India’s Koo App — Twitter’s doppelgänger — gains rapid, unprecedented traction amid the country’s techno-nationalism

Home to the world’s second largest internet population, India is on the precipice of a whole new online ecosystem.
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BANGALORE — On February 25, the Indian government enforced its Information Technology Rules, 2021, which require platforms to remove flagged posts within 36 hours of receiving a notice. As Twitter ignored the Indian government’s behest to remove accounts and hashtags of the farmer’s protest, a new social networking alternative catering to Indian users has emerged: the Koo App.

“We are here to help Indians express themselves in the easiest way possible with the objective of democratizing their voice,” the website stated

PHOTO: Courtesy of Koo App

According to Koo, its app seeks to amplify Indian ideas and voices much like its San Francisco forerunner, but for its own citizens, in its own mother tongue: “Koo App is the voice of India in Indian languages.”

With the new IT Rules 2021 in full force, groups like The Foundation for Independent Journalism will challenge such state “overreach” in court. The foundation argued that the legislation gives the Modi government the authority to “virtually dictate content” on the internet, Financial Times reported.

Sure enough, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration had tightened its grip on global tech giants in the last few years. Strictly regulating platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, and even reportedly threatening imprisonment to employees, according to CNN Business

A report by Access New also found that India had the highest number of internet communication shutdowns, which began in 2019 and continued to 2021. The country has seen the largest protest in history, with the ongoing farmers’ movement against the new agri-marketing laws in India.

The report stated that “the people most hurt by the shutdowns in 2020 were those already facing repression, silencing and marginalization.”

On February 25, the Modi government issued the Information Technology Rules, 2021 (PHOTO: Financial Times)

This techno-nationalism gave rise to domestic online services such as Koo. Modi himself endorsed the platform, with several officials and ministers in his government using the app. The Bangalore-based service mimics its microblogging forebear, Twitter, down to the bird logo and user interface. 

Founded less than one year ago, Koo has so far been downloaded 3.3 million times in 2021, but less than Twitter’s 4.2 million downloads in India in the same time frame, CNN Business reported, citing Sensor Tower. 

In February however, Koo was downloaded more times than Twitter, when Modi’s government lambasted the “incendiary and baseless” hashtags circulating around the farmer’s protest against the hotly contested agri-marketing laws. 

Co-founder, Mayank Bidawatka, told CNN that Koo also benefits from field advantage in that it understands its own users and target market better than western tech companies. 

“We have the talent, we have the resources, some of us have the experience, there’s funding available for fulfilling dreams like these,” he said. “And these are pretty large dreams, we’re talking about creating products that are very relevant to the second largest internet population in the world.”

He has even likened the near overnight sensation of Koo to a sports championship: “you’ve just been put in the finals of the World Cup suddenly and everyone’s watching you and the team,” Bidawatka told CNN.

Some have hypothesized that the existence of a homegrown counterpart to Twitter will “cool the passions” of the polarity that occurs in online discourse. 

“Now there will be separate platforms on which different views can be expressed and only cross-platform users will know and be able to react to counter views,” Na Vijayashankar wrote in an India Legal column. 

Some say the Koo App has spurred a “Watch on Twitter, post on Koo” movement (PHOTO: PointGadget)

This is due to a new “Watch on Twitter, post on Koo” trend by which each platform develops a disparate stream of opinion. As a result, a user must view and engaged with both networks in order to respond on one.   

Such Koo-Twitter dual citizenship could potentially diminish the impact of trolls.

“With people now keeping a watch on the two platforms and posting on the one of their choice, perhaps there will be some order to the chaos,” Vijayashankar wrote. “Instead of trolling on the same platforms, people will ‘cross troll.’ This could reduce the intensity of the impact of trolls and in the long run, reduce it to an extent.”

With 504 million active users in 2020, India houses the world’s second-largest online population, according to Times of India. A majority of the populace —  almost 70% —  uses the Internet everyday. 

In 2015 and 2016, the internet contributed to 5.6% of the nation’s GDP and has grown to 16% by 2020, which translated to US$537.4 billion. 8% of this amount was driven by apps, which totals to US$270.9 billion, Times of India reported.

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