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 in National Harbor, Maryland, elected officials, including Republican Sens. Eric Schmitt of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, targeted big tech and the legal immunity companies enjoy under Section 230, which is being considered by the Supreme Court.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., 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 at 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.
Former Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the CEO of former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social, spoke openly onstage 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, including Facebook, 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 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 it in his keynote speech. Gettr, whose CEO, Jason Miller, recently left the company to work with Trump on his presidential campaign, also didn’t have a notable presence.
Tech founders at the conference said they believe some companies that were part of the “parallel economy” movement got ahead of themselves in their aspirations.
Former Trump administration official John McEntee, the founder and CEO of the conservative dating app The Right Stuff, said he thought some people who founded companies 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 company is growing its user base of 30,000 and is on a road to financial sustainability with its premium membership product, but he 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 it until summer but that it will need to begin looking for another round of funding soon.
Andrew Riddaugh, the CEO of Liberation Technology Services, which offers independent web hosting and development services, who also worked in the Trump White House, said he thinks the conservative companies that are finding success are the ones that are actually innovating in the tech space rather than just providing alternatives.
“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.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com