The Right Is Big Mad at Big Tech But Can’t Quite Figure Out Why
The MAGA movement still had Big Tech in its sights at CPAC 2023 — but they aren’t sure how or when to pull the trigger, or if the gun is even loaded.
The ultra-conservative conference has long been captured by Donald Trump, serving as a perennial opportunity for the president’s ramblings and personal quibbles to become urgent initiatives for his followers. Starting around 2019 and continuing through 2021 and 2022, after the Capitol riot and Trump’s blacklisting on all the major social media sites, one of those top directives was smashing tech companies that dared affront him and building alternative platforms more politically palatable for his supporters.
At CPAC 2023 in National Harbor, not far outside Washington, D.C., Big Tech firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter remained central villains. An entire panel — “Big Tech: Break ’em Up, Bust ’em Up, Put ’em in Jail” — revolved around the need to overturn Section 230, the federal law that helps shield website operators from lawsuits about user-generated content. Sen. Eric Schmitt and Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Lauren Boebert were among the speakers who demanded major platforms be stripped of 230 protections in retaliation for (imaginary) anti-conservative bias.
But at the main event — Trump’s one-hour, 45-minute speech — the former president’s list of canonical enemies was too long, and his focus was mostly elsewhere: grievances about his shabby treatment by the “deep state” and criminal probes, apocalyptic rhetoric about crime and voter fraud, and promises to ban trans-affirming health care and govern as “retribution” for his 2020 loss. His feud with Big Tech barely came up, and mostly in reference to a line about destroying the “illegal censorship regime.”
“Big Tech” can mean anything from self-driving cars to wind farms, but in the MAGA world, it generally refers to the relative handful of Silicon Valley companies that serve as gatekeepers to sprawling, and monetizable, culture-war battlegrounds. A recurring theme at CPAC 2023 was that conservative ambitions toward building a “parallel economy,” a utopian internet where any digital service has a patriotic equivalent built for and by right-wingers, have been complicated as they struggle to compete with behemoths like Facebook and YouTube. Years of failed or middling efforts to create free speech clones of those sites — remember Parler? — have contributed to the weariness.
Trump doesn’t have much to complain about when it comes to his ability to dominate the online conversation. The ex-president hasn’t tweeted since Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk, who has bent over backwards to please conservatives, rescinded the ban on his once-prolific account. The silence on his Twitter timeline has more to do with his binding agreement to post on his own site Truth Social. He’s similarly been allowed back on Facebook, where his account also remains devoid of new content.
With conservatives only holding onto the House, there’s no near-term prospect of a Republican-led repeal or reform of Section 230. (That would probably hurt them as much as it helps, as the law actually enables sites to keep up content that might be targeted by frivolous lawsuits.) The Trump appointee-dominated Supreme Court is currently weighing multiple cases which could impact the law, but has seemed reticent to blow up the internet.
CPAC’s exhibition floor was devoid of some of the bigger names in conservative-themed social media, like Truth Social or its primary surviving competitor, GETTR. Illustrating the over-saturation problem: Trump aide Jason Miller quit his job to found GETTR, only to find himself in direct competition with his former boss months later, when Trump shafted him by founding Truth Social. Miller recently threw in the towel, quitting GETTR to join Trump’s re-election campaign. A Pew poll taken a few months before Miller’s exit found only one in ten respondents had ever heard of GETTR, placing it only slightly ahead of obscure video host BitChute.
Replacement sponsors in the tech sector included PublicSq., an app-based directory of ideologically correct businesses for “freedom-loving Americans,” and Patriot Mobile, a Christian cell service provider. PublicSq., a worker at its CPAC booth explained, is necessary to guide right-thinking consumers to businesses that support their values. The question of why, exactly, Christians need their own mobile network went unresolved; an attendant at Patriot Mobile’s booth said they weren’t authorized to speak to the media.
Near the rear, another booth was set up for The Right Stuff, a Peter Thiel-backed dating app which markets itself as the conservative alternative to “ghetto” Tinder. Merch at the stand included white sweatshirts with a slogan in pink urging women to “Dump your liberal boyfriend,” which helps explain reports the site has an overwhelming dearth of single women.
Co-founder Daniel Huff, a former Trump appointee, says The Right Stuff is necessary because MAGA types face “hostility on all the regular apps, it’s both from the platforms themselves and from the users.” He gave a personal example. “I was on a date with a girl I’d met on another app, was sitting down, she finds out I work for Trump in the White House,” Huff laments. “She’s not like, ‘Oh that’s cool, let’s talk about it.’ She literally got up and left after two minutes. So this is a real phenomenon.”
Ignacio Falco stood behind the booth for ignite45, which provides “digital solutions for the patriotic economy” such as search engine optimization, web design, and advertising on sites like Truth Social and video host Rumble. He explains digital ad dollars can easily fall into a black hole and a “lot of small businesses tend to work with left-leaning companies that do not have any skin in the game for them.”
But when asked why that demonstrates the necessity of web services for conservatives rather than just more personalized solutions for each customer, Falco’s response was more about values than value: “Everything that we do at this point in our life, speaking in terms of myself and my wife, whatever thing we do is for America First … If America First is not winning on all fronts, either the political, school boards, digital, you name it, then our own economy starts to weaken.”
ignite45’s signs carried the logos of numerous MAGA-flavored social media sites it could help customers build a presence on, including Twitter clone Gab, infamous for its large contingent of white supremacists. Quizzed on how that presence might play into the ad strategies Falco pitches to customers, he says, “All I’ve seen on Gab is a Christian-based community and I love it.”
In the absence of direction, CPAC attendees asked for their insights on Big Tech mostly fell back on a familiar mix of personal gripes and apocryphal stories of censorship.
D.C. resident and podcaster Suzzanne Monk said she had “experienced a lot of Big Tech censorship” despite having nearly 20,000 Twitter followers, claiming she’s either shadowbanned or facing some other invisible restriction on her account. “We had the same thing with Facebook jail, I did two cycles for telling the truth about the Covid shutdown, the mandates, the CDC,” she says. Todd Tibbetts of Georgia, who wore a shirt saying “Extreme Ultra MAGA” and says his job involves building data centers, blames Big Tech companies for the arrest of Trump supporters who live-streamed their role in the Capitol attack: “People were turned in by Democrat activists because of their Twitter accounts.”
Pro-Trump rapper Forgiato Blow — real name Kurt Jantz, but who goes by the nicknames “Mayor of MAGAville” and “Trump’s Nephew” — isn’t famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page. But within the narrow world of CPAC, he can’t walk 10 feet without fielding selfie requests from flag-draped fans. He has 97,000 Twitter followers, more than 105,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and 30 albums on Apple Music, but says he’s one of the most censored people alive.
“It’s to the point where it’s ridiculous, the censorship,” Blow says. “You know, they didn’t censor NWA back in the day when they were saying that [about] the police.” (The FBI sent NWA a threatening letter over “Fuck Tha Police,” and their second attempt to play the song live in 1989 ended with them tackled by Detroit cops and a $25,000 fine.)
Blow claims he made Facebook over a quarter of a million dollars in ads and revenue sharing through his verified pages, and was eager to show a photo of a silver plaque, bearing former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s signature, that the video platform sent him when he gained 100,000 subscribers. He complains that bans on Instagram and YouTube have made it difficult to direct fans to his streaming accounts, and right-wing knockoffs like Rumble don’t draw traffic. “I paid people numerous times like $7,000 to $10,000 that supposedly work in Instagram to get my page back,” he says. Asked if he thought he’d fallen victim to a scam, he responds, “No. The person sent me back a letter to the people saying [I’m] on a hate list.”
There’s a tension at the core of the MAGA movement’s relationship with Big Tech: The platforms they decry as liberal-controlled hives of censorship are key to their online reach. Efforts to build a parallel digital ecosystem for conservatives and thus break free of social media rules don’t exactly dovetail with the Republican obsession with their follower counts. At CPAC 2023, it was clearer than ever that the MAGA movement doesn’t really know whether it wants its own internet or to strong-arm its way into higher engagement numbers on the old one.
At the “Break ‘em Up” panel on Big Tech, former Pentagon Chief of Staff Kash Patel urged conservatives to disengage further from mainstream social media sites like Facebook. “This is your mission,” he said. “The deep state and the media cannot exist if you don’t turn them on.” Tamon Hamlett, a Trump-pledged elector in Texas in the 2020 election, argued the complete opposite while waiting for the ex-president’s speech to begin: “The first way to fight Big Tech is to actually get on Big Tech.”
“People say, ‘Oh, well, if I get online, I’m just gonna get banned,” Hamlett continued. “And I say, well, you still need to show up. And you still need to be on those platforms, because even if you do go out and create your own platform, you’re not really — you’re limiting your reach.”