Black doctors are being targeted on Clubhouse after trying to educate people about the COVID-19 vaccine
- Doctors are using the Clubhouse app to encourage people to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
- But numerous doctors told Insider they were harassed and bullied after discussing the vaccine.
- Black doctors in particular have faced substantial pushback, adding to the biases they already face.
Now, doctors and healthcare professionals are speaking out publicly about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. One platform they've zeroed in on is Clubhouse, the invite-only voice-app that has attracted prominent users like Kevin Hart, Oprah Winfrey, and Tiffany Haddish.
The app allows people to create rooms around specific topics where anyone can join as an audience member. If someone wants to be a part of the conversation, they can virtually raise their hand and be added as a speaker.
But this format, coupled with a dearth of moderation, has opened the door for harassment against Black doctors who are fighting a battle against vaccine distrust, particularly in the Black community, according to five healthcare professionals who spoke with Insider.
When doctors have spoken out about the vaccine and challenged misinformation about COVID-19, they've been met with a virtual mob that bullies, spreads conspiracy theories, and in at least one case, allegedly sends death threats.
Doctors faced a wide range of harassment on Clubhouse
Dr. Daniel B. Fagbuyi, an emergency physician based in Washington D.C., was initially hesitant to join the app. It's only available for iPhones, and he uses an Android.
But after hearing about misinformation on the platform - and users who were unsure whether they should trust it - he bought an iPhone and decided to speak up as an authoritative voice providing science-based information.
Fagbuyi told Insider that he received messages of encouragement after he spoke in some of the rooms. But he was also met with conspiracy theories, including unsubstantiated accusations that he was being paid by the government or pharmaceutical companies to push people to get the vaccine.
Dr. Cindy Duke, a Las Vegas-based virologist, microbiologist, and immunologist, has spoken on numerous Clubhouse panels about the COVID-19 vaccine. Her experiences echoed Fagbuyi's.
"We had a lot of misinformation we were called on to debunk," Duke told Insider. She said she had to talk about hydroxychloroquine and intravenous bleach, neither of which were endorsed by medical authorities in the US. (Former President Trump previously touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, and once publicly wondered whether injecting disinfectants could treat the disease.)
Fagbuyi told Insider he also battled misinformation in the form of unfounded recommendations. He said Clubhouse's audio-only format allows users to easily claim that certain evidence exists when it really doesn't. A "study is not 'my cousin or two of my friends said this,'" he said.
The medical professionals who spoke with Insider said they are not being paid for providing medical information on Clubhouse. They have all mentioned they are doing so because they are trying to do their part in making sure credible scientific data is accessible to everyone.
A Clubhouse influencer has advocated for eating fruit over engaging with contemporary medicine
Chaka Clarke, a holistic influencer with over a million Instagram followers and 15,000 Clubhouse followers, has been one of the most vocal personalities spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine on Clubhouse, according to doctors who spoke with Insider.
Dr. Jessica Isom, a community psychiatrist, Dr. Italo Brown, an emergency physician, and Dr. Aya Osman, a neuroscientist, also said Clarke has accused doctors of being "paid government agents."
In response to questions about this and other incidents, Clarke said his comments were taken out of context.
Clarke told Insider that he believes he was the one who was being bullied. He also denied spreading "information about the vaccine."
He continued, "There's such a disparate and disingenuous reasoning... where all of the people we spoke to, who are medical professionals have only tried to explore the methods that have been pushed forth by a massive pharmaceutical industry that hasn't been fair to Africans."
Clarke is the founder of a fruit-selling business called "Fruits n' Rootz," which offers fruit boxes that can range from $30 to $190.
Isom and Noor Rai, a fourth-year medical student told Insider they've heard Clarke encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables rather than engage with what Clarke categorized as "Western medicine."
"I was saying that because people should eat fruit," Clarke told Insider. "Not 'people should eat fruit and not take medicine.' Personally, I don't take medicine, haven't taken medicine, haven't been sick for the last 10 years because I have a healthy and balanced diet."
On social media, Clarke has posted memes and other material discouraging people from getting the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging the consumption of fruit to boost the immune system. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns that "dietary supplements aren't meant to treat or prevent COVID-19."
"Oftentimes when you meet people, particularly those who have an anti-vaccine message, the way they send the message home is by increasing fear," Duke told Insider. "They use fear as a tactic under the guise of information which is actually misinformation."
A medical student became the target of a Clubhouse mob
On January 2, Clarke faced suspension from Clubhouse after being reported for spreading misinformation. He claimed in a since-deleted Twitter thread it was because of "con [doctors]" that he called "self-righteous, jealous mfs" and posted screenshots of the three doctors' Clubhouse profiles and a vaccine education room.
He continued, "What I wanna know is if things are as bad as stated, why the f--- do Black doctors have all the time in the world, every day, to be telling black people reasons why they should take European poison on Clubhouse? Shouldn't you be at work? Ahh I forgot you're being paid to trick us."
After his short suspension, Clarke returned to Clubhouse.
Isom, Brown, and Osman told Insider they witnessed Clarke launch an attack on Clubhouse against a medical student, whose name has not been publicized in order to prevent further harassment.
Clarke told Insider it was in self-defense because she and the group of people that reported him were "weaponizing the report function."
On January 12, Isom said the medical student told her Clarke posted her profile on his Instagram account. The medical student received over 50 messages on Instagram, including death threats, Isom told Insider.
According to Isom, the woman said that she and a group of people decided Clarke was dangerous and reported him for misinformation. Clarke confirmed to Insider he posted screenshots of her profile on Instagram, but said he took it down after learning about the backlash she received.
On January 13, Isom said she was in a room with the medical student when actress and comedienne Tiffany Haddish joined. Isom described her as "confrontational" and disruptive.
Haddish told Insider that she was going into the room to defend Clarke. "I said, 'You have been creating rooms using this man's name and slandering him. You have his name on your profile telling people to report him' and before I could tell her that was against Clubhouse rules, she kicked me out of the room."
Clarke and supporters later gathered in a room called "Clubhouse Bullying" to address the bullying Clarke said he was facing on the app. He told the virtual room attended by over 2,500 people that he was made out to be "evil."
According to Isom and Osman, the medical student joined the "bullying" room and asked to be left alone. Osman said some of the people in the room laughed at the medical student and joked that she was "mentally unstable." Isom told Insider, "She was on stage crying, saying how she didn't anything to do with this and she was overwhelmed."
The Twitter hashtag "CHBullying" was initially used to defend Clarke, but others soon began using it to express their discomfort over how the medical student was treated and demand that Clubhouse take action.
Clubhouse did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
Doctors on Clubhouse have set out to set the record straight since they joined the app
The above cases illustrate what can happen if healthcare professionals dedicate their time to calling out misinformation - a draining and often thankless task.
"This is all a result of the medical injustices our community has experienced and still experiences to this very day," Osman told Insider. "The incidents on Clubhouse highlight the magnitude of mistrust which we need to address."
Duke, Brown, and Osman all mentioned Black Americans' mistrust of the American medical system - largely stemming from historical examples of severe mistreatment - as a reason for vaccine hesitancy amongst some Black Americans.
But they also noted the bias Black doctors face every day, especially Black women doctors. "You name the bias, we're fighting it every day," Duke told Insider.
Stat News conducted a study that found that "1 in 4 physicians who use social media reported being personally attacked." Vaccine advocacy was the most common reason. Treatment was worse for women and people of color, the study said, because of the added pressures of sexism and racism.
Isom said she believed her race and gender contributed to her harassment.
"From witnessing other instances on Clubhouse, where Black women are disrespected, talked over, not believed despite having a considerable expertise in ways that clearly are shown that there's racist, gendered lens through which they're being received."
Despite the pushback, all five doctors said they don't plan to leave the app anytime soon.
"I think it's a great place to have this dialogue, as is evidenced by the multiple DMs that I've received," Fagbuyi told Insider.
He described Clubhouse as "a microcosm" of contemporary society. "People push back on doctors and science because we didn't have great leadership in place so it's an example of what's going on in the real world," he said.
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