It hasn’t been a quiet few weeks on Twitter in India. The country’s capital city has seen over four months of protest after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government enacted agricultural laws that would adversely affect farmers across India. The farmer protests, as the movement has come to be known, has taken to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to make the cause heard globally — and it’s worked. Earlier this month, celebrities like Greta Thunberg and Rihanna weighed in with their tweets of support. Backlash soon followed.
But the government’s ire against global critics of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has turned to Twitter itself. Citing threats to public order, on February 1, Indian authorities appeared to have requested Twitter to suspend or remove dozens of accounts on its platform. Twitter briefly complied but, after public outcry, reinstated the accounts and then refused to remove hundreds more.
It’s in the middle of this battle that Aprameya Radhakrishna’s 10-month-old social media platform was thrust into the spotlight. Soft-spoken and studious, Radhakrishna is a serial entrepreneur: in 2015, he sold his first company, a ride-sharing app called TaxiForSure, to local giant Ola for $200 million. His latest venture is an app called Koo, a microblogging platform similar to Twitter but for local-language speakers in India, a country with more than 20 languages and over 700 dialects.
After weeks of battling with Twitter, some of India’s most prominent Hindu nationalist politicians took to their social accounts and instructed their followers to leave Western social networks for Koo, a local, free-speech platform. “I am now on Koo,” tweeted India’s minister of commerce and industry, Piyush Goyal. “Connect with me on this Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates.” Many of his 9.6 million followers obliged. More right-wing politicians followed suit, as did some of Bollywood’s biggest stars.
Radhakrishna and his platform are in a curious position. The founder insists he’s apolitical — he’s appeared in both left-leaning and right-wing outlets in the days since Koo has found the limelight — but is happily embracing the sudden rush to his app: Koo crossed 3 million users this month, fueled in large part by Modi’s party.
And while it’s unclear whether Koo will follow in the path of other social platforms that espouse “free speech” ideology, it’s likely more Indian apps like Radhakrishna’s will follow. Prominent among Modi’s mantras for his vision of India is Atmanirbhar Bharat: a self-sufficient India. That vision extends to the internet and social media.
Six months before prominent right-wing politicians began heralding his app as India’s Twitter, Radhakrishna and his team submitted Koo to a government atmanirbhar social media challenge, and won.
Radhakrishna spoke to Rest Of World over Google Meet from Bengaluru. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea for Koo.
We started building it in November 2019 and launched it in March 2020. The idea behind it was that Twitter is existing in English in India, but the language speakers of India are not on Twitter. Let’s build a deeper experience for the language speakers. And because we built a deeper experience for the language speakers, we were able to make a very localized community.
We started with Kannada, then we did Hindi, then Telugu, Marathi, then Tamil: we launched all of these languages. Then, we started noticing Twitter was getting into trouble in the U.S. We said, Maybe we should just have English as well as the local languages, if ever Twitter gets into trouble or users want a separate option.
When you started Koo, how soon were you approached by government officials who saw the “Make in India” potential for the app?
We were a two-month-old app when we applied to the [Atmanibhar Bharat] challenge. We got into that challenge at the last minute, almost. Nobody approached us or anything. We applied just like any other startup — there were something like 7,000 social media startups that applied. We won that challenge, so that put us into the limelight: Oh, there’s an alternative microblogging platform that promotes local language.
Walk me through how the last two or three weeks have been for you. Did you know that Piyush Goyal and the Ministry of Electronics and Technology would be encouraging their followers on Twitter to move to Koo en masse?
No. It’s been totally surreal for us. It’s totally welcome at Koo. We as a company are benefiting from the love that users who are shifting [from Twitter] are showing us. We weren’t expecting it, but it’s a pleasant surprise. We’re happy this move is happening.
Were you prepared for the sudden influx of users on the back end?
Not at all. Scaling 10x suddenly, in a week, is a challenge for any company, especially a 10-month-old startup. But we’ve come through it; we are able to scale faster.
What were the user numbers like? Can you tell me how quickly they grew after the events of this month?
We were very small, we were sub-100,000 DAU [daily active users]. Now we’re close to a million DAU. Close, not a million yet but close.
By virtue of chance, or deliberate action, there’s an ideological framework under which Koo has been positioned. You don’t seem bothered by the fact that Koo is heralded as the right-wing’s answer to Twitter. Politics has played a role in the sudden attention that Koo has received. Have you considered the risks of embracing the way your app has been politicized?
It depends on the actions on the app. That first community [we built] in Kannada was built in a slower manner, and it has people from all parties in Karnataka.
What we are seeing is that India wants to be more self-reliant. India includes everybody. Our app doesn’t understand “left” or “right.” I don’t understand “left” or “right.” I’m an entrepreneur; I’m extremely apolitical. And I’m all for the development of the country. If Koo as a statement can make us self-reliant on our own social networks and technology, then we should be cheering for it. We shouldn’t unnecessarily politicize it.
Social media is shaped by its users and early adopters. Most of Koo’s early video content partnerships with, say, Republic TV [a channel notorious for its allegiance with the ruling Hindu nationalist party] or Mitron [a short-form video app that Modi supporters have embraced after the ban on TikTok] have come to associate the app with a particular ideology. Are you worried Koo might get too polarized too quickly?
Not at all. In Karnataka, we have everybody [on Koo], as I said. As a business, we keep looking for partners to grow our business. Now, the partners who come aggressively and see the vision that we’re seeing as a free-expression platform and embrace the platform, we’re happy to welcome them. Why would I say no to somebody who wants to use our platform? Republic [TV] came first, that doesn’t mean I don’t want everybody else.
In a recent BBC report about your app, there’s a rhetorical question, “Is Koo India’s Parler?” What do you make of that comparison?
Each platform comes into being for different reasons. I’ve already explained my story. We were doing this irrespective of whether Twitter existed, got banned, got into trouble, or flourished in India.
We started in November 2019 because we said the voice of the Indian user who doesn’t speak English is not there. We are building an inclusive social media network for India. So what was your question?
My question was what do you make of Parler and—
Parler came into existence because there was an anti-Trump thing, and they wanted to do a pro-Trump thing. We don’t exist because of some anti or pro thing. We are existing today irrespective of whether Twitter gets into trouble or not, irrespective of one ideology being there or not. We exist because we want to give a voice to every Indian. The purpose of our existence is very different from what a Parler is.
What do you make of the “Make in India” push, considering Facebook and Twitter have an undeniable influence in our current political discourse?
Every social media [platform] has to be responsible, to a certain extent, of what they bring into a country because it defines a lot of things in the country, like youth culture or how citizens of a country react to a situation.
When a company is registered elsewhere and doesn’t take into consideration the nuances of the local culture, I think it can be dangerous. Indian entrepreneurs building for Indian cultural nuances is better than somebody who doesn’t understand the cultural nuances trying to build for India.
The way Indian internet is shaping, an extreme version of “Indian apps for India” is an entire separate internet for India, the way China has Weibo and its own social network. Do you think that kind of internet would be a good thing for India as a whole?
Absolutely, we should have our own atmanirbhar platforms. We should also have international platforms, so we are connected to the international world. It’s not Koo vs Twitter. It’s Koo for deeper-connected India, for unifying India. Twitter will exist; Twitter will connect us to the world.
We’ve come a long way in technology. We’ve built [some of the world’s] largest service companies. Then we started building companies in the transaction domain. And we never really built our own social networks, because [back then] there weren’t that many Indians online. This is our opportunity.
Create the social network, and you’ll see the magic happen. When an opportunity knocks on your door, you take full advantage of it.
Broadly, how does Koo govern speech on its platform?
We don’t govern. Why should we govern? It’s a free-expression platform. We’re an Indian registered company. Anything that is unlawful in the offline world is unlawful in the online world.
If there’s a problem in terms of what you’ve expressed to one or multiple people’s lives, or if there’s violence triggered in the offline world because of what you’ve said, that’s all considered unlawful. We’re not the ones to take action. There’s an elected government. Irrespective of who runs the government in the future. … They’re responsible for keeping harmony in society.
How would you handle a situation like the farmer protests—
It’s not happened on [our platform,] so I wouldn’t want to speculate on that.
Not right now, but—
I don’t want to speculate on that because it’s not happening. If it happens on Koo, I’m happy to. If it’s going to lead to violence, we’ll cooperate with the government. What else would you want to hear? If you want to peacefully talk about whatever you want to say about the farmer protests, you’re welcome.
Okay. In terms of no-go topics on your platform—
There are people who harass women online, right? It leads to arrests offline, agree?
So if somebody harasses another person and says, “These people should be killed,” or whatever it is, that’s also a problem, right?
So you will take that down if someone—
Not take down. I will follow the law. It will be applied, no matter where your behavior is, online or offline.
So there will be government-regulated laws that would govern the speech on Koo?
No, you’re randomly putting words in my mouth. I’m not enjoying this conversation. I’m an independent person; I’m apolitical. We want to unify India. Do you have a problem with me saying that? We’re not a government mouthpiece. We’re not a mouthpiece for any political party. We are apolitical.