Big tech was a major target at CPAC, but conservative startups face challenges

Big tech was in the crosshairs once again at one of the biggest annual gatherings of conservative politicians and personalities.

In speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), elected officials, including Sens. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., targeted big tech and the legal immunity companies enjoy under Section 230, which is currently being considered by the Supreme Court.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Co., said in her speech Saturday: “I have called for 230 protections to be removed from these big tech companies who are hiding behind section 230, and they are acting like editors rather than publishers.”

But unlike last year’s conference, speakers shied away from boosting a grand utopian vision of a conservative “parallel economy” shielded from the power of progressive values.

Instead, business leaders and elected officials shared a more weathered perspective, criticizing the failed promises of technologies like cryptocurrency, which many conservatives embraced last year. They also acknowledged the uneven odds of competing with tech behemoths and the difficulties of turning startups into companies that can eventually scale and thrive independent of politically motivated investors.

Devin Nunes, CEO of former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social, spoke openly on stage Friday about the difficulties facing his and other companies in the conservative “parallel economy.

“The key was, could we build something that big tech couldn’t tear down and couldn’t stop?” he said. “I will tell you there are real headwinds that we are learning, and I think this is where Congress needs to look.” 

At last year’s CPAC, Truth Social and conservative Twitter-clone Gettr were front and center, with conservatives riding high on the idea of creating an alternative world in tech where conservatives could avoid what they saw as censorship and speak freely about their beliefs and values. 

Since then, crypto markets have crashed, Elon Musk took over Twitter, and Meta decided Trump could be allowed back on its platforms, leaving the viability of a parallel digital economy for most conservatives in question. 

But not all Big Tech was a target. Speakers repeatedly praised Musk’s Twitter and specifically the “Twitter Files” project, in which Musk released internal records about Twitter’s old regime through several journalists and pundits in an attempt to illustrate political censorship at the company.  

LibsofTikTok creator Chaya Raichik criticized how big tech has treated her accounts while also boasting about her follower count on those platforms and promoting her book sold on Amazon.

Outside of Nunes’ appearance, Truth Social didn’t appear to have a notable presence at the conference, and Trump didn’t mention the platform in his keynote speech. Gettr, whose CEO Jason Miller recently departed the company to work with Trump on his presidential campaign, also did not have a notable presence at the conference.

Tech founders at the conference told NBC News that they believe some companies that were part of the “parallel economy” movement got ahead of themselves in their aspirations.

John McEntee, the founder and CEO of conservative dating app The Right Stuff and a former Trump administration official, said he thought some people who founded companies aiming to replace existing tech companies might not have understood the difficulties going in.

“I think a lot of people here had that sort of like, ‘oh, we can do that’ without realizing how hard tech stuff actually is and how much a user is expecting,” he said. “They don’t understand how difficult that is, you know, you want to change one thing and then all these things on the back end have to change.”

McEntee said his own company is growing its userbase of 30,000 users, and is on a road to financial sustainability with its premium membership product, but described the challenge of converting users who are already saturated with various offerings in the tech space.

“It’s very hard to get them to make a new profile when they already are on three other ones,” he said.

McEntee said the company’s seed round of funding led by conservative tech mogul Peter Thiel can at least last them until summer of this year, but that they’ll need to begin looking for another round of funding soon. 

Andrew Riddaugh, who also worked in the Trump White House and is now CEO of Liberation Technology Services, which offers independent web hosting and development services, said that he thinks that the conservative companies that are finding success are the ones who are actually innovating in the tech space rather than just providing an alternative. 

“When you look back, those that worked on innovation and new user experience, or new products and tools, those are the ones that you still see around,” he said. “If you don’t have something that makes you unique, users are going to default to what people already know and use.”

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