Black Doctors Work Overtime to Combat Clubhouse Covid Myths

By William Turton

For the last year, Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi said he has worked 12- to 14-hour shifts as an emergency room physician treating patients who have been struck by Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Fagbuyi recently picked up a side gig, one that isn’t paying him anything.

“I do my shift, wash my face, change my clothes and then get on the app,” said Fagbuyi, from Washington D.C. That app is Clubhouse, a relatively new, invitation-only social app that hosts interactive audio-only chat rooms. It has exploded in popularity in recent months, the result of people seeking community and conversation amid lockdowns and a publicity push by its main backer, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Fagbuyi is just one of dozens of Black doctors and medical professionals who have taken it upon themselves to counter Covid-19 misinformation, which has proliferated on the app alongside the surge in new users. Unlike Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, where the companies have tried to impose rules on objectionable content, Clubhouse leaves the moderation to the app’s users, who control who gets to speak in certain rooms.

Medical professionals of many backgrounds are on Clubhouse too. Some of them, like Fagbuyi, are racing to dispel disinformation. But the effort has taken on added urgency among Black medical professionals, according to several of the participants and researchers. They said Clubhouse has become so popular and influential in the Black community that false claims about Covid-19 and its vaccines can’t be ignored.

“Black people are acting as first responders in the disinformation crisis,” said Erin Shields, a national field organizer at MediaJustice, a social justice non-profit. Some of the medical professionals said they have been bullied and harassed for their efforts.

Clubhouse declined to comment.

Fagbuyi, a former biodefense and public health expert at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said friends urged him to start using the app to counter the false claims. Clubhouse users were spreading conspiracy theories about 5G technology being linked to the virus and about the safety of the vaccine, they told him.

“They were like ‘This is bad, we need you out here,” Fagbuyi said. So, in November, Fagbuyi bought an iPhone and began working as an unpaid moderator on the app. (Clubhouse, which allows users to participate in audio chat rooms, is only available on iPhones.)

Since then, Fagbuyi said he’s worked to identify areas of Clubhouse where he can reach people who are willing to listen. But some audiences are tougher than others. The creators of certain Clubhouse rooms aren’t interested in engaging in a discussion, but rather set up to promote conspiracy theories and discredit doctors, he said.

Fagbuyi said some users have accused him of being secretly paid by the government to promote the vaccine. “There’s a learning curve to using the app,” he said. “Going in on a suicide mission is not necessary.”

Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Black people, who are 3.7 times times more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19 than White, non-Hispanics, and 2.8 times more likely to die from the disease, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coronavirus misinformation being spread in the Black community takes on heightened importance because of decades of discrimination and mistreatment by the medical community. An oft cited example is the Tuskegee syphilis study, where U.S. government doctors studied the effects of the disease on Black men, who weren’t told the truth about the research and were denied access to penicillin once it was identified as a treatment. The study, which began in 1932, went on for 40 years.

“As African Americans, we have a legitimate reason to not trust the pharmaceutical companies and various health-care industries,” said Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor, founder of the National Black Cultural Information Trust, which seeks to correct misinformation within the Black community. “But we have to make room for truth, and it’s not an excuse for platforms to just let disinformation flow so easily.”

Clubhouse, which launched last March, is live and ephemeral, making it unlike the majority of content on other social networks. But it also makes it difficult to moderate and track. The app has been downloaded almost 5 million times, with 3.7 million of those downloads happening in the last 30 days, according to the app analytics firm Apptopia.

“The experience is like talk radio meets chat room, and while there’s counter-speech, there’s also a vague moderation policy,” said Renee DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “But as the experiences of these doctors show, counter-speech can be powerful.”

While describing Clubhouse as “the new frontier” on social media, Aiwuyor said the app isn’t “really monitoring their service.”

“Anyone can pop up and host a Covid-19 conversation with little to no expert analysis, and then experts are often bashed or bullied,” she said. The harassment often spills over onto other platforms, such as Twitter, Aiwuyor said.

Some Clubhouse rooms are set up to pit doctors and scientists against anti-vaxxers in order to generate arguments and controversy, said Azza Gadir, an immunologist in Los Angeles, who has been using the app since August.

“If the rooms are badly moderated, then forget about it,” Gadir said. “It will descend into hell within 30 minutes. Sometimes it does feel like it’s for entertainment.”

Even though conversations on Clubhouse can devolve into unproductive arguments, doctors and other medical professionals said they’ve been able to have constructive conversations and even change people’s mind.

Fagbuyi said he believes his work on the app has been effective in part because hearing a person’s voice can make a conversation feel less confrontational than communicating by text on other social networks.

“It’s something about the voice, you can hear if someone is genuine or bullshitting you,” he said.

Gadir said it’s been worth it for her too. “I get messages from people who said they weren’t going to vaccinate, and then they vaccinated,” she said.

One of those people is Patrice Withers-Stephens, 38, of Dallas, Texas. At first, Withers-Stephens said she was skeptical of the vaccine and the speed at which it was developed. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around -- how do you push something through so fast?” Withers-Stephens said. She had even heard rumors about a chip inside of the vaccine, which she said made her uneasy.

But a conversation with Gadir on Clubhouse changed all of that. “She truly literally changed my mind. She helped me understand clinical trials and what the ingredients were in the vaccine,” Withers-Stephens said.

“Being a black woman, I wanted to hear from Black doctors,” she said. “Clubhouse allowed me to ask questions rather than just listen in.”

Withers-Stephens said she got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week.

“I’ve been telling people, ‘Hey, I was skeptical too, but here’s where I am now,’” she said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.