Arshia Arya, Dibyendu Mishra, Joyojeet Pal
We conducted a preliminary study of influence networks on Koo, and their relationship to activity on Twitter. Here are a few findings.
First, we find that the design of the Koo app makes for more propagation of individual accounts. The landing page encourages users to follow other users, and a culture of reciprocal followbacks, which helps build a sense of community quickly. The community managers play an important role in this. If a community manager follows a new account, it has the impact of promoting that account to the rest of the community. Since the community is largely aligned on social values, there is a natural coalescence around homophily, which past research has shown is a factor in network creation.   As a result, we see that Koo has its own set of influencers who may or may not be significant in other public-facing social media channels. One feature on Koo distinct from Twitter is that it enables following accounts based on interest parameters – while some of these are standard categories including ‘entertainment’ and ‘politicians’ (sic), there are a few less typical categories including housewives (since removed), govt officials, and social workers.
Second, we find that Koo is closely modeled on Twitter, with little functional innovation over the Twitter, selling mainly on the 400-character limit. Unlike platforms like Snapchat or TikTok which innovate significantly on interface, recommenders, and functionality, Koo is closer in design to Parler, in that the main selling point is the population to which it caters. While the Press Information Bureau was among the earliest to get on Koo, the early traction on the platform took place in mid-2020, following Koo’s winning the Atmanirbhar Bharat App Challenge in August 2020. Around this time the app saw an increase in usage, with a small number of influencers from other platforms joining, such as actor and motivational speaker Ashish Vidyarthi who has a significant presence on LinkedIn got on, and became the most followed person on the platform.
Although Koo has remained a small platform, there is a ‘big fish in a small pond’ effect, where a small number of independently well-followed accounts drive the discourse. While none of the high footprint celebrities from other platforms joined Koo till earlier this month – some less-known artistes such as Akhilendra Mishra, Rashmi Pitre, Hansa Singh, and Vinay Anand got on the platform and developed niche following, as did lesser politicians from the key parties. Likewise, some journalists who have a very small presence on Twitter, such as Padma Sambhav, Anjana Sharma, and Alok Verma, who have a relatively marginal presence on Twitter, have significant following on Koo (as we can see in figure 1).
It is also important that while Koo is currently dominated by accounts strongly aligned with the BJP, this was not the case earlier. This new-found homophily in the Koo crowd arguably served as a driver of early engagement, though in the longer run, this risks becoming an echo chamber. While some of the highly followed individuals on Koo, including Ravi Shankar Prasad, Anupam Kher, Sambit Patra, Shivraj Chouhan, Tejaswi Surya, and Piyush Goyal have significant following on other platforms as well, there are a number of politicians who have little widespread reach on the more popular networks such as JK Dubey, Ramshankar Katheria who have very little influence compared to their party leaders on Twitter, but have a very significant footprint on Koo.
While Koo was not initially branded as a government-friendly forum, the events of February 2021 following the demands to block Twitter by those sympathetic to the Indian government have publicly noted creating new accounts on Koo. This has shifted the political ticker of Koo significantly towards the BJP, as we see in figure 1, the vast majority of key accounts are either politicians associated with the BJP, or journalists and media houses sympathetic to the BJP.
However, it is equally important that these individuals did not “switch” to Koo, but rather created new accounts on Koo. In fact, as we see in figure 2, all the key leaders who created accounts on Koo continued to be active on Twitter. However, we see in figure 2 that while the accounts are still equally active on Twitter, they see some drop in their Twitter engagement. While some celebrities had the same content on both twitter and koo, most of them were far more active on Twitter than Koo and engaged on Twitter through retweets almost on an hourly basis while they posted on Koo relatively sparsely.
There is an important nuance to this. While there is an increase in activity on Koo, the role of a small number of Koo influencers is outsized there. A network diagram of the key accounts that have had the most engagement with hashtags urging people to move from Twitter to Koo allows us some insight into that. An interesting case in point is that of the handle “FirstOnKoo” which trended this past week (figure 3). In a visualization of the key accounts (the largest dots are the ones that got most retweeted) that led to this hashtag going viral, we find a number of accounts that are already influential on Koo, or have an interest in bringing more adoption there. These include conservative commentator Shefali Vaidya, BJP Andhra member Sunil Deodhar along with accounts of individuals who are not born or ethnically Indian, but are married to, or interested in India-related issues such as Maria Wirth, Melissa Kapoor. Interestingly, two other influencers on Koo, Suzanne Bernert and Mary Millben are likewise female non-Indians with an interest in India issues.
Finally we examined the use of Koo-related hashtags on Twitter for a window into the language, metaphor, and conceptual associations that we see in network graph of hashtags. We see that nationalism is strongly woven into the appeal to join Koo. There are three themes common to the kinds of hashtags that accompany these. The first is an appeal to nativism – with hashtags such as #JaiHind #BharatiyaSocialMedia #MadeInIndia, the second is the vilification of Twitter, through the use of #BanTwitter @TwitterHypocrisy, and the third is the use of language and terminology specifically associated with the ruling party such as #AtmanirbharBharat #AndolanJivi @ModiStrikesBack. These reinforce the push for more usage of Koo has not been based on the functionalities of the app, but rather on platforms of nationalism, aiming to present a community of similar-thinking individuals.
While Koo supports several Indian languages already and has others in the pipeline, language was not a major driver of its recent upsell on social media. An important design choice that the platform’s recommendation system makes is that people with similar language preference are the ones who get recommended to a user. For example, while Ravi Shankar Prasad is the largest politician to be recommended on English Koo, he’s not recommended on Kannda Koo. There are indeed a few important patterns that emerge from the language diversity and design choices of the platform. A small number of political leaders, Karnataka BJP leader Tejaswi Surya, for instance, use Koo as a means for their regional language outreach, and have the potential to create a dedicated audience there. However, there is little scope for competition here since Twitter can offer the same possibilities, and has better ability to manage large scale online action, compared with the relatively small scale at which Koo operates.
The related problem is that a number of BJP politicians have invested significantly in building online real estate, and several studies have shown that the BJP has a massive advantage in terms of the social media footprint of its key leaders as well as the organization of its online outreach effort  , which extends beyond India and also serves as a channel for foreign relations outreach. More importantly, work has also shown that the BJP is already able to effectively corner the discourse by pushing its agenda through the use of platform affordances  . Indeed, the effective coordination of the campaign against Twitter on Twitter is itself testament to the party’s ability to mobilze.
Consequently, this begs the question of whether shutting down Twitter or a mass movement to Koo serves any real purpose for the party, except to use a new situation reinforce a nationalist narrative (the Rihanna issue), and perhaps to put pressure on Twitter to undermine some annoyances to the party on the platform. The events that precipitated the events of the Koo conversations, the Farmer protests and the Rihanna issue, were annoyances at best, they did not seriously threaten the dominance of the BJP on social media. In this case, it serves as a trial run for a more concerted attack on Twitter. The most significant part of the Koo case is that Narendra Modi did not himself move his activity out of Twitter. Plenty of work has shown how central the process of political communication and reputation management has been to Modi’s own personality , so long as that remains true, Twitter can rest assured it may find itself weakened, but not out of business.
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