Indian microblogging site Koo, branded by academics as “nationalist Twitter”, is courting political parties across the country as it tries to convince potential users it is not a rightwing echo chamber.

“I want to be known as the inclusive platform that we are building towards,” co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna told the Financial Times, saying that community teams at Koo were approaching parties across the political spectrum as the social media site seeks to expand its user base.

Koo attracted a flood of rightwing politicians after a spat between Twitter and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in February 2021 over farmers’ protests against agriculture policies. New Delhi accused Twitter of allowing disinformation about the demonstrations, while the social media giant rejected demands to block journalists and protest leaders.

Twitter then banned several prominent pro-BJP accounts, including that of actor Kangana Ranaut, for violating hate speech rules.

Alleging Twitter was stifling rightwing nationalist voices, angered BJP operatives migrated to Koo. Twitter “can’t arrogate to itself the right to sit in judgment of what constitutes free speech”, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s information cell, wrote on Koo. “If you want our business, follow law of the land.”

Due to the spat between India’s government and Twitter, Koo was able to benefit from “a need for our own platform”, said Radhakrishna, a serial entrepreneur who sold his first taxi start-up to mobility group Ola.

Academics at the University of Michigan called this an “attempt to create a ‘nationalist Twitter’”.

The Koo app on a smartphone
Koo supports 10 languages and says it censors posts that demonstratively propagate hate © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

“Most of us would not have heard of Koo if it wasn’t for the great Indian exodus from Twitter,” said Trisha Ray, deputy director at the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology run by the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank. Downloads of the Koo app quadrupled, from 1.1mn in the last three months of 2020 to 4.6mn in the first quarter of the following year, according to data provider SensorTower.

Radhakrishna said people could post “whatever they want on the platform, as long as it abides by the law of the land”, amid criticism that India’s censorship laws are being “misused” by parties in power and as rival American tech giants struggle to navigate politics in the sensitive market.

Radhakrishna argued that unspoken rules which govern conduct in public should be practised online. In India “if I’m in front of 100 people in person, I’m not going to say something thinking that it is inappropriate and I will probably land in some sort of trouble . . . The same filter of what I can and can’t say in a country should apply online as well.”

What can be said online in India is governed by broad laws, under which the government can demand that platforms block content. “The vagueness of the law is what leads to it being misused by whatever party is in power,” said Ray. “It can be leveraged based on narrow political interests as opposed to specific threats and harms.”

But the BJP association also led to problems for Koo, Ray said. “The intellectual space that Koo caters to is very narrow,” Ray added, saying that socially conservative and “perhaps anti-minority” viewpoints are most prominent.

And although Ray “wouldn’t say that Koo was doing it by design”, she said she saw “really hateful content being posted”, potentially affecting Koo’s ability to attract money. Radhakrishna said posts were moderated by machine-learning algorithms and could be reported by users.

The government tightened rules in February 2021, making social media platform employees in India personally liable if their company did not comply with official takedown orders. Twitter began a legal challenge to this three months ago, arguing many blocking orders under the new rules had been excessive, targeting posts that were political, critical or newsworthy.

Second-term prime minister Modi stoked his popularity through Facebook and Twitter. But once in power he made self-reliance a priority, from manufacturing to technology, and promoted national champions. Bangalore-based Koo, whose logo is a yellow bird and allows 400-character posts, won a 2020 government competition for homegrown apps.

Koo supports 10 languages and says it censors posts that demonstratively propagate hate.

“We want to be neutral, unbiased, and not bring any of our thoughts on what is right or wrong,” said Radhakrishna. Because Koo does not curate posts, “the app shows the true mood on the platform”, he added.

Radhakrishna said Koo had received some government takedown requests — “standard requests that get sent to all social media” — and its policy is to follow them, while making the removal transparent to users.

Having raised $44.5mn from investors, Koo is one of several microblogging sites to have emerged after Twitter’s critics — most prominently former US president Donald Trump — accused the platform of silencing rightwing views. None of these platforms, such as Gab, Parler and Trump’s own Truth Social, have garnered much of a following in comparison to Twitter.

Koo was not initially used by Indian politicians — it even had an early Chinese investor, despite rancour between Beijing and New Delhi — and Radhakrishna said the Indic-languages platform was designed to enable an inclusive exchange of ideas.

Downloads have slumped this year after lockdowns were eased, but Radhakrishna said Koo had 10-12mn monthly active users in India. Twitter had 24mn as of January, according to data provider Statista. “In just 2.5 years we are close to half the size of our competitor,” Radhakrishna said.

Koo has 250 employees and Radhakrishna anticipates raising “our next larger round of funding by end of next year”. It plans to eventually make money through “advertising and in-app transactions”, he said.

Koo is also being promoted in Nigeria, where many members of the government joined the platform after Twitter was banned. Several local languages in the west African nation will soon be supported, the site says.

“We do have plans of going global,” said Radhakrishna. “There’s 80 per cent of the world that actually doesn’t speak English and they don’t have a voice on the open internet.”


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