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Monday, March 20, 2023

India’s Twitter Alternative, Koo, Releases With Grand Ambitions

Is Koo, an Indian microblogging software, capable of defeating Twitter?

According to Mayank Bidawatka, co-founder of Koo, the company intends to exceed Twitter’s 25 million-strong user base in India this year.

By the end of 2021, it has surpassed 20 million downloads in India.

“We currently provide services in ten languages, including English. We’d want to cover all 22 of India’s official languages this year “He told reporters at the company’s headquarters in Bangalore, a tech powerhouse in the southern state of Karnataka.

Following a spat between the Indian government and the US microblogging network, Koo was thrown into the limelight last year as an alternative to Twitter.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered Twitter to remove supposedly inflammatory accounts, which it did at first but subsequently reinstated, claiming “insufficient grounds.” The standoff raged on, with the Indian government threatening legal action against the company’s employees.

This was on top of a lingering disagreement over new digital laws, which raised worries about free speech and privacy. WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming that the guidelines will force it to breach privacy laws.

A rush of cabinet members and lawmakers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) relocated to Koo overnight, angered by Twitter’s intransigence and claimed refusal to comply with digital norms. Mr Modi, who has a sizable Twitter following, has kept put.

In early 2020, Koo, which caters mostly to non-English consumers in India, launched. When Twitter was prohibited in Nigeria in 2021, it extended to the country. By the end of 2022, it hopes to have 100 million users.

Mr Bidawatka co-founded Koo with Aparmeya Radhakrishna, an angel investor and entrepreneur whose ride-sharing startup TaxiForSure was purchased by the Indian firm Ola in 2015 for $200 million (£147 million). Vokal, a knowledge-sharing portal in Indian languages, is also managed by the two.

Koo has attracted cricketers and Bollywood stars in the previous year, and the company expects the number of “eminent accounts,” which now stands at 5,000, to treble by the end of the year.

However, it has been accused of magnifying official propaganda and allowing anti-Muslim hate speech to flourish.

In a fiercely split India, social media has become yet another battleground, and followers of the Hindu nationalist BJP have long been accused of mercilessly mocking people viewed as critical or opposing to Mr Modi.

Hate speech and racist or harmful content are expressly prohibited by Koo’s standards. Moderation is difficult, as it is on other social media sites, like Twitter, because “koos” (its equivalent of tweets) are created every second.

Mr Bidawatka believes the problem may be remedied by relying on technology rather than human moderators, as well as integrating the user community in flagging poisonous messages.

He acknowledges that there are “a lot of BJP guys” on Koo, but denies that it is an echo chamber of anti-liberal sentiments. He goes on to say that the app is home to opposition leaders from 19 different parties, including state chief ministers from the major opposition Congress party.

“Some early adopters will always exist. However, how you begin and what happens first should not determine your entire trip “Mr. Bidawatka expressed his thoughts. “There is no need for us to produce something that just a small portion of the people will utilize as entrepreneurs.”

However, according to Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, there is a clear rationale for Mr Modi’s government to promote Koo as a homegrown, even “nationalist” alternative to Twitter in order to establish a “soft landing spot” for itself in the event that the need to ban Twitter arises in the future.

Mr Pahwa claims that, similar to China’s “splinternet,” where the government controls cyberspace, India has been fighting for greater digital sovereignty and control of the internet for years.

He adds that these broader developments “would give further tailwinds to Indian-owned platforms (like Koo).”

He also believes that “global big tech” will find it “increasingly difficult to grow in India” due to data and security restrictions.

Koo feels that if it can solve the problem of how to effectively control material while maintaining a safe place for users, something Twitter has long battled with, it has a good chance of succeeding.

It will, however, need to make a more deliberate attempt to recruit users with a wide range of political perspectives. Liberal or anti-establishment voices may be hesitant to abandon Twitter or to have accounts on both platforms for the time being.

Mr Pahwa believes that the app’s necessity for identification using a mobile phone number would be a difficulty since, although it will allow Koo to better control material, it will “take away the comfort of anonymity” that Twitter provides its users.

Nonetheless, Koo’s unique focus on creating a product for non-native English users makes it a fascinating offering.

The startup has experimented a lot in recent months, such as allowing users to ‘koo’ in various languages at the same time on one screen.

Mr Bidawatka claims that Bollywood celebrities, who often engage with their followers on social media in English, utilize this function to reach out to a larger audience in different languages.

In India, Koo competes with ShareChat, a significantly larger competitor in terms of user base. It will double its staff to 500 workers as it expands across Indian languages.

Mr Bidawatka hopes to extend the platform to nations outside of India where English is not the major language, buoyed by the site’s success in Nigeria.

“Because of its vast population and under-penetration of existing platforms, Southeast Asia is interesting. That is, without a doubt, on the cards “Mr. Bidawatka explains.

“English is spoken by just 20% of the world’s population; the remaining 80% does not speak English,” he continues. “We have access to the entire market.”

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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