Big tech was a big focus at CPAC, but conservative startups face challenges

Big tech was once again in the spotlight at one of the largest 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., took aim at big tech and corporations for the legal immunity they enjoy under Section 230 , which is currently being considered by the Supreme Court.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Co., said in her speech Saturday, “I’ve called for 230 protections to be stripped from these big tech companies that hide behind Section 230 and act as editors, not publishers.”

But unlike last year’s conference, speakers avoided promoting a grand utopian vision of a conservative “parallel economy” protected by the power of progressive values.

Instead, business leaders and elected officials shared a more antiquated outlook, criticizing the failed promises of technologies like cryptocurrencies, which many conservatives embraced last year. They also recognized the uneven odds of competing with tech behemoths 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 openly on stage Friday about the difficulties he and other companies face in the conservative “shadow economy.”

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

At last year’s CPAC, Truth Social and conservative Twitter clone Gettr were front and center, with conservatives championing 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, cryptocurrency markets have crashed, Elon Musk took over Twitter, and Meta decided to allow Trump back on its platforms, calling into question the viability of a parallel digital economy for most conservatives.

But not all of Big Tech was targeted. Speakers repeatedly praised Musk’s Twitter, specifically the “Twitter Files” project, in which Musk released internal files about Twitter’s old regime through several journalists and experts in an effort to demonstrate political censorship at the company.

LibsofTikTok creator Chaya Raichik has been critical of the tech giant’s treatment of her accounts, while also bragging about her number of followers on those platforms and promoting her book, which is sold on Amazon.

Aside from Nunes’ appearance, Truth Social did not appear to have a notable presence at the convention, and Trump did not mention 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 a notable absence at the conference.

Tech founders at the conference told NBC News that they believe some companies involved in the “parallel economy” movement have gotten ahead of their ambitions.

John McEntee, founder and CEO of conservative dating app The Right Stuff and a former Trump administration official, said he believed some people who started companies aimed at replacing existing tech companies may not have understood the difficulties involved.

“I think a lot of people here have been kind of like, ‘oh, we can do that,’ not realizing how hard the tech stuff actually is and how much a user expects,” he said. “They don’t understand how hard 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 user base by 30,000 users and is on a path to financial viability with its premium subscription product, but described the challenge of converting users who are already saturated with various offerings in the tech space.

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

McEntee said the company’s initial funding round led by conservative tech mogul Peter Thiel could at least last until the summer of this year, but that they should start 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 he believes the conservative companies that find success are the ones that are actually innovating in the tech space rather than simply providing an alternative.

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

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