseh, who is affiliated with Renew Europe. Both have almost a hundred followers. Their party has even created a ‘club’ with 56 followers.
However, the progressive Polish politicians are starting to use the app to their and their voters’ advantage. Every Sunday at quarter past nine in the evening, Paulina Matysiak, a political activist and member of the Polish parliament, holds discussions in a room on Clubhouse to brief her voters on the weekly happenings in politics and all the initiatives she is involved with.
Matysiak’s approach to Clubhouse is very similar to the one presented by Zdechovský: “Clubhouse is great for people who like to get feedback on their work, i.e. politicians who can directly ask about feedback regarding their activity, voting, or the views that they express – I think this is the biggest value of it because everything happens live, here and now. It makes it cool and authentic and this is why I like it.”
Krzysztof Śmiszek, a Polish lawyer and human rights activist, and a member of the Polish Sejm since 2019 told us that a while ago he had been invited to join Clubhouse, so he can take part in a Clubhouse Community discussion on human rights and LGBTQ issues.
He finds the new app to be a convincing political communication outlet: “Mass media are obviously very important, but it is the small outlets, such as Clubhouse that should be politicians’ everyday life – they complement traditional media (press, radio, TV) since they allow people to shape or co-shape the opinions of those who are influencers in the public debate, and so far clubhouse users are like that.”
Does the new audio-chat app foreshadow a new era in political conversation? According to Zdechovský, “Clubhouse is the future”. Something in Clubhouse’s model clearly works since social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook are already developing their rival equivalents.
But even if it is not specifically Clubhouse, the baseline is that it or apps like it are the future and politicians need to get on board and adapt their communication style for the demands of the digital age, so they can connect with the new generation of voters.
At this point, it is also obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled Clubhouse’s popularity – in the current climate, in-person meetings and rallies cannot take place, making the app an alternative for politicians to directly communicate with their voters. As Matysiak says: “if it was not for the pandemic..we would be meeting offline, in the clubs, during debates, not by turning on the app and choosing a discussion room.”
Clubhouse has been praised for being relatively troll-proof. The fact that it is invite-only means that fewer ‘trolls’ can disrupt conversations, and the moderating features let you choose who gets to speak. By being only an audio format, fake accounts and trolling is much harder. It is easy to make fake accounts on Facebook or Twitter, but it is much harder to hire people who will actually join and troll a discussion with their own voice.
MEP Lukas Mandl from Austria recalls: “I have experienced a better conversation culture on Clubhouse than on other social media channels. Whether a medium provides resistance against misinformation depends in large part on real names.”
However, just as any social media, the app could be used for propaganda dissemination by extremist groups or for spreading disinformation, especially that the way it is made lends itself well to more relaxed content moderation rules. So far, cases of such abuse have not been reported in Central Europe, but it is only a matter of time. Other drawbacks of the app are related to its privacy and security issues.
Clubhouse has also been criticised over its alleged exclusivity – since it is exclusively available to iOS users and invite-only – making itself accessible to a particular, and rather homogeneous demographic. According to Lukas Mandl, “participants are yet rather well-educated and young people and iOS-users of course. People who like it appreciate the easy access and what I would call gamification about it.”
Hence, while Clubhouse has the potential to be a space for public debate and discussion between politicians and ordinary citizens, for now, it can only do so among the rather homogeneous demographic of young, tech-savvy, and iOS-endowed audiences, winding up in a zone somewhere between, a cosy living room and an invite-only exclusive club lounge.
Is the new drop-in audio-chat app a herald of what political conversations could look like in the digital future? Maybe. It is definitely a breath of fresh air into the stale social media world. The premise upon which the app functions, requiring authenticity from its speakers and elusive in nature, is somewhat antithetical to the artifice of a lot of political communication and marketing.
Clubhouse will gain followers among politicians who are authentic and not wary of facing their voters ‘here and now’ or being questioned by them. Therefore, it is doubtful we will be seeing the representatives of the Polish and Hungarian ruling parties on Clubhouse anytime soon.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.
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