Jaspreet Oberoi: Koo And Modi's New War With Twitter

Koo, the Indian Twitter alternative, has gotten into controversies right at the beginning of its big moment, including a data leak row and the revealing of having a Chinese investment

Jaspreet Oberoi
Februarry 13, 2021 | 3.5 min read

One of the world's most celebrated intellectuals, Jacob Bronowski famously said, ‘Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.’ 

It is not that the Indian PM, Narendra Modi does not understand this, instead, he does it too well. The society he dreams of turning India into can only gain a form of permanence when it is dead at its core. Thus, from the get-go, his modus operandi has been to stifle dissent and shove conformity down the throat of his constituents. 

To achieve this, the Modi government has implemented a multi-pronged strategy of neoliberal extractivism, Hindutva ultra-nationalism, and authoritarianism. 

On one hand, this involves the systematic crippling of the democratic institutions, like the judiciary, the education system, and the media. On the other, private individuals have been held in preventive detention to stop them from organizing protests and vociferous critics of the government have been framed under the charges of sedition, criminal defamation, and terrorism. 

In such a prohibitive and antagonist setting, social media has been the sole avenue for the enablement of dissenting voices and for the orchestration of any kind of anti-establishment narrative. While it is true that internet apps like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp have been used to great effect by Modi and his supporters in their propaganda, these platforms, especially Twitter have been equally instrumental in helping the anti-Modi voices join together and broadcast in unison. 

Considering that, will there be an attempt to raze down this last bastion?

The ongoing farmers’ protest in India is a perfect example of how the protestors, their supporters within India, the journalists covering them and the allies worldwide have used Twitter to mobilize immense support and run an utterly successful campaign to put an international spotlight on the issue.

This of course did not go well with the government and on February 8, 2021, it ordered Twitter to take down 1,178 accounts for allegedly spreading misinformation on farmers’ protest. 

The list of accounts was flagged by security agencies as having links with supporters of Pakistan, being run by Khalistan sympathizers, and spreading provocative content, causing a threat to the public order. The government did not provide any evidence to substantiate the claims but insisted that the accounts violated Indian laws. 

Twitter complied partially with these orders which in turn invited strong rebuke from the authorities. The official government release expressed ‘extreme disappointment’ and warned the US company of dire consequences if the constitution and the law of the land are not followed.  The company has been told that non-compliance with the government’s demands would lead to action being taken under Section 69A (3) of the IT Act, which could potentially have the senior officials of the company in prison for up to seven years, in addition to a financial penalty.

Even more importantly, this incident has given the Modi government a convenient pedestal to launch an anti-Twitter cry amongst its supporters. Naturally, no repressive regime appreciates a non-compliant player, especially of the stature of Twitter, which now has 17.5 million subscribers in India. 

It is noteworthy that Twitter is currently banned in China and Iran, since the year 2009. While the ban in China came into effect when tensions rose between the Uyghur Muslims and the Chinese authorities, the Iran ban was enforced to prevent protests against the controversial Iranian presidential results. 

Will the Modi government go to that extent?

Though it is unlikely that the Modi government will take such an extreme step, due to fear of losing face at the international stage and serious admonishment, they have already started the process to cut Twitter to size. 

Immediately after this kerfuffle with Twitter, several ministers and departments of the Union government flocked to Koo, a homemade copycat of Twitter, and made public announcements of the same. This resulted in more than 3 million downloads of Koo in just one day (Feb 10, 2021) as the Modi supporters thronged the app stores making it one of the top free apps.

Everything has not been rosy for Koo either. 

It has gotten into controversies right at the beginning of what is supposed to be its big moment, including a data leak row and the revealing of having a Chinese investment. The issue of data leak hit the news after a famous French security researcher, Elliot Alderson on Thursday showed how the platform was leaking user data including the date of birth, marital status, etc. and the Chinese investment issue became an embarrassment because the platform has won government awards for being an indigenous App.

Under normal circumstances, one should celebrate such a development that encourages competition, and challenges monopoly, be it of Twitter or Koo; but the close association of the Koo investors and the Indian government is bound to raise concerns and skepticism. 

In times where the success and effectiveness of mass movements like the ongoing farmers’ protest depend so heavily on these apps, any kind of subservience of such a platform towards the government can absolutely diminish and abate the opposing voices and send them to oblivion.

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Jaspreet Oberoi was born and raised in Patiala, Punjab, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is a columnist focused on socio-political issues concerning India and Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @ijasoberoi.


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