Julien Christian Lutz spends much of his day on Clubhouse, an invite-only audio app that has swiftly garnered widespread attention since its launch last year. Specifically, Lutz frequents a series of coronavirus chat rooms, where many users swap ideas about health care in the pandemic, discussing things like the ongoing vaccine rollout and COVID symptoms.
These discussions are not simple exchanges of information, though. Things often get heated, and Lutz is one of the platform's many impassioned users — something that immediately became clear when he spoke with me recently via Instagram about his experience in Clubhouse's medical chat rooms. In our first few exchanges, Lutz was careful to say that he was not an outright anti-vaxxer, nor would he ever explicitly tell someone not to get the coronavirus vaccine. But Lutz — who calls himself a "science communicator," though perhaps is better known as a rather prolific music video director — also described himself as “pro-herbs,” and was more than happy to send me a PDF of studies he’d found showing the effectiveness of herbal remedies in treating and combating the symptoms of COVID-19. Her also told me, via Instagram: “For doctors to have this information and not act upon it is negligence!”
Lutz told me that he rarely encountered anti-vaxxers in his time on Clubhouse; mostly, he said, it was just full of people with a lot of questions. But that's not quite the perspective that doctors have when it comes to their experience using the platform. For them, Clubhouse is a hub of conflicting information — including misleading medical advice. But, unfortunately, it seems like this is not a flaw of Clubhouse's design, but is rather an accepted part of it.
Though still only in beta mode, Clubhouse has become a home for all manner of things. By allowing people to connect with complete strangers, the app creates opportunities for users to join live chat rooms to discuss or listen in on every subject from getting started in creative professions to burgeoning health trends. It’s informal and communal, which is part of its appeal. But that's also why it has fallen prey to the great challenge facing all social media platforms — misinformation. Users can easily encounter a licensed medical practitioner or experienced virologist sharing scientifically backed information in the same room as someone who says that the vaccine is embedded with a tracking device or people with the best of intentions passing on unsupported information unknowingly.
Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, a board-certified internal medicine physician, founded a club on the app called All Things Covid last month. Since then, it has grown to almost 25,000 members due in part to weekly Q&A with expert clinicians and scientists answering any and all questions about coronavirus. In these discussions, Ungerleider said that she and fellow physicians occasionally encounter audience members who are anti-vaccine.
“Since we’re very explicit that we’re a group of physicians and scientists who speak about evidence-based, data-driven issues related to the coronavirus, it is less frequent,” she explains. More often, Ungerleider says they encounter people who are skeptical or have questions. “There’s, of course, a difference between questioning the science, which we welcome, and being anti-science.”
Lutz said he spent quite a bit of time in those Clubhouse chatrooms. “I come in and present studies about medicinal plants,” he explained. “The doctors and I argue. The regular people cheer me on and start calling me Doctor X.” Despite the nickname, Lutz is not a doctor — another thing he is clear about mentioning to me in our messages on Instagram.
Even if Lutz is clear about presenting his credentials, that doesn't mean everyone else is. And Clubhouse is far more difficult to moderate than platforms like Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter, because any record of the chat rooms disappears when they end, leaving no digital footprint. There is no documentation of the conversation once the room closes — it’s against community guidelines to record the chat rooms, and you can even get kicked off the app for doing so. And, there are currently no internal Clubhouse moderators, so fact-checking is near impossible.
Despite the lack of accountability, users are warning each other that outlandish coronavirus conspiracy theories are spreading quickly across the app, reports Vice. Everything from false rumours of 5G satellites controlling people via social distancing to the vaccine being made from foetal cells has proliferated in recent weeks. Medical professionals on Clubhouse have attempted to intercept this misinformation by calling it out and proactively sharing scientifically supported information, but many of those who have spoken out have faced harassment, abuse, and alleged death threats.
Ungerleider said she comes across anti-vaccine rooms with over 1,000 people in them at least a few times a week. “Occasionally physicians or scientists will enter the room to try to combat misinformation, but it is very challenging," she explained. "Clubhouse does have many people who claim to be experts but are touting pseudoscience, and it’s very dangerous.”
Lutz, who said he is in “no rush” to get the vaccine and wants to wait and see how people he knew felt after a few months, does not see himself as one of the Clubhouse users "touting pseudoscience." He advised me: “I hope you will represent what I am saying properly. You will be doing more harm than good if you discourage people from medicinal plants after I presented you with that PDF.”
When I asked Ungerleider about the herbal remedies Lutz said should be getting more attention as legitimate treatments for coronavirus, Ungerleider replied: “We haven’t seen any randomised controlled trials (the gold standard for medical research) show benefit for supplements, herbs in treating or preventing COVID, but more study is warranted.”
But while Ungerleider offered a measured response to Lutz's assertions, the same courtesy isn't often extended to her — or other doctors. Dr Aya Osman, a neuroscientist, described her time on Clubhouse similarly to Ungerleider; from her experience, she's had harsh criticism in rooms devoted to talking about the coronavirus vaccine
“We tend to stay away from rooms that are blatantly anti-vaccine because you simply get attacked in those rooms," Osman said, but then pointed out that "sometimes rooms are started to legitimately have questions answered,” and that those rooms often generate informative and productive discussions when they're filled with a large number of doctors who make it their mission to spread scientifically backed data and information. It’s when doctors become outnumbered by people who don’t believe in the efficacy of the vaccine, says Osman, that the bullying can begin.
This harassment isn’t limited to Clubhouse. One in four physicians who use social media reported being personally attacked according to a Stat News study. The most common reason? Vaccine advocacy.
“Honestly, it usually stems from misinformation that isn’t founded in data or facts,” Osman said. “And when you provide the actual facts it can go south.” However, she believes that the public's considerable distrust of medical institutions stems from trauma. As a neuroscientist, Osman studies how the brain responds to trauma and she believes that fear of the vaccine is an understandable response to prolonged inequity that includes racially-biased medical treatment. For every staunch anti-vaxxer, Osman says she encounters far more cautious people simply looking for reliable information.
“People are honestly hungry for this information, she said. "I think during this pandemic people have seen how messy the scientific process can be. And so helping explain some of that to the public goes a very long way during a scary time like this.”
Dr Hisham Yousif, who spent most of the past year working in a coronavirus intensive care unit, echoed this appetite for information and advocated patience with vaccine skeptics. “Do you antagonise them on their practices and beliefs, or meet them where they’re at and open their mind to another treatment option?” he responded. “A lot of these folks feel not listened to, disrespected by the medical establishment, etc. You have to understand people’s experiences. A lot of them are rooted in pain, trauma, and prior bad experiences.”
While the spectrum of Clubhouse users may run the gambit from a medical expert to a staunch anti-vaxxer, it seems like most people there are questioning things in good faith and trying to find reliable information. So how can Clubhouse, a fledgling social media platform, provide some level of certainty that the information users are coming across is accurate? There’s no post to review or flag feature right now, and that's part of the problem. Still, Ungerleider believes there are ways to combat misinformation in this new landscape. She suggests Clubhouse adopt a verification system similar to Twitter. Refinery29 reached out to Clubhouse to see if they had any plans to implement a verification system for combating misinformation, but they did not yet respond.
“I think it would definitely help users to understand who the credible sources are on the platform and combat a lot of the misinformation,” said Ungerleider. In the meantime, she recommended that people seeking out vaccine information on Clubhouse really do their homework when it comes to the "experts" on the platform. “Take notes while on CH and spend time personally investigating by reading the science before making any major decisions. I also think asking questions of speakers and specifically asking about the evidence to support claims is important.”