Clubhouse allows Thais some open discussion free from Covid restrictions and state censure – for now

Clubhouse is a golden opportunity for free, open discussions to flourish in Thailand. Through the new voice-based app, Thai users are able to now access information and debates that are otherwise controlled and sometimes punishable by the state.

#ClubhouseTH, the hashtag for Clubhouse in Thailand, is all the rage.

From hosting rooms with celebrities, listening in on a lecture, to even just discussing the loneliness and other hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, netizens throughout Thailand are now tuning in to the invite-only social media app to keep up with trends and conversations.

The layer of exclusivity that comes with an “invitation only” gateway also keeps everyone on their toes.

“Am I the only person on Twitter in Thailand who doesn’t have a Clubhouse account yet?” a user mused on Twitter the other day. “I seem to be the only one without an account.”

“Please, someone invite me to join Clubhouse!” another user lamented. “I am missing out on so much!”

Clubhouse, the new part-podcast, part-discussion, part-conference call social networking app that is now valued at more than 1 billion US dollars, was blocked in mainland China on February 8.

But why?

For a brief peaceful period, Clubhouse was a gateway for many users in mainland China to discuss controversial topics free from the usual censorship, control, and other interruptions from the state.

Although the exact number of users registered in China remains unclear, until the ban many conversation rooms in Clubhouse were hosted in Chinese language and were filled to the (then) 5,000-user capacity, according to a New York Times report. Users from mainland China had an unprecedented chance to tune in and connect with counterparts beyond their borders. A Uighur woman was able to share her experiences of the concentration camps in Xinjiang, while users from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong listened and voiced their support. In another chat room, users reflected on the popular uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that was put down by government forces in 1989.

But it was not long before the app was blocked by the Chinese Communist Party.

Gateway for public, political and social discussion

Beyond the chitchats and late-night tales and stories happening in Clubhouse Thailand, a similar phenomenon to China’s is emerging in this country.

On Tuesday night at around 9:30 pm, former leaders of the now-disbanded Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, as well as Move Forward Party MP Bencha Saengchantra hosted a Clubhouse room to reflect on the latest censure debate.

“I just joined Clubhouse and this is my first time speaking on this app,” Thanathorn spoke into the mic and room, which was filled to the 6,000-user capacity within 10 minutes. “I also want to use this opportunity to talk about the Redbull hit-and-run case, which is directly linked to the double standards and failure in the Thai justice system.”

Piyabutr, who moderated the entire two-hour discussion, also spoke about the opportunity that Clubhouse is now providing for people to connect and engage in conversations about democracy and freedom of speech in Thailand. As discussions of the censure debate took centre stage, Piyabutr invited participants who raised their virtual hands in the room to ask questions.

“I am a 60-year-old mother, and I must say I am very concerned about the news that 20 people are going to be detained tomorrow,” a user told Thanathorn. “Where is the future here? I am so concerned.”

“Thank you so much for speaking up and speaking to us, you are someone from another generation who really is looking out for us and is really progressive,” Thanathorn replied. “Thank you for your concerns, we will continue to fight together.”

Piyabutr, who handled most of the questions about the censure debate, operated the chat-room quite like a lecture at times, but also thanked the users who spoke up for bring their voices and opinions to the debate. Former Future Forward Party member Pannika Wanich also chimed in to reflect on the hearings of the censure debate, while journalists from the Standard, Thai Enquirer and politicians like Parit “Itim” Wacharasindhu also tuned in.

At around 11:30 pm, Piyabutr thanked the 6,000 participants, and those who joined in to listen from another room, for tuning in and closed the virtual room.

Certain drawbacks

On the other side of the coin, Clubhouse has also elicited some interesting responses from the Thai public.

“I am selling my 2 exclusive Clubhouse invites for 400 baht each,” a user shared on Twitter. “Please DM me if you want it!”

“Facebook and Gmail were also invitation only, and then they became much more open,” a senior editor from the Thai Enquirer commented. “I remember my friend selling her Gmail account invitation for $100 US dollars back in the early 2000s.”

The unfettered access to celebrities and public figures on Clubhouse has also left many with mixed feelings.

“I feel like we shouldn’t have that level of access to celebrities, it feels like a new level of fans believing they ‘know’ them,” a social media user commented, “Because it [Clubhouse] can feel like you are getting glimpses into their ‘real’ life.”

It’s not much of a democratic forum if everyone is flocking to conversations led by celebrities and asking to be let in, the senior editor commented. Also, Clubhouse could serve as an app that is merely reinventing the art of conversation, he added.

It remains unclear exactly what implications and possibilities Clubhouse could bring to the public discourse in Thailand. For now, users are enjoying the refreshing accessibility to conversations they would otherwise would never have been allowed to participate in under any other circumstances.

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