Since Elon Musk bought Twitter in late October, a growing number of users have been looking for alternative digital spaces—led by mistrust in Musk’s management of the company, his apparent disinterest in content moderation and user safety, and the general chaos and insecurity around the platform’s future.
One of the main concerns, especially for liberal users, is Twitter’s reversion to a far-right infosphere, with once-banned commentators being reinstated en masse and new, laxer rules on bannable offenses. Unfortunately, a growing alternative is struggling with a similar perception in its country of origin, India.
In the past few months, Indian social media platform Koo has been courting users, hoping to become the platform most people will turn to in case Twitter becomes permanently unusable. Koo is the alternative that looks the most like Twitter. Its logo is a yellow bird. The name, according to the founders, resembles the sound some birds make—just like “tweet.” People can write 400-character posts and have other users like, comment, or share them.
But, as Koo expands to huge countries like Brazil and starts eyeing the American market, it still maintains a reputation as being the social media app of choice for nationalists and conservatives in India.
And, despite placing “free speech” on top of its priorities, its willingness to conform to governmental content takedown requests has made it a favorite in countries like Nigeria, where Twitter was banned after clashing with authoritarian president Muhammadu Buhari.
India is home to 1.4 billion people. Only a fraction of them—mostly made up of the most educated and wealthy citizens—speak English. The remaining 90 percent speak a multitude of different languages, and they struggle to find online spaces in their mother tongue.
Indian entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka founded Koo in late 2019 to tackle this specific issue. The platform initially supported Kannada, a language spoken by approximately 47 million people in southwestern India, and it quickly grew to include other widely spoken local languages: Hindi, Telegu, Marathi, and Tamil. Within a few months of launching, it won a large cash prize awarded by the Indian government to national startups aiming to “serve not only citizens within India, but also the world.” The prize was part of a year-long governmental endeavor to substitute widely used foreign apps with Indian alternatives.
“We wanted to create something that can be used by billions of people,” co-founder Mayank Bidawatka told the Daily Dot. “Most of the world is currently using products that are created in the United States, and most of these products are largely in English. So we realized that we had to create a very inclusive platform that makes everyone feel welcome in their language of preference.”
The company also hoped to foster an environment that would feel less toxic and politically charged than Twitter, where people would interact in a more friendly manner. To this end, for example, they advertise a “toxicity model” that auto-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 each other.
Despite marketing itself as a quaint, pacific alternative to Twitter, Koo is based on a philosophy Western experts on freedom of expression and digital rights say is concerning. It is happy to comply with requests from governments in countries Koo operates in to take down content or suspend accounts—as opposed to Twitter, which has fought more than any other Silicon Valley company to rebuff content takedown requests it considered to be political censorship.
Koo’s deeply held policy of abiding by government requests made it popular among the ruling class both in India and Nigeria. It first blew up in its home country in February 2021, when tensions between Twitter and Indian right-wing prime minister Narendra Modi truly began to escalate.
In September 2020, Modi introduced a series of laws reforming the agricultural market in a country where a large chunk of the population works directly or indirectly in farming. Millions of farmers protested these laws for months in cities across India, obtaining international support from celebrities such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. The government claimed the farmers were inciting hatred and violence online and asked Twitter to suspend or remove dozens of accounts—including one belonging to The Caravan, a local investigative journalism outlet critical of Modi’s government.
Twitter initially complied, but later reinstated the accounts and opposed requests to remove many more.
Angered by Twitter’s stance, many prominent members of Modi’s party turned to the national alternative. Within a few days, several ministers, members of Parliament, and conservative Bollywood stars announced they opened accounts on Koo, calling their millions of followers to join them. Despite underlining repeatedly that they considered themselves “apolitical,” the company’s leadership actively saluted its new nationalist users.
Conservative Indian actress Kangana Ranaut is a perfect example. The actress was banned from Twitter in May 2021: the company said she repeatedly breached its rules against “hateful conduct” by calling for the government to stop alleged violence after an inflammatory election in West Bengal. Soon after, Radhakrishna published a post on Koo welcoming the actress “to her new home.”
In the span of a few weeks, the platform reached 3 million users and obtained $4.1 million in new private funding. The company has since tried to branch out to opposition leaders, inviting them to join Koo as well. But “at least in India, Koo was never able to break out of the perception of being a platform where most of the users subscribe to right-wing ideologies,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at Indian digital rights NGO Internet Freedom Foundation.
Koo’s international reputation as a platform that was happy to comply with government orders was reinforced a few months later, in June, after the government of Nigeria officially banned Twitter for temporarily suspending Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in a moment of heightened political tension.
Buhari and his administration had long expressed a desire to impose control over Twitter, which was mostly used by journalists, activists, and members of the opposition to challenge his narratives and policies. Radhakrishna soon asked his Koo followers: “Should we experiment with going into Nigeria?” The country has since become Koo’s second biggest market, opening an office in Lagos and advertising the fact that Buhari, a former dictator, is now on the app.
“Twitter wasn’t respecting the laws of the land,” Bidawatka told the Daily Dot. “It was trying to use American laws and policies while moderating Indian content. On the other hand, we realized very early that we needed to respect local laws, context, and culture in any country we operated in. Now, out policy says that we stand by the legal rules of each particular country, out of respect for their country. If a court asks us to take something down through a legal order, we will comply with that, because our assumption is that it’s a legal body that knows what it’s talking about. It’s people who know the local law better than us. We can’t be in a position where we choose the laws that we want to follow and the ones we don’t want to follow.”
Bidawatka said the company would rather choose not to operate in a certain market from the start if it believes the country’s values clash with Koo’s, but that hasn’t happened yet.
According to Waghre, this approach is a little too simplistic. “When it comes to issues of regulating speech, saying that you’re just going to comply with local laws is much harder than saying you’ll follow local commercial regulations,” he said. “A social media company cannot simply say they will be following local laws, because that overlooks the fact that governments sometimes abuse those laws to selectively persecute people. If you decide to simply apply governmental requests, you’re just avoiding or sidestepping that complex ethical question.”
And if it hopes to surpass Twitter and bring aboard millions of new users, then Koo has to decide whether it actually wants to shed its reputation as the darling app for authoritarian governments.