On April 6, four days before billionaire Elon Musk announced his desire to “authenticate all real humans” on Twitter, the multilingual Indian microblogging site Koo introduced a feature that grants its users the option to “self-verify” using their government-issued biometric identification number, Aadhaar.
A verified profile on social media has come to be perceived as a marker of credibility, and platforms have faced scrutiny regarding their practice of restricting users who can get the coveted blue badge. Most platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, have so far reserved profile verification only for notable accounts of “public interest.” This long-time grievance assumed renewed global significance when Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla set to acquire Twitter, mentioned that the problem of bots and abuse on Twitter can be addressed by authenticating all real users.
“Authentic persons are unlikely to indulge in unwarranted behavior on the platform,” Koo wrote in a public statement announcing the self-verification feature. The post also mentioned that self-verification makes pursuing legal remedies for cases of online harassment and unlawful activities easier. Koo’s green checks will “democratize self-verification,” and cut the lengthy process to seconds. Koo grants a separate yellow check called “eminence” for actors, athletes, and government officials.
Katie Harbath, founder of Anchor Change, who works with lawmakers in Europe and the U.S. advocating for effective regulation of social media said that it’s unlikely that authenticating all real humans would somehow reduce toxicity on platforms. “I mean, we’ve already seen how many people are willing to do the stuff under their own name. I think companies have done better on finding bots and the automated stuff [on their own],” Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director for global elections, told Rest of World. “I don’t think it turns down the dial at all.”
Trust and safety experts are worried that the growing efforts to purge anonymity on social media would be a devastating blow to free expression. “There’s really a push in the direction of enforcing a self-verification mechanism,” Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, told Rest of World. “At this point, everyone says it’s voluntary. But we’ve seen situations [in India] where something is voluntary in [the] letter, but near-mandatory in spirit.”
Waghre was referring to the controversial rollout of Aadhaar in India, which was effectively introduced as a voluntary identification, but proved otherwise when those without the card couldn’t access services such as mobile connections, education, banking, and pensions. India’s top court stepped in to clarify that its use was voluntary. “If [self-verification] starts getting implemented in a way that’s tending towards being made mandatory, it affects someone’s decision or right to remain anonymous. That’s certainly concerning,” Waghre said.
Koo’s motivation to introduce self-identification stems from its adherence to Indian law. The Information Technology Rules, 2021, which came into effect late last year, mandates social media intermediaries with over 5 million users to introduce “voluntary” verification of users. This makes Koo merely the first social network in India to comply with the new rule. Soon, American social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram might need to introduce some version of Koo’s self-verification, too.
“It seems that social media companies have taken time to decide what to do with voluntary verification,” Waghre said. “There doesn’t seem to be an overt push [for self-verification] from the government, like it did for the appointment of a grievance officer.” In 2021, Twitter delayed appointing a grievance officer to address on-the-ground complaints, which was in violation of a new set of social media rules introduced in the country. This led to a tense stand-off between Twitter and the Indian government, where the platform was to be held liable for posts by its users. Twitter eventually complied.
Launched in March 2020, Koo is a microblogging site similar to Twitter, but for non-English speakers. It came to the limelight in 2021, as a homegrown alternative to Twitter, briefly endorsed by Hindu nationalist leaders, when the Western social platform refused to block tweets critical of the government. Koo has since worked to onboard users from across the political spectrum and has shed some of its initial partisan appeal. Founded by serial entrepreneur Aprameya Radhakrishna, Koo is backed by Tiger Global and Mirae Asset Capital. It is currently available in 10 Indian languages and has 30 million registered users.
Radhakrishna did not respond to Rest of World’s attempts to get in touch for an interview.
But Koo’s blog post sheds light on the company’s thinking. The company believes that a free-for-all verification will help foster trust in the network, and make social media more transparent. It outlines that India’s rule on voluntary verification of profiles is in line with proposed online safety bills in Australia and the U.K. that aim to reveal the identities of trolls and curb toxic content online. Musk, with a pending Twitter buy-out, also holds a similar worldview that trolls can be purged by authenticating all humans.
Speaking to local media, Radhakrishna boasted this, saying: “Some of the things that Musk has been proposing, we already have on our platform. He has been talking about an edit button, we have it. He plans to validate people, we have [a] self-verification system in place using Aadhaar.”
The most consequential battle for online free speech is taking place in India, home to 700 million internet users and a growing market for Big Tech. Platforms such as Koo espouse a contentious, yet growing belief in the future of anonymous online speech: “A section of anonymous accounts who may legitimately be engaged in whistleblowing or useful exchange of information on social media should not be allowed to be used as shields for the vast majority of anonymous accounts who bully, threaten, and spread toxic content on social media,” Koo wrote in a blog post introducing self-verification.
Harbath of Anchor Change highlights the risks of social media companies handing over customer data collected for verification to governments. Koo, in its blog, claims it sidesteps this liability by using a vetted third-party agency to authenticate its users. It also said that the Aadhaar number used for authentication is never saved on its servers. “I totally get, at first blush, people are like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. Of course, we should do this.’ But what if they start using it to go after dissidents or … minorities or people that are saying things against the government or things of that nature? I think that really makes people nervous,” Harbath said.