Parler or Tooter: What does the future hold for Koo, India’s homegrown Twitter clone?

Best case: It becomes a niche platform. Worst, and more likely: It fizzles out.

ByVinay Aravind
Parler or Tooter: What does the future hold for Koo, India’s homegrown Twitter clone?
Shambhavi Thakur
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The Indian Right has always chafed at the perceived lack of support for their ideology from social media platforms, especially Twitter. This has led to a host of copycat apps catering squarely to the right-wing (despite their creators’ protestations) including Tooter, Kimbho and Gutrgoo, which have all fallen by the wayside.

The latest entrant in this parade is Koo, an app launched in 2020 by a pair of startup veterans, and backed by both political and financial capital from the establishment.

To take a step back, it’s worth understanding why Twitter is the app that everyone wants to emulate (and not so much Facebook or Instagram). Despite its relatively small user base, Twitter is perhaps the only platform where common folks can have a semblance of interaction with famous people of every stripe, including film stars, corporate bigwigs, and government officials. The “discourse” on Twitter informs media reporting and discussions to a significant degree, even if it has very little impact in the real world.

There is influence and prestige that comes from having a following on Twitter, and political parties invest a lot of money to maintain troll armies and to pay celebrities to tweet in their support.

Twitter enjoys a virtual monopoly in that sense and has therefore copped a great deal of criticism, often justified, about their wildly inconsistent content moderation efforts, especially in India. While Twitter India has shown reluctance to take down content that involves death threats, doxxing or targeted harassment, they appear very keen to ban users for using words such as “kill” or “die” even when the context clearly indicates there is no violation of its terms of use.

Only a few months ago, Twitter India refused to take any action against accounts that were doxxing interfaith couples, until Buzzfeed News carried a story about it. Moderating content on a social media platform is a challenging enterprise at the best of times, but it’s obvious that Twitter India fails to clear even the lowest of bars in that department, coming off poorly even when compared to their parent, which has not covered itself in glory either.

That said, the event that has spurred the Koo app’s explosion in profile is a rare instance where Twitter seems to be actually showing some spine. It started with the Indian government’s attempt to censor hundreds of accounts that were tweeting about their treatment of the farmer’s protests, under the broad and opaque Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Initially Twitter India, as is its wont, complied wholeheartedly. Subsequently, on what appears to be intervention from their global headquarters, they walked back substantially and unblocked most of these users stating they considered the offending tweets within the ambit of free speech.

Since then, a game of chicken has been playing out between Twitter and the government of India, with the government ratcheting up its threats – including jail time for Twitter officials – and Twitter trying to mollify the government by offering to restructure its policy setup and offering “better communication”, but stopping short of full compliance with the government’s diktats. With the government’s 2020 ban of TikTok looming over these discussions, it will be interesting to see who eventually blinks.

The government has also opened up another front in its battle with Twitter, and that’s where their embrace of the home-grown Koo app comes in. Several ministers and government departments have set up their accounts on the app, even going so far as to brag about their (still rather modest) Koo following on Twitter. Corporate honcho and known government supporter Mohandas Pai has, through his fund, invested in the app, and several right-wing celebrities have made it their new home.

Despite technical glitches and privacy concerns, the app has seen exponential growth (even if from a small base) and is for now among the top free apps on the Google Play Store in India. People are describing it as India’s Parler: the Twitter clone that catered to the American right-wing and then mostly died out when its infrastructure providers pulled the plug in light of its role in the Capitol riots.

This is where the limitations of Koo become evident. At best it can aspire to be India’s Parler, a space that offers light-touch content moderation, that is a safe haven for the right-wing, and that will always play nice with the establishment and honour its wishes without question. While they tout local language support as a distinguishing feature, it’s hard to imagine that aspect will be useful in transcending the category it has placed itself in.

It is also very unlikely that Koo will find much traction outside of India, which means that even those who are on Koo will have to continue to be on Twitter to interact with the wider world. One only needs to remember the late 2019 exodus of left-wing and liberal users to Mastodon to understand the headwinds a Twitter alternative will encounter.

While Mastodon is conceptually and architecturally a great alternative to monolithic social networks like Twitter – an open, ad-free, federated social network not under the control of a single corporation – the network effects have meant that its usage among Indians has subsided after that initial spike.

Even if the massive amounts of political patronage and financial capital that is being pumped into Koo is likely to give it a much better shot at succeeding than any similar attempt in the past, it is difficult to imagine that it will actually erode Twitter’s user base to a meaningful degree.

Any ideological project, including that of the Indian right-wing, needs the out-group as much as the in-group, because there’s only so much joy that one can derive from having conversations with people who already agree with you.

There is also the matter of the massive IT cell that the governing party has assembled on Twitter, which would be impractical to replicate on an alternative platform where there are precious few “anti-nationals” to troll and harass. Even government officials and departments are unlikely to be satisfied with putting out content that only a small group of loyalists is likely to consume and will, therefore, continue to use Twitter in much the same way as before.

The wild card here is, of course, the possibility of a Twitter ban. While the government has not made any public indications that it is considering such a step, the TikTok ban has meant that this is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. It is unlikely that the government will resort to such a move especially considering how much it values its image as the “world’s largest democracy”, but if it does happen, that may be the shot in the arm that Koo needs for much wider adoption, even outside its ideological bubble.

Short of that, the best that Koo can hope for is to become a flourishing, if niche, platform that caters to a certain group of people, as a second home. The worst case would be that, despite the money and support from the establishment, it goes the way of Tooter or Gutrgoo. My money is on the latter.

Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.

Also Read : The great WhatsApp migration of 2021: How India is waking up to privacy issues
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