Can Indian microblogging app Koo beat Twitter?
That’s certainly the goal, according to co-founder Mayank Bidawatka, who says Koo expects to surpass Twitter’s 25 million-strong user base in India this year.
It had touched 20 million downloads in India by the end of 2021.
“We are now available in 10 languages, including English. This year we’d like to cover all of India’s 22 official languages,” he told the BBC at the company’s headquarters in the southern city of Bangalore, a tech hub.
Koo was thrust into the spotlight last year as an alternative to Twitter amid a row between the Indian government and the US microblogging platform.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government asked the platform to block allegedly incendiary accounts – Twitter complied initially and then restored them, citing “insufficient justification”. The face-off continued as the government threatened legal action against the company’s employees in India.
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This was in addition to an ongoing dispute over new digital rules that sparked concerns about free speech and privacy. WhatsApp sued the government, saying the rules would force it to violate privacy protections.
Irked by Twitter’s defiance and alleged failure to comply with digital rules, a flurry of cabinet ministers and lawmakers from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) migrated to Koo overnight. Mr Modi, who has a huge following on Twitter, has stayed put.
Koo, which caters primarily to non-English users in India, launched in early 2020. It expanded to Nigeria in 2021 when the country suspended Twitter. It now wants to reach 100 million users by the end of 2022.
Mr Bidawatka founded Koo along with Aparmeya Radhakrishna, an angel investor and entrepreneur whose ride-sharing business TaxiForSure was acquired by the Indian company Ola for $200m (£147m) in 2015. The two also run Vokal, a knowledge-sharing platform in Indian languages.
Since last year, Koo has attracted cricketers and Bollywood stars – and it expects the number of “eminent accounts”, which now number 5,000, to triple by the end of the year.
But it’s also accused of amplifying government propaganda and letting anti-Muslim hate speech go unchecked.
Social media has become yet another battleground in a sharply polarised India – and the supporters of the Hindu nationalist BJP have long been accused of relentlessly trolling those who are seen as critical or opposed to Mr Modi.
Koo’s guidelines explicitly prohibit hate speech and discriminatory or offensive content. But with “koos” (its version of tweets) being generated every second, moderation is hard, as is the case on other social media platforms, including Twitter.
Mr Bidawatka says the problem needs to be solved using technology rather than human moderators, and by involving the user community to flag posts they deem toxic.
He says that there are “a lot of BJP folk” on Koo, but disagrees that it’s an echo chamber of right-leaning, anti-liberal voices. He adds that the app hosts opposition leaders from 19 other parties, including state chief ministers from the main opposition Congress party.
“There will always be some early adoptors. But how you start, and what happens in the beginning should not define your entire journey,” Mr Bidawatka said. “As entrepreneurs, there is no reason for us to create something that only a section of the population will use.”
But 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, so that it can create a “soft landing spot” for itself, in case the need to ban Twitter arises in the future.
Much like the Chinese “splinternet”, where the state controls cyberspace, India has, over the years, been pushing for greater digital sovereignty and control of its internet, Mr Pahwa says.
These wider trends “will provide further tailwinds to Indian-owned platforms (like Koo),” he adds.
He also notes that global big tech, governed by policies around data and security “will find it increasingly difficult to grow in India”.
Koo has a fair shot at success, he believes, if it can solve the issue of how best to moderate content, while creating a safe space for users, which Twitter has long struggled with.
But it will need to make a more concerted effort to attract users with a diversity of political views. As of now, liberal or anti-establishment voices might be disinclined to leave Twitter or have an account on both platforms.
The app’s requirement for authentication via a mobile phone number to register will also pose a challenge, Mr Pahwa says, because while it would allow Koo to moderate content better, it “takes away the comfort of anonymity” that Twitter grants to its users.
Still, Koo’s distinctive focus on building a product for non-English speakers makes it a compelling product.
Over the last few months the company has experimented a lot, such as giving people the ability to ‘koo’ in multiple languages at once, and on one screen.
Mr Bidawatka says Bollywood actors – who usually communicate with their fans in English on social media – make use of this feature to reach wider audiences across multiple languages.
Koo currently competes with ShareChat in India, a far bigger rival in terms of its user base. As it scales up across Indian languages, it will be doubling its headcount to 500 people.
Buoyed by the platform’s success in Nigeria, Mr Bidawatka plans to take the platform to countries outside India where English is not the dominant language.
“South East Asia is exciting because of the large population and under-penetration of existing platforms. That’s definitely on the cards,” Mr Bidawatka says.
“English is spoken by only 20% of the world – 80% of the world does not speak English,” he adds. “That entire market is open to us.”