NEW DELHI — In early February, politicians from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party started signing up for a social network that almost nobody had heard of.
“I am now on Koo,” India’s commerce minister posted on Twitter to his nearly 10 million followers. “Connect with me on this Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates.” Millions of people, most of them BJP supporters, followed, and the Twitter clone became an instant hit, installed by more than 2 million people over 10 days earlier this month, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower.
The timing wasn’t coincidental. For days, India’s government had been locked in a fierce tug-of-war with Twitter, which defied a legal order to block accounts critical of India’s Hindu nationalist government, including those belonging to journalists and an investigative news magazine. In response, India’s IT ministry threatened to send Twitter officials to jail. Amid the standoff, government officials promoted Koo as a nationalist alternative, free from American influence.
The site, which bills itself as “the voice of India in Indian languages” is almost exactly like Twitter, except “Koos” are restricted to 400 characters, the trending topics section is filled with government propaganda, and the logo is a yellow, not blue, bird.
More troublingly, on Koo, Hindu supremacism runs wild, and hate speech against Muslims, India’s largest minority, flows freely, driven by some of the government’s most hardcore supporters.
A BJP party worker posted a poll asking followers to choose from four denigrating labels for Muslims, including “anti-nationals” and “jihadi dogs.” A person whose bio says he teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, a top engineering college whose graduates are coveted by Silicon Valley, shared a hateful comic strip depicting Muslim men as members of a bloodthirsty mob. Some people shared conspiracy theories about Muslims spitting in people’s food to spread disease, while others shared news stories about crimes committed by people with Muslim names in attempts to demonize an entire religion. One person warned Muslims not to follow him and called them slurs. “I hate [them],” one of his posts said.
As the global internet splinters, and mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter square off against nation states and fitfully crack down on hate speech, nationalist alternatives are springing up to host it, something that experts say is a growing trend.
“This content wants to find new homes,” evelyn douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies global regulation of online speech, told BuzzFeed News. Hate speech, disinformation, harassment, and incitement that mainstream platforms have been grappling with for years are particularly problematic on platforms like Koo, she said, because those sites come under less scrutiny. “These problems come to every platform in the end,” douek said, “but with the proliferation of these alternatives, there’s likely to be far less attention and pressure on them. It also creates the possibility that there will be a global internet that has one kind of discourse, and completely alternative conversations happening on national platforms in parallel.”
Aprameya Radhakrishna, Koo’s cofounder and CEO, told BuzzFeed News that his site was not intended as a vehicle for hatred or designed to be an ideological echo chamber.
“You can’t moderate every piece of content at scale,” he said.
Radhakrishna is a Bangalore-based entrepreneur who sold a ride-hailing startup to Ola, India’s Uber rival, in 2015 for $200 million. He launched Koo in March last year. Earlier this month, as downloads surged, the company raised $4.1 million from investors, including former Infosys cofounder Mohandas Pai, a vocal supporter of the Modi government.
Koo doesn’t have a moderation team, Radhakrishna said. Instead, the platform relies on people to flag content they think is problematic. A team only looks at pieces of content that Radhakrishna calls “exceptions.”
“Even Facebook and Twitter are still figuring moderation out,” Radhakrishna said. “We are a 10-month-old company. We are working on our policies.” He added that he believed expressing thoughts wasn’t a problem until it led to violence.
“We won’t take action against something just because we feel like it,” he said. “It will be taken based on the laws of the land.”
A small section titled “Rules and Conduct” buried in the app’s terms and conditions forbids people from posting content that “is invasive of another’s privacy,” “hateful,” “racially” or “ethnically objectionable,” or “disparaging.”
Despite the comparisons to Parler, which positioned itself as a conservative alternative to Twitter and Facebook in the US, Radhakrishna insists that his app is apolitical. “We would love for anybody who wants to adopt the platform to adopt it,” he said. “Politics isn’t the only aspect of India. The platform is made for expression and expressing anything.”
More than a dozen Indian government departments now use Koo. Earlier this month, the country’s IT ministry, the government department that threatened Twitter officials with jail, posted a statement on Koo expressing displeasure about Twitter hours before it posted the same statement on Twitter, the department’s platform of choice for official announcements.
Inside Twitter, which counts India among its fastest-growing global markets, employees are keeping a watchful eye over Koo. “It’s definitely on our radar,” one employee who requested anonymity, told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know yet if it will be a threat, but we are watching.”
Radhakrishna said the company’s homegrown origins gave it an edge. “We are an Indian company and we will frame our behavior around an Indian context,” he said. “That will be better than what international companies do because they are also guided by their home policies that they have set out.”
When asked what he meant by an “Indian context,” Radhakrishna said he didn’t have any concrete examples. “I haven’t dealt with any real scenario,” he said.