NEW DELHI – In early February, politicians from India’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata began signing up for a social network that hardly anyone had heard of.
“I am now on Koo,” Indian Minister of Commerce said posted on Twitter to its nearly 10 million subscribers. “Connect with me on this Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates.” Millions of people, mostly BJP supporters, followed and the Twitter clone became an instant hit, installed by more than 2 million people more than 10 days earlier this month, according to the company. Sensor Tower application analysis.
The timing was no coincidence. For days, the Indian government has been locked in a bitter fight with Twitter, which has defied a legal order to block accounts critical of India’s Hindu nationalist government, including those belonging to journalists and a magazine from India. investigation. In response, India’s 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 site, which 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, not blue bird.
More troubling still, on Koo, Hindu supremacism is unleashed and hate speech against Muslims, India’s largest minority, circulates freely, pushed by some of the government’s most staunch supporters.
A member of the BJP party released a poll asking its followers to choose from four labels denigrating Muslims, including “anti-national” and “jihadist dogs.” A person whose biography says he teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, a top engineering school whose graduates are coveted by Silicon Valley, shared a hate comic depicting Muslim men as members of a mob thirsty for blood. Some people have shared conspiracy theories of Muslims spitting into people’s food to spread disease, while others have shared reports of crimes committed by people with Muslim names in an attempt to demonize an entire religion. . One person warned Muslims not to follow him and called them insults. “I hate [them]One of his posts said.
As the global internet erupts and mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter clash against nation states and restlessly crack down on hate speech, nationalist alternatives are springing up to host it, which according to experts, is a growing trend.
“This content wants to find new homes,” Evelyn Douek, a Harvard Law School lecturer who studies the global regulation of online speech, told BuzzFeed News. The hate speech, disinformation, harassment and incitement that traditional platforms have grappled with for years are especially problematic on platforms like Koo, she said, as these sites are less monitored. . “These issues cross all platforms in the end,” said Douek, “but with the proliferation of these alternatives, there will likely be a lot less attention and pressure on them. It also creates the possibility that there is a global internet with some kind of talk, and completely alternative conversations happening on national platforms in parallel.
Aprameya Radhakrishna, co-founder and CEO of Koo, told BuzzFeed News that his site was not meant to convey hatred or 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 start-up to Ola, Uber’s Indian rival, in 2015 for $ 200 million. He launched Koo in March of last year. Earlier this month, as downloads increased, the company raised $ 4.1 million from investors, including former Infosys co-founder Mohandas Pai, a staunch supporter of the Modi government.
Koo does not have a moderation team, Radhakrishna said. Instead, the platform relies on people to report content that they find problematic. A team only looks at those pieces of content that Radhakrishna calls “exceptions”.
“Even Facebook and Twitter are still trying to be restrained,” Radhakrishna said. “We are a 10 month company. We are working on our policies. He added that he did not think expressing his thoughts was a problem as long as it did not lead to violence.
“We won’t act against something just because we want to,” he said. “It will be taken according to the laws of the land.”
A small section titled “Rules and Conduct” buried in the app’s terms and conditions prohibits users from posting content that “invades the privacy of others”, “hateful”, “racial” or “ethnically objectionable” or “derogatory”.
Despite comparisons to Speak, which positions itself as a conservative alternative to Twitter and Facebook in the United States, Radhakrishna insists its application is apolitical. “We would like anyone who wants to adopt the platform to adopt it,” he said. “Politics is not the only aspect of India. The platform is made to express and express anything. “
Over 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, released a statement on Koo expressing its displeasure with Twitter hours before releasing the same statement. on Twitter, the department’s platform of choice for official announcements.
On Twitter, which counts India among its fastest growing global markets, employees keep tabs on Koo. “It’s definitely on our radar,” an employee who requested anonymity told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know if it will be a threat yet, but we are monitoring.”
Radhakrishna said the local origins of the company gave it an advantage. “We are an Indian company and we will frame our behavior in an Indian context,” he said. “It will be better than what international companies do, because they are also guided by their national policies that they have defined.”
When asked what he meant by “Indian context,” Radhakrishna replied that he had no concrete examples. “I didn’t deal with a real scenario,” he said.