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In India, a government-friendly social media network challenges Twitter

Members of the All India Students Federation teach farmers how to use social media during a demonstration in Ghaziabad, India, in February. Their Twitter campaign against the government accelerated a move by Indian officials to switch to a homegrown social media platform called Koo. (Pradeep Gaur/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

BANGALORE, India — Earlier this year, Twitter and the Indian government were locked in a bitter showdown.

The government, incensed by Twitter’s refusal to take down posts by farmers agitating against agricultural reforms, accused the company of supporting violent protesters — and threatened to jail Twitter employees. The company’s executives hit back, arguing they were defending the right to free speech, a stance they have largely adhered to for a decade.

The winner of the dispute? A little-known Indian social media app called Koo.

In the months since Twitter’s feud with the government, a parade of Indian cabinet ministers, government agencies and right-wing celebrities have opened accounts on Koo to support a homegrown competitor, bringing millions of Indian followers with them. The sudden spike in visibility has brought Koo a $30 million investment round from Tiger Global and Accel, two U.S. venture capital funds that once bet on another young social media start-up: Facebook. Koo grew from 40 employees at the beginning of the year to more than 200; its app has been downloaded 9 million times, mostly in India but increasingly in Nigeria too.

With its bird logo and scrolling feeds of 400-character posts, called “Koos,” the social network takes obvious cues from its established rival. But Aprameya Radhakrishna, Koo’s co-founder, has positioned his start-up as something decidedly more nationalist and populist — an anti-Twitter.

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Koo’s appeal, Radhakrishna says, lies in its distinct feeds catering to vernacular languages such as Hindi, whereas Twitter is dominated by English, the language of the global elite. There’s also a profound difference in philosophy, Radhakrishna says: Koo would never defy a government order to take down content, much less censor or silence a national leader — as Twitter did to U.S. President Donald Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“Users hate it if social media companies do not act as a neutral platform,” Radhakrishna said on a recent morning in Koo’s temporary offices, a two-story house in a leafy Bangalore suburb. “They ask: Did I elect you? What makes you the flag bearer of free speech? What makes you the judge of what’s right and wrong for this country?”

A decade after Twitter emerged into a globe-spanning hotbed of speech that helped fuel protest movements including the Arab Spring, the rise of Koo is a reflection of the global reckoning over social media. Companies including Facebook and Twitter are frequently criticized for not doing enough to curb hate speech and misinformation. But they are also increasingly pressured by governments to censor dissidents, triggering questions about what constitutes unlawful speech, and when the companies should comply with the removal requests or resist them.

In India, a vast market pursued by many of the world’s biggest tech companies, Koo has offered an alternative, more-pliant vision of social media. While it isn’t likely to overtake Twitter anytime soon, it’s been embraced by the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing supporters at a moment when many countries, including the United States, are debating whether Silicon Valley’s influence should be checked.

“It’s not just India, but governments across the world are saying, ‘We are uncomfortable with American technology giants making important decisions for us,’” said Anupam Chander, an expert on technology regulation at Georgetown Law School. “The problem is, that’s often because the platforms are taking down speech that the governments like, and they’re leaving up speech that the governments don’t like.”

The struggle to control social media has been particularly charged in India, where Modi’s government has been accused of muzzling dissent online, in the press and on university campuses. Under his Hindu nationalist administration, India’s religious divide has often become fraught, and online hate speech against India’s Muslim minority has proliferated amid weak content moderation on platforms such as Facebook.

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Meanwhile, Modi has embraced social media and technology like few politicians in Indian history. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to a resounding victory in 2014 thanks in part to its social media strategy. Modi writes several times a day to 70 million followers in Twitter posts that are amplified by droves of pro-government supporters.

In January, the government encountered a formidable, social media-savvy opponent. Protesting farmers were gathering around New Delhi, clashing with police and waging a Twitter campaign accusing Modi of committing atrocities. The pop star Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, tweeted in support of the farmers, infuriating the government. Indian officials, alleging that the movement was backed by foreign forces and posed a threat to law and order, demanded that Twitter block hundreds of accounts, including those of opposition politicians and the Caravan, a news magazine known for its hard-hitting investigations and critical coverage of the government.

When Twitter refused to block some accounts, it further enraged government officials, who demanded that the platform comply with Indian laws, irrespective of its own rules. In the ensuing days, prominent BJP ministers and politicians, as well as the government think tank, began announcing they were opening accounts on Koo.

Bizay Sonkar Shastri, a BJP spokesman, said the mass migration wasn’t coordinated. But “we’re a disciplined party with party workers who will act accordingly if they are feeling that something is against our party or government,” he added. “Social media companies should be a neutral forum, not play an anti-government part.”

Founded in late 2019, Koo launched in March 2020 and soon afterward joined a government contest that sought to identify and fund promising, homegrown start-ups. By that summer, the app was being mentioned in public speeches by Modi, who has often touted his vision to build a “Self-Reliant India.”

But it wasn’t until the BJP government’s feud with Twitter that Koo took off, said Trisha Ray, a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “It was a happy accident that they rode this wave of government officials and right-wing Twitter migrating,” she said.

Today, Koo is run as an independent, private company, Radhakrishna says. But to scroll through its Hindi-language feed is to peer into a gathering for India’s Hindu right.

Ordinary citizens post tributes to Ram, a beloved Hindu deity. BJP lawmakers and ministries share updates about accomplishments large and small. Celebrities such as Baba Ramdev, a yoga guru-turned-billionaire entrepreneur who counts Modi as a close friend, maintain popular accounts. Republic TV, a conservative network, sometimes displays Koo hashtags in chyrons, so viewers can weigh in on Koo alongside the shouting matches unfolding on camera.

Radhakrishna, who describes himself as apolitical, says the slant of his platform is not by design. Because of its emphasis on local languages, he argues, Koo naturally attracts a user base that more closely mirrors India — where Modi has a 70 percent approval rating — compared with the English-language newspapers or English-dominated Twitter, where there is more criticism of the prime minister.

“There is a certain part of India — the topmost English speakers who are educated, rich enough, connected to the West — who are very attuned to matters like freedom of speech,” said Radhakrishna. “But go to the hinterlands and people will say, ‘Boss, give me a job.’ When you apply developed-world notions to a developing country, there will be a mismatch.”

Before he became a successful entrepreneur, Radhakrishna says, he was part of India’s “aspirational” class: He grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Gujarat — Modi’s home state — and worked hard to break into management consulting. Today, as Koo has grown, he and his co-founder, Mayank Bidawatka, frequently position themselves in the role of the local underdog while criticizing what they see as overreach by Silicon Valley executives.

When Twitter banned Kangana Ranaut, a Bollywood actress and vocal Modi supporter, for “hateful conduct” in May, Ranaut decried what she called a White mentality of feeling entitled to “enslave” and censor Indians. Radhakrishna publicly applauded her for coming “home” to Koo, where she opened an account.

The company’s impact has also been felt far beyond India. In June, when Twitter removed a post by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, implying that he would wage “war” against separatists, its government responded by banning Twitter from the country. “I quickly put out a tweet and a Koo saying, ‘Should we experiment with going into Nigeria?’” Radhakrishna recalled. “I was going with the flow.”

Within hours, Nigerian officials were opening accounts on Koo. Before long, Koo was promoting Nigerian government accounts and splashing a photo of Buhari, a military dictator in the 1980s who turned to democratic politics during the past decade and won two popular elections, in an advertisement: “Exclusive updates from him only on Koo app!”

In August, Koo opened an office in Lagos.

In the front yard of his Bangalore house-turned-office, Radhakrishna spoke bullishly about his company’s prospects across the developing world.

“We’ll expand into Africa, then Southeast Asia, South America, Eastern Europe — all this in the next couple years,” he said. “We want to go very aggressive in terms of giving a voice to everybody who doesn’t have one on the Internet.”

Danielle Paquette in Dakar, Senegal, and Taniya Dutta contributed to this report.

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