On Tuesday, the government of India began a dedicated endorsement of the homegrown microblogging app Koo in the wake of its stand-off with Twitter regarding a matter of blocking accounts of those tweeting "inflammatory" content.
Koo is a near copy of Twitter but with some key differences - It supports languages other than Hindi and English and allows users in India a list of language options to post content in, making it a potentially attractive option for multilingual India.
The move also comes in the wake of India's tussle with Twitter, a United States-based company that initially refused to take down accounts of persons that were tweeting with certain hashtags that were deemed inflammatory.
Following continued pressure from the government, Twitter has finally started blocking a set of accounts noted by the government for "carrying inflammatory and divisive comments". But not without a blog post in which it spoke out against the impingement of free speech and noted that values that uphold free expression and open internet "are increasingly under threat around the world".
The blog post following the standoff may have preceded the government to push for homemade alternatives.
Twitter, however, is no stranger to facing off with governments. The Jack Dorsey-owned Twitter raised several eyebrows and also earned praise after it blocked beleaguered former US President Donald Trump in wake of the violence at Capitol Hill. Twitter's power to editorialize and selectively silence individuals, no matter if he is the President of the United States or a ground-level activist in India, urged many to look for alternatives.
And it looks like many in India want a homegrown alternative to Twitter.
The emergence and sudden growth of Koo, however, is remarkably similar to that of Parler in the US. The latter is an "alt-tech" microblogging app that positioned itself as the social media platform that promoted absolute "free speech". The app is populated by 'parleys' from white supremacists, conspiracy theorists like QAnon, anti-semites, and supporters of Donald Trump. Many of the users were reportedly those banned from Twitter.
Those who supported Parler claimed it was in favour of free speech as opposed to the "censorship" of Twitter. Created in 2018 by John Matze Jr. and Jared Thomson in Nevada, the app was later revealed to be funded by conservative investor Rebecca Mercer, daughter of well-known hedge-fund manager and Trump-backer Robert Mercer.
Though its users had been growing since the summer of 2020, the platform witnesses a surge in December which continued till January. Until the Capitol Hill riots.
Parler was found guilty of supporting rioters ahead of the Capitol Hill violence on January 6. Mentions of "civil war" and calls to take action against the swearing-in of President Joe Biden increased manifold in the hours preceding the chaos. Two days after that, Google Play Store removed it from its app store. It was also pulled off of the Apple App Store. At the time, it was one of the top downloaded free apps on both.
In India, the last few years have seen a growing demand for homegrown apps and innovation, especially since the banning of a number of popular Chinese apps including the likes of TikTok and CamScanner following Indo-China border violence.
Many who are known to tweet volatile comments including actors, online activists and journalists have highlighted the need for a medium that allows freedom of speech without the invisible "content moderation" practiced by Twitter.
Earlier in 2020, a Twitter copy-cat app named Tooter also surfaced. Many big political players such as Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself have verified accounts on the platform, which was promoted as "Swadeshi" Twitter. The app failed to take off despite an initial spike in interest and popularity and a majority of Idnians social media users continued to tweet, not toot.
Is Koo like Parler?
Koo is as much like Parler as Parler is like Twitter. It means that though it follows the same structural and stylistic similarities to Twitter, much like Parler does, it is not identical to Matze's app. Koo has not been banned by any app stores so far and is currently enjoying the favour of the government.
But Koo and Parler are not the only apps that have sprung up in the past two years in response to the growing power and popularity of Twitter. Koo was invented by two Indian entrepreneurs 14 years after Twitter hit the app store. Parler and other apps like Mastodon have for some time been trying to displace the Jack Dorsey owned company's market position among the 'Big Tech' companies.
What made Parler stand out? The truth is, it wasn't the commitment to "free speech" that appealed to its followers but the promise to allows users the space to share fake news, unverified contents, and biased opinions without the regulation of an all-powerful algorithmic editor or content moderator.
In that effect, whether Koo ends up like another Parler depends on the users of the platform. So far, many have congratulated the shift to Koo and called it a victory of free speech, much like fans of Parler claimed in December.
While freedom of speech and censorship do not go hand in hand, content moderation is a key aspect of social media platforms and is essential for the prevention of the spread of fake. Here's to hoping that Koo manages to uphold the tenets of free and fair speech while also ensuring it remains India's Twitter and not become India's Parler.