In early 2021, the audio-only social media app Clubhouse allowed users in mainland China to enter chat rooms and talk freely to the world—including American journalists and people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, areas usually off-limits to Chinese citizens. For a brief period, users of the app had an uncensored glimpse of the internet beyond the Great Firewall.
But Beijing moved quickly to crush the tiny, iPhone-based revolt, and Clubhouse chat rooms were banned on Feb. 8. A Stanford research team later found that a Shanghai-based startup called Agora had access to Clubhouse users’ audio files and metadata, potentially giving the Chinese Communist Party direct access to their conversations.
Democracies are discovering they can fight fire with fire, using their own digital tools to defend freedom and undermine autocracy.