How Koo became the favorite social media app for authoritarians

Ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter in late October, more users have been looking for alternative digital spaces — led by distrust of Musk’s leadership of the company, his apparent disinterest in content moderation and user safety, and the general chaos and uncertainty surrounding Twitter’s future Platform.

One of the main concerns, especially for Liberal users, is Twitter’s return to a far-right infosphere, with once-banned commenters being reinstated en masse and new, more lax rules on bannable offenses. Unfortunately, a growing alternative is struggling with a similar perception in its country of origin, India.

For the past few months, Indian social media platform Koo has been courting users in hopes of becoming the platform most people will turn to if Twitter becomes permanently unusable. Koo is the alternative that looks most like Twitter. Its logo is a yellow bird. The name, according to the founders, resembles the sound of some birds — just like “tweet.” People can write posts up to 400 characters and have other users like, comment on, or share them.

But as Koo expands into huge countries like Brazil and keeps an eye on the American market, it still maintains a reputation for being the social media app of choice for nationalists and conservatives in India.

And while “freedom of expression” is high on her list of priorities, her willingness to comply with government requests to remove content has made her a favorite in countries like Nigeria, where Twitter was banned after a clash with authoritarian President Muhammadu Buhari.

1.4 billion people live in India. Only a fraction of them – mostly educated and wealthy citizens – speak English. The remaining 90 percent speak a variety of different languages ​​and have difficulty finding online places in their native language.

Indian entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka founded Koo in late 2019 to address this particular problem. The platform initially supported Kannada, a language spoken by approximately 47 million people in southwestern India, and quickly grew to include other widely spoken local languages: Hindi, Telegu, Marathi and Tamil. Within months of launch, it won a big cash prize given by the Indian government to national startups that aim to “serve not only the citizens of India but the world”. The award was part of a years-long government attempt to replace widely used foreign apps with Indian alternatives.

“We wanted to create something that could be used by billions of people,” co-founder Mayank Bidawatka told the Daily Dot. “Most of the world currently uses products made in the United States, and most of those products are mostly in English. So we realized we needed to create a very inclusive platform that makes everyone feel welcome in their preferred language.”

The company also hoped to create an environment that felt less toxic and politically charged than Twitter, where people would interact in a more friendly manner. For example, they advertise a “toxicity model” that automatically hides comments if they contain too many swear words or other negative tones. The platform is also designed to constantly remind users to be nice to one another.

Though Koo markets itself as a quaint, peaceful alternative to Twitter, it’s based on a philosophy that western experts on free speech and digital rights have called worrisome. It happily accommodates requests from governments in countries where Koo operates to remove content or suspend accounts – unlike Twitter, which has fought more than any other Silicon Valley company to reject requests for content removal, which it regarded as political censorship.

Koo’s ingrained policy of complying with government demands endeared it to the ruling class in both India and Nigeria. It first blew up in its home country in February 2021, when tensions between Twitter and right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi really started to escalate.

In September 2020, Modi introduced a series of laws to reform the agricultural market in a country where a large part of the population works directly or indirectly in agriculture. Millions of farmers protested these laws in cities across India for months, drawing international support from celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. The government claimed the peasants were inciting hatred and violence online, and called on Twitter to suspend or remove dozens of accounts – including one from The Caravan, a local investigative journalism criticizing Modi’s government.

Twitter initially complied, but later restored the accounts and resisted requests to remove many more.

Angered by Twitter’s stance, many prominent members of Modi’s party turned to the national alternative. Within days, several ministers, members of parliament and conservative Bollywood stars announced that they had opened accounts on Koo, calling on their millions of followers to join them. Despite repeatedly emphasizing that they considered themselves “apolitical,” the company’s leadership actively welcomed their new nationalist users.

Conservative Indian actress Kangana Ranaut is a perfect example. The actress was banned from Twitter in May 2021: the company said it had repeatedly violated its rules against “hateful behavior” by calling on the government to end alleged violence following a riotous election in West Bengal. Shortly after, Radhakrishna published a post on Koo welcoming the actress “to her new home.”

Within a few weeks, the platform reached 3 million users and received $4.1 million in new private funds. Since then, the company has tried to reach out to opposition leaders and invited them to join Koo. But “at least in India, Koo has never been able to break out of the perception of being a platform where most users espouse right-wing ideologies,” said Prateek Waghre, political director of Indian digital rights NGO Internet Freedom Foundation.

Koo’s international reputation as a platform happily complying with government orders was boosted a few months later, in June, after the Nigerian government officially banned Twitter for temporarily suspending Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at a moment of heightened political tension.

Buhari and his government had long expressed a desire to take control of Twitter, which was used primarily by journalists, activists and members of the opposition to challenge his narratives and policies. Radhakrishna soon asked his Koo supporters, “Shall we experiment with going to Nigeria?” The country has since become Koo’s second largest market, opening an office in Lagos and promoting the fact that Buhari, a former dictator, is now in the app is.

“Twitter has not respected the laws of the country,” Bidawatka told the Daily Dot. “Attempts were made to apply American laws and policies while also moderating Indian content. On the other hand, we recognized very early on that we have to respect the local laws, context and culture in every country in which we operate. Now our policy states that out of respect for the legal requirements of each individual country, we comply. If a court asks us to get rid of something by warrant, we will do so because we believe it is a legal entity that knows what it is talking about. They are people who know the local law better than we do. We cannot be in a position where we choose the laws we want to follow and those we don’t want to follow.”

Bidawatka said the company would prefer not to operate in a particular market to begin with if it believes the country’s values ​​clash with Koo’s, but that hasn’t happened yet.

According to Waghre, this approach is a bit too simplistic. “When it comes to language regulation issues, it’s much harder to say you’ll just comply with local laws than it is to say you’ll comply with local trade regulations,” he said. “A social media company can’t just say it will follow local laws because that overlooks the fact that governments sometimes abuse those laws to selectively target people. If you choose to simply make regulatory requests, you avoid or circumvent this complex ethical issue.”

And if it hopes to surpass Twitter and onboard millions of new users, Koo must decide whether to actually shed its reputation as the app of choice for authoritarian governments.


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Jaclyn Diaz

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