Just under a week after the Nigerian government abruptly announced Twitter would be blocked in the country, President Muhammadu Buhari opened an account on Koo, an Indian microblogging platform. His new account, along with others created by — or on behalf of — government officials, was quickly given a yellow tick of verification.
Buhari’s administration has been vocal about their desire to impose control over social media, which has been widely used by activists and opposition groups to challenge government narratives. Nigeria’s ministry of information and culture has imposed increasingly stringent regulations, under the guise of tackling “misinformation.” On June 2, Twitter deleted a tweet by Buhari that appeared to threaten violence against his political opponents. Two days later, the government suspended Twitter, which led to some local telecom companies blocking access to the platform.
Koo moved fast to take advantage of the ban. Within days, the app was available on Apple and Google’s app stores in Nigeria, and job ads had been posted on LinkedIn seeking local language speakers. The company’s approach in Nigeria — its first international expansion — mirrors the circumstances of its rise to prominence in its home market. In India, Koo has positioned itself as a government-friendly alternative to Twitter, at a time when the San Francisco-based company’s vocal support for freedom of expression is at odds with Prime Minister Modi-led government’s attempts to curb dissent. But Koo’s zeal in complying with government rules — in a country that has a history of cracking down on internet freedom — has established it as a partisan platform for India’s populist right wing.
Whether it can replicate that success in Nigeria is unclear. The two countries have superficial similarities — both large, multilingual countries with complex regional and ethnic politics and increasingly authoritarian governments. However, they are also profoundly different, and the company will face enormous challenges in translating its political identity into a Nigerian context.
“[Koo] can still, theoretically, differentiate itself by claiming to have a higher commitment to local understanding,” said Prateek Waghre, technology policy analyst at the think tank The Takshashila Institution. “In doing so, it will also be setting a higher bar for itself to deal with challenges that far better-resourced companies have also struggled to solve.”
Koo was launched in March 2020 by serial entrepreneur Aprameya Radhakrishna, who had previously sold his cab-hailing company TaxiForSure to the local giant Ola Cabs for $200 million five years earlier. In 2018, he began working on an app that would allow users to ask questions out loud and receive spoken answers, based on crowdsourced results, in return. The service attracted more than 25 million monthly users, and led Radhakrishna to look at ways to expand on its popularity. “We figured that people also wanted to express themselves, not just answer questions,” Radhakrishna told Rest Of World in February.
Radhakrishna declined to speak to Rest of World for this story. Pranav Pai, founding partner at investment firm 3one4 Capital, an investor in Koo, initially agreed to an interview, but later changed his mind after consulting with the company.
Koo initially focused on local language users, rather than English speakers, and leaned heavily on its identity as a distinctly Indian platform, different from rival microblogging site Twitter, which was heavily skewed towards English speakers. Later, Koo added English language functionality. When he spoke with Rest of World in February, Radhakrishna seemed to suggest that this was in anticipation of impending difficulties for Twitter in India. “[We] started observing that Twitter was getting into trouble in the U.S. And we said, okay, maybe we should just have English as well, right?” he said. “If ever, you know, Twitter gets into trouble or users want a separate option, we should have English, and hence we introduced English.”
Trouble started brewing in India months after Koo launched. In November 2020, thousands of farmers started pouring into Delhi to protest the passing of three controversial agricultural laws, leading to violence. Many people took to Twitter to air their grievances. In response, the government demanded that Twitter suspend the accounts of several media houses and opposition politicians who tweeted about the disturbances, insisting that they were spreading misinformation. Twitter initially resisted, but later complied. Relations have soured further since. In May, Twitter labeled a tweet from the national spokesperson of the ruling party as “manipulated media”; the Indian police then raided Twitter’s headquarters.
Radhakrishna insists that he’s apolitical. But Koo’s public posturing and embrace of the sudden rush of users after endorsement from ministers in the Modi administration has positioned it — consciously or subconsciously — as a home for Hindu nationalists, drawing superficial parallels with Parler, a site popular with the U.S. and European far-right. In May, after Twitter permanently suspended a prominent Bollywood star for repeated violations of its “hateful conduct” policy, Koo welcomed the actress to share her opinions “with pride.” Prominent nationalist politicians have endorsed the platform, and with each new attack on Twitter, Koo’s downloads have surged.
“While Koo does not self-identify as an ‘alt-tech’ platform, the circumstances surrounding its rise to prominence mean that a substantial portion of its users have self-selected themselves based on ideology,” Waghre said.
Koo’s signalling for, and patronage from, Hindu nationalist politicians has helped it amass about 6 million users in India, compared with about 17 million Twitter users. In May, Koo raised $30 million, led by marquee international investors, including Tiger Global and South Korea’s Mirae Asset Management. Koo is valued at $100 million, a fivefold increase since March. The company has said it will set up an advisory council for moderation, similar to the Facebook Oversight Board.
Whether replicating this approach in Nigeria — leaping in to fill a void left behind by Twitter — will work is far from certain. The government’s ban on Twitter, where it has around 3 million users, does create an opportunity for new players, but just turning up is not enough, according to Sameer Singh, an investor who has studied patterns in adoption of internet products.
“The challenger would have to mimic the quality of the original network, i.e., high-quality users,” Singh said. “If uptake is initially from far-right conspiracy theorists (bad actors), they are more likely to drive away high-quality users.” Singh said that the partisan appeal of platforms like Koo could limit their scale, and that even in India the user base is likely to plateau.
Others from the Indian tech community cheered Koo’s expansion. “In a sense, Koo venturing into Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous markets, fits a very positive trend from the India tech perspective of “building in India, for the world,” said Nitin Sharma, a venture capitalist with Antler Global. Sharma said he’s witnessing a wave of “social 2.0” apps ranging from social audio to vernacular Reddits catering to new internet users, and much of that is fuelled by a backlash against Big Tech.
“There is nothing wrong with opportunistically tapping into a fertile ground for growth, and as long as users are aware of each platform’s stance on data privacy or compliance, the free market should create more alternatives for them to choose from,” Sharma said.
But policy advocates like Waghre caution that companies like Koo need to understand that their claims to neutrality only go so far, and that their individual decisions on moderation or takedowns will have political consequences. “There’s also a need for a broader conversation in Indian society about the values we want to export through our corporations,” he said.
Nigerian government sources who spoke with Rest of World on condition of anonymity said that, for now at least, they were pleased with their interactions with the company. The government is “trying out” the platform, and believes it is “[attracting] more Nigerians to join the application as a source of information,” a source said. They expected Koo to establish an office in the country and build a local team “as soon as possible.”
One of the government sources noted Koo’s limited global reach, which makes it impractical for it to become the government’s dominant alternative after Twitter. The person also said other members of the government’s media team have complained about a buggy interface, especially when accessing it over a web browser, but said the team is actively communicating with the Indian company to fix them.
Despite this initial enthusiasm, analysts said that Koo might ultimately struggle to replicate its patronage model and nativist appeal overseas: No matter how keen it is to acquiesce to government demands in Nigeria, Koo will be another foreign platform. It will have to quickly figure out the local contexts and languages, and build moderation tools and policies — no small task in a complex, multilingual, multicultural environment like Nigeria.
“It’s going to be a tall order for Koo to succeed, but it’s not impossible,” said Osato Guobadia, an independent technology analyst. “If they can properly incentivize a number of influential Nigerian and even Western celebrities to become active on their platform, they could see impressive growth in the Nigerian market.”
However, he noted that the government’s endorsement of the platform could actually be a disincentive for users. “Koo’s brand is suffering among many Nigerian Twitter users, because it is seen as the platform of choice for the Nigerian government,” he said. “So, there’s a sense that posts may be censored by the Nigerian government. Koo would have to be clear that that is not the case for it to see any uptake in Nigeria.”
Despite the noise generated by Koo’s entry into Nigeria, there is no evidence that it has built a sizable base of users. While the Nigerian government has started using the platform, it has also begun more actively using Facebook and Instagram, and popular local platforms Nairaland and Opera News since the Twitter ban.
Adeboye Adegoke, senior program manager at Paradigm Initiative, a Nigerian internet advocacy group, said that by cutting out platforms that allow critical views, there is a risk the government could create echo chambers.
“It doesn’t matter what the government is doing on another app,” Adegoke said. “What matters is to what extent are citizens using that app, and also the quality of information that is available on that app.”
There are signs that Koo is already struggling to adapt to its new context. Fake social media accounts have been a perennial problem in Nigeria, and are often used by scammers to impersonate prominent people and extort money from users. Several high-profile Nigerians have already complained that they are being impersonated on Koo. On June 12, Atiku Abubakar, a former Nigerian vice president and leader in the country’s main opposition party, warned that there are already fake Koo accounts posing as him, which are lifting posts and other details from his other verified social media accounts to appear legitimate.
Omoyele Sowore, a popular Nigerian activist, distanced himself from a Koo account bearing his name, disclosing that he does not use Koo, and suggested that the account might have been created to discredit his activism. The fake accounts remain active on Koo. The company did not respond to requests for comment about its moderation and integrity policies.