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

At one of the largest annual meetings of conservative politicians and personalities, Big Tech was once again the focus.

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 immunities enjoyed by Section 230 corporations is currently being examined by the Supreme Court.

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

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

Instead, business leaders and elected officials shared a weather-beaten perspective, criticizing the failed promises of technologies like cryptocurrency that many conservatives had embraced over the past year. They also acknowledged the unequal opportunities of competing with tech giants and the difficulties of turning startups into companies that can eventually scale and thrive independently of politically motivated investors.

Devin Nunes, CEO of former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social, spoke candidly on stage Friday about the difficulties his and other companies face 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 that there are real headwinds that we are learning and I think this is where Congress needs to look.”

Truth Social and conservative Twitter clone Gettr took center stage at last year’s CPAC, with conservatives excited by the idea of ​​creating an alternative world in technology where conservatives could avoid what they saw as censorship and be free could talk about their beliefs and values.

Since then, crypto markets have collapsed, Elon Musk has taken over Twitter and Meta has decided to allow Trump back onto its platforms, calling into question the viability of a parallel digital economy for most conservatives.

But not all big tech was a target. Speakers repeatedly praised Musk’s Twitter and in particular the “Twitter Files” project, in which Musk published internal records of Twitter’s old regime by several journalists and pundits to illustrate political censorship at the company.

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

Aside from Nunes’ appearance, Truth Social appeared to have no significant presence at the conference, and Trump made no mention of the platform in his keynote address. Gettr, whose CEO Jason Miller recently left the company to work with Trump on his presidential campaign, also had little presence at the conference.

Tech founders at the conference told NBC News that they believe some companies that have been part of the “parallel economy” movement have outdone 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 thinks some people who have started companies aimed at replacing existing tech companies may not be having the trouble have understood.

“I think a lot of people here thought, ‘Oh, we can do that,’ without realizing how difficult technical stuff actually is and how much a user expects,” he said. “They don’t understand how difficult that is, you know, you want to change one thing and then all those things have to change in the backend.”

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

“It’s very difficult to get them to create a new profile when they’re already on three others,” he said.

McEntee said the company’s seed funding round, led by conservative tech mogul Peter Thiel, could last at least until the summer of this year, but they would have to start looking for another round soon.

Andrew Riddaugh, who also worked in the Trump White House and is now the CEO of Liberation Technology Services, which provides independent web hosting and development services, said that in his opinion, the conservative companies that thrive are the ones that are actually innovating in the technology space , instead of just offering an alternative.

“If you look back, you still see those who have been working on innovations and new user experiences or new products and tools,” he said. “If you don’t have something that makes you unique, people will default to what people already know and use.”

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