Koo: India’s alternative Twitter looks to capitalise on the Elon Musk implosion

Success in the domestic market has come from services in more than a dozen regional languages

Koo, the microblogging and social networking app for Indian languages, is hoping to go one up on rival Twitter. Bloomberg
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An Indian microblogging social media platform is eyeing global expansion, after the takeover of Twitter by billionaire businessman Elon Musk triggered a series of controversies.

Koo, the multilingual Indian microblogging platform, has garnered over 50 million downloads since it was launched in 2020. It claims to be the world's second largest microblogging site, after US competitor Twitter.

But the company is not resting on its laurels, Koo's leaders say. It is now eying expansion into global markets, particularly the US where a section of Twitter users are resenting the new policies that launched paid services after Mr Musk acquired the platform for $44 billion in October.

“This is the perfect time to make ourselves known in markets where there is a heavy demand for alternatives and US is one of them. People there don’t like the change of ownership; they don’t know what to expect of Twitter,” Aprameya Radhakrishna, 41, co-founder and chief executive of Koo, told The National.

“They have a friction point whether they should pay. This is leading them to look for an alternative. We have built a world-class product in India and we want people to experience Koo, which has more features and is free,” he said.

Koo’s success in the domestic market has come from providing services in more than a dozen regional languages.

It has also won support from the ruling government that has promoted the platform as a homegrown alternative to Twitter that had repeated showdowns with the Indian state following new controversial laws regulating cyberspace.

Rise of Koo

Koo was founded by Aprameya Radhakrishna, left, and Mayank Bidawatka in 2019, aimed at India’s non-English speaking population. Photo: Koo

Koo was founded by Mr Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka to woo India’s non-English speaking mammoth population in 2019.

India has 20 regional languages and more than 700 dialects. While English is widely spoken and recognised as an official language, just 10 per cent of its 1.3 billion population uses the language.

“Koo is a platform for non-English speakers around the world to express their views in their language, unlike Twitter,” Mr Radhakrishna said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised Koo in one of his monthly radio programmes but, curiously, has not joined the platform. He is one of the most followed leaders globally on rival Twitter with 84.4 million followers.

However, most of his cabinet colleagues and party officials have made the homegrown social media site as the preferred choice, largely following a standoff between his government and Twitter over farmer protests in 2021.

Twitter became a rallying point for millions of Indian farmers who were protesting against controversial farm laws introduced by Mr Modi’s government in 2020.

Tweets by pop star Rihana and activist Greta Thunberg supporting the farmers brought the street protests under global spotlight.

As widespread criticism grew, the government demanded the site block hundreds of accounts — including those of opposition leaders — but Twitter refused, saying this would violate its freedom of speech policy.

In the ensuing days, several ministers from Mr Modi’s government, including the then Electronics and Information Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, lambasted Twitter before publicly endorsing Koo.

The move sparked droves of supporters of the Hindu-right wing government to switch to the homegrown alternative.

It won a $4.1 million series A funding — company's first significant round of venture capital financing — and claims to host more than 7,500 leading Indian personalities as its users.

But the app has faced flak over its right-wing tilt and has been compared with Parler, the US-based social media app that has become popular with conservative supporters of former US President Donald Trump, following his ban by Twitter in 2021.

Some have also drawn similarities between Koo and Chinese app Weibo that is believed to have close association with the Beijing regime.

Koo had also become a go-to alternative to Twitter in Nigeria after the country it banned the platform over deleting a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari in June last year.

But Mr Radhakrishna denies any ideological leanings and claims his platform is “apolitical” and attributes its growth to the principle of freedom of speech.

“We are a lot more inclusive when it comes to freedom of speech on the internet. We allow people who speak any language to be able to come and express their opinion on the platform,” he said.

“We are a neutral platform while we show the true reflection of the country. The platform should not be labelled. We are a summation or aggregation of all the voices and not itself a voice … The perception is not the reality,” he said.

Free Features

While Koo has an almost identical layout to Twitter, Mr Radhakrishna says its free services are a major lure for users in the West, especially after Twitter decided to commercialise many of its services.

Mr Musk has introduced an $8 per month Twitter Blue subscription plan for verification, giving subscribers the blue tick as it aims to clean up the platform from spam and bot accounts.

But it backfired with several fake accounts of prominent personalities and entities cropping up with blue tick verifications after using the new payment services.

The US pharma giant Eli Lilly lost $15 billion after a user created a fake account in its name and announced that it was making insulin free.

Mr Radhakrishna said that his platform only offers verification badges to users based on their background and through documentation.

“Identifying oneself is a fundamental right. Charging someone for a fundamental right is not a good idea. On Koo, one can self-verify using ID number for yellow tick and if someone is of eminence gets a green tick,” Mr Radhakrishna said.

“It is already downloadable in the US. We want to let more people know that here is an opportunity to shift an entire network and enjoy similar and more features on the platform for free,” he said.

Updated: November 18, 2022, 6:00 PM