When Clubhouse started taking off earlier this year, some users worried that sensitive conversations on the social audio app might be secretly recorded for nefarious purposes. In places like Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, people were increasingly using Clubhouse to discuss taboo political topics, sparking concerns that authorities could be listening in. Now, researchers say that fear has come true.
In a new report released last week by The Stanford Internet Observatory, researchers analyzed a Jordanian disinformation network that pushed pro-monarchy and pro-military narratives on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. The campaign, which Facebook said in a separate report had links to the Jordanian military, also republished audio that had been secretly recorded on Clubhouse. Researchers said this is the first time they have identified a disinformation operation that relied on Clubhouse and TikTok, indicating that some states are taking advantage of newer platforms to spread propaganda.
The Jordanian campaign cobbled together audio and screen recordings from Clubhouse into at least one video that was then shared on Facebook. According to the report, the audio was taken from a conversation in which Jordanians outside the country and other Arab voices discussed Prince Hamzah, the half-brother of Jordan’s leader, King Abdullah II, who was taken into custody in early April, along with over a dozen other prominent figures. Jordanian authorities accused Hamzah of plotting to destabilize the government, and while the prince later publicly pledged his loyalty to the king, he currently remains on house arrest.
People who saw the video “didn’t know that it was linked to individuals in the Jordanian military,” said Shelby Grossman, a research scholar at the Internet Observatory and a co-author of the report. “But at the same time, you could imagine that if someone watched this video, they might think to themselves, ‘Oh, people are listening when you have these Clubhouse conversations.’”
While Clubhouse has not been officially banned by the Jordanian government, the nonprofit Jordan Open Source Association found that the app can currently only be accessed using a VPN.
Recording is against Clubhouse’s Terms of Service, which prohibits users from capturing “any portion of a conversation without the expressed consent of all of the speakers involved.” The company did not respond to a request for comment about how it enforces the rule. A number of other Clubhouse conversations have previously been recorded and leaked to the public.
Sam Gregory, the program director at Witness, a nonprofit that helps people use video and other technology to promote human rights, said that audio can be a particularly powerful medium for disinformation because it lacks many of the context clues found in videos or photos, which makes it hard to tell where a clip may have originated or whether it’s been manipulated. “The orientation of Clubhouse is people talking, often for longer periods of time in conversational contexts,” said Gregory. “You have access to more raw material that you might mis-contextualize or edit.”
While this is the first time Clubhouse has been implicated, other forms of audio disinformation have been identified in other countries, particularly on messaging apps with voice note features like WhatsApp. During the aftermath of a major earthquake in 2017 in Mexico, viral audio messages spread false rumors that survivors trapped in collapsed buildings had been abandoned by the government. In Brazil, an audio clip from someone claiming to be a doctor discouraged people from getting the yellow fever vaccine during an outbreak in 2018. First Draft News, an organization that studies misinformation online, also identified a number of false audio clips circulating ahead of the country’s presidential election the same year.
The most extensive portion of the Jordanian disinformation network was on Facebook. The social network said in its report that it had removed over 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts, three groups, and 35 pages connected to the campaign, four of which had more than 80,000 followers. The effort also included around $26,000 worth of Facebook ads, but it’s unclear exactly whom they may have targeted. A spokesperson for Facebook said that the company’s Ad Library transparency tool doesn’t currently include data on ads that were run previously in Jordan.
The Stanford researchers also identified a handful of sock puppet accounts on TikTok that appeared to have ties to the same network. “They clearly did not put a lot of effort into it,” said Grossman, noting that the fake personalities didn’t post original content, instead sharing videos from established accounts associated with the Jordanian military. But Grossman also cautioned that the platform is less accessible to researchers than Facebook. “There could be lots of this on TikTok that just hasn’t been found, or that TikTok has found, suspended, and just not disclosed,” she said.
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment about how the company handles state-sponsored disinformation on its platform.
Though many of the accounts identified by Facebook and the Internet Observatory were created in 2020 or earlier, they became particularly active after the arrest of Prince Hamzah and other officials in April. As the royal drama unfolded, authorities imposed a media blackout that prevented news outlets from covering the prince’s arrest. “We saw a spike in posting on the Facebook network during this blackout,” said Grossman. “One possible interpretation is that they wanted to fill the void in social media discussion with pro-government content.”
While the Jordanian disinformation campaign was relatively unsophisticated, researchers say its use of new platforms is noteworthy — and a sign of what’s to come. “We were able to see them dipping their toes into these emerging technologies,” said Grossman. “I don’t think this will be the last that we’ll see Clubhouse audio being used or TikTok accounts being used.”