NEW DELHI – At the beginning of February, politicians from the ruling Indian Bharatiya Janata party signed up for a social network that almost no one had heard of.
“I’m on Koo now,” the Indian trade minister wrote on Twitter to his almost 10 million followers. “Connect with me on this Indian microblogging platform for exciting and exclusive updates in real time.” Millions of people, most of them BJP supporters, followed, and the Twitter clone immediately became an instant hit, which was installed by more than 2 million people over 10 days earlier this month, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics company .
The timing wasn’t accidental. For days, the Indian government has been embroiled in a violent tug-of-war with Twitter defying any legal order to block accounts critical of India’s Hindu nationalist government, including those owned by journalists and an investigative news magazine. In response, the Indian IT ministry threatened to send Twitter officials to jail. Amid the stalemate, government officials promoted Koo as a nationalist alternative, free from American influence.
The page that bills itself as “The Voice of India in Indian Languages” is almost exactly like Twitter, except that “Koos” is limited to 400 characters, the trending topics section is filled with government propaganda, and the logo is yellow blue, bird.
More worryingly, Hindu supremacism is rampant on Koo and hate speech against Muslims, India’s largest minority, is flowing freely, fueled by some of the government’s toughest supporters.
A BJP official published a poll asking supporters to choose from four vilified labels for Muslims, including “anti-nationalists” and “jihad dogs”. A person whose biography says they teach at the Indian Institute of Technology, a top engineering college whose graduates are coveted by Silicon Valley, shared a hateful comic depicting Muslim men as members of a bloodthirsty mob. Some people shared conspiracy theories about Muslims spitting into people’s food to spread disease, while others shared news of crimes committed by people with Muslim names to demonize an entire religion. One person warned Muslims not to follow him and called them arches. “I hate [them]”Said one of his posts.
As the global internet splitters and mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter battle nation-states and restlessly fight hate speech, nationalist alternatives to host it emerge, which experts say is a growing trend.
“This content wants to find a new home,” Evelyn Douek, professor at Harvard Law School on global regulation of online language, told BuzzFeed News. Hate speech, disinformation, harassment and incitement, which mainstream platforms have dealt with for years, are particularly problematic on platforms like Koo, as these websites are less scrutinized. “These problems end up appearing on every platform,” said Douek, “but as these alternatives become more widespread, they are likely to get far less attention and pressure.” This also creates the possibility that there will be a global Internet that has a kind of discourse and that completely alternative discussions take place on national platforms in parallel. “
Aprameya Radhakrishna, co-founder and CEO of Koo, told BuzzFeed News that his website was not intended as a vehicle for hatred or an ideological echo chamber.
“You can’t moderate every piece of content to scale,” he said.
Radhakrishna is a Bangalore-based entrepreneur who sold a startup to Ola, India’s Uber rival, for $ 200 million in 2015. He started Koo last March. Earlier this month, with soaring downloads, the company raised $ 4.1 million from investors, including former Infosys co-founder Mohandas Pai, a vocal supporter of the Modi government.
Koo doesn’t have a moderation team, said Radhakrishna. Instead, the platform relies on people flagging content that they think is problematic. A team only considers content that Radhakrishna calls “exceptions”.
“Even Facebook and Twitter are still finding moderation,” said Radhakrishna. “We are a 10 month old company. We are working on our guidelines. “He added that he believed expressing thoughts was not a problem until it led to violence.
“We will not act against something just because we feel like it,” he said. “It is taken based on the laws of the land.”
A small section titled “Rules and Conduct” included in the App’s Terms of Service prohibits individuals from posting content that “violates someone else’s privacy,” “hateful,” “racist,” or “ethnically objectionable” or “derogatory”.
Despite comparisons with Parler, who has positioned himself as a conservative alternative to Twitter and Facebook in the US, Radhakrishna insists that his app is apolitical. “We would appreciate anyone who wants to take over the platform to take over,” he said. “Politics is not the only aspect of India. The platform is expressed and expressed. “
More than a dozen Indian government departments now use Koo. Earlier this month, the country’s IT ministry, the government department threatening Twitter officials with jail, posted a statement on Koo expressing its displeasure with Twitter before posting the same statement on Twitter, the platform of choice the official announcement department.
Within Twitter, which ranks India among the fastest growing global markets, employees keep an eye on Koo. “It’s definitely on our radar,” a staff member who asked for anonymity told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know yet if it will be a threat, but we’re watching.”
Radhakrishna said the company’s indigenous origins gave him an advantage. “We are an Indian company and we will gear our behavior to an Indian context,” he said. “That will be better than what international companies do because they are also guided by their internal guidelines that they set.”
When asked what he meant by an “Indian context”, Radhakrishna said he had no specific examples. “I haven’t looked at any real scenario,” he said.