India’s local ‘Twitter’ woos political parties to shed their nationalist tag

Indian microblogging site Koo, dubbed by academics a ‘nationalist Twitter’, is courting political parties across the country as it tries to convince would-be users it’s not an echo chamber of right.

“I want to be known as the inclusive platform we’re building towards,” co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna told the Financial Times, saying Koo’s community teams approach parties from all political backgrounds as the media site social seeks to broaden its user base. base.

Koo attracted a flood of right-wing politicians after a Twitter spat with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in February 2021 over farmers’ protests against agricultural policies. New Delhi has accused Twitter of enabling disinformation about the protests, while the social media giant has rejected requests from journalists and protest leaders to block it.

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

Alleging that Twitter was drowning out right-wing nationalist voices, angry BJP operatives migrated to Koo. Twitter “cannot arrogate to itself the right to judge what constitutes freedom of expression,” Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s news unit, wrote on Koo. “If you want our stuff, follow the law of the land.”

Due to the Indian government’s spat with Twitter, Koo was able to benefit from “a need for our own platform,” said Radhakrishna, a serial entrepreneur who sold his first taxi startup to the Ola mobility group.

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

Koo supports 10 languages ​​and says it censors posts that blatantly spread hate © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

“Most of us wouldn’t have heard of Koo had it not been for Twitter’s great Indian exodus,” said Trisha Ray, deputy director of the Center for Security, Strategy and Technology run by the Observer Research Foundation, a research group. reflection. . Downloads of the Koo app quadrupled from 1.1 million in the last three months of 2020 to 4.6 million in the first quarter of the following year, according to data provider SensorTower.

Radhakrishna says people can post ‘anything they want on the platform, as long as it follows the law of the land’, amid criticism that India’s censorship laws are ‘abused’ by ruling parties and as rival US tech giants struggle to navigate politics in the sensitive market.

Radhakrishna argued that the unspoken rules that govern conduct in public should be practiced online. In India “if I’m in front of 100 people in person, I’m not going to say something thinking it’s inappropriate and I’ll probably land in some kind of boredom. . . The same filter of what I can and cannot say in a country should also apply online.

What can be said online in India is governed by general laws, under which the government can require platforms to block content. “The vagueness of the law is what leads to its misuse by any party in power,” Ray said. “It can be operated based on narrow political interests as opposed to specific threats and harms.”

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

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

The government tightened the rules in February 2021, making employees of social media platforms in India personally liable if their company fails to comply with official takedown orders. Twitter launched a legal challenge over the matter three months ago, arguing that many blocking orders under the new rules had been excessive, targeting political, critical or newsworthy messages.

Second-term prime minister Modi fueled his popularity via 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 messages, won a government competition in 2020 for local apps.

Koo supports 10 languages ​​and says it censors posts that blatantly spread hate.

“We want to be neutral, impartial and not bring our thoughts to what is right or wrong,” Radhakrishna said. Because Koo doesn’t handle messages, “the app shows the true mood on the platform,” he added.

Radhakrishna said Koo has received takedown requests from the government – “standard requests that are sent to all social media outlets” – and his policy is to follow them, while making the removal transparent to users.

Having raised $44.5 million from investors, Koo is one of many microblogging sites to emerge after Twitter critics – primarily former US President Donald Trump – accused the platform of silencing people. right-wing views. None of these platforms, such as Trump’s Gab, Parler, and Truth Social, have garnered many followers compared to Twitter.

Koo was not initially used by Indian politicians – it even had an early Chinese investor, despite resentment between Beijing and New Delhi – and Radhakrishna said the Indian-language platform was designed to allow an exchange of ideas inclusive.

Downloads have plummeted this year after lockdowns eased, but Radhakrishna said Koo has 10-12 million monthly active users in India. Twitter had 24 minutes in January, data provider says Statistical. “In just 2.5 years, we are nearly half the size of our competitor,” Radhakrishna said.

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

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

“We intend to globalize,” Radhakrishna said. “There are 80% of the world’s population who don’t speak English and have no voice on the open internet.”

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