Roland Johns, 19, was banned from Instagram after he amassed more than 35,000 followers with a mix of politically conservative content that included unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
It’s the kind of ban that might naturally push a young social media influencer to some of the alternative platforms that have gained traction in recent years, such as Parler and Gettr, which welcome far-right politics and have lax rules on posting misinformation.
But Johns isn’t particularly attracted to those options.
“It’s all just a Band-Aid because it’s our own little kind of echo chamber,” Johns said, explaining that he would prefer changes to major platforms that would allow for all speech to be posted.
Johns, who now runs the Instagram page for his college Republicans club, was one of the many young people who attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where new apps and tech platforms were making buzz by jockeying for attention via shoutouts from keynote speakers and stations on the convention floor.
That buzz was tempered by influencers who said while they do use these platforms, they don’t see them as a replacement for the wide reach of the mainstream options. Many of them used the phrase “echo chamber” when discussing their concerns about the platforms.
“I think the challenge that a lot of these newer ones have is to not be an echo chamber for people who hold similar beliefs,” said Alex Weber, a content creator who was embraced by conservatives online after posting videos criticizing mask mandates, vaccine mandates and the mainstream media. “I think why Instagram and Facebook and all these are so impactful is because you’ve got all different types of people.”
As anti-Big-Tech sentiments have gained popularity in recent years among conservatives, a smattering of new platforms have popped up, attempting to take advantage of a market of social media users who may be looking for alternatives to big names like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Those platforms have attracted some users and conservative influencers, but they remain far smaller than their larger rivals and have so far proven unable to attract mainstream audiences, through which many conservative influencers have amassed major followings.
It hasn’t been for lack of support from big-name Republicans. Former President Donald Trump’s app, Truth Social, made its debut on Apple’s App Store in late February and received high-profile name checks at CPAC from speakers like Kimberly Guilfoyle — Donald Trump Jr.’s partner and a former adviser to Trump. Gettr, another app that bills itself as a free speech alternative to big social media platforms, was a prominent sponsor of the conference.
Conservative influencers do use these platforms. Isabel Brown, who has over 100,000 Instagram followers, got her start while working with the conservative campus organization Turning Point USA, and now she is a full-time content creator.
Brown livestreams on Gettr and said she’s been impressed with the engagement on the site thus far. She’s also been vocal about her hesitancy to embrace a move off of big social media platforms.
In a February episode of “Candace” — a show hosted by conservative personality Candace Owens — Brown disputed the idea of a new conservative internet, calling upstart platforms “echo chambers” of “conservative thoughts, statements and values.”
“I think it’s a mistake for us to abandon where the rest of culture is,” she said in the episode. “How are you supposed to grow your movement if you’re not reaching other people where they’re at in a language they understand.”
“I just think it’s really important that conservatives not only create a better alternative, where censorship isn’t so much of a problem, but they fight to make sure censorship isn’t a problem where the rest of culture is too,” she told NBC News.
Brown described the world of conservative influencers as the “Wild West,” saying there’s no real industry standard of success. Brown said she makes her living primarily through independent contractor agreements with conservative organizations like Turning Point USA, which has paid her to advocate for conservative causes in the media, and sales of her book on Amazon.
As with most influencers, a large audience is key to building a monetizable brand. Long-term follower growth on alternative platforms may be hard to come by, according to a January Washington Post analysis that found little follower growth on alt platforms in the last year for many top conservative influencers.
It’s not just content creators who have mixed feelings about the platforms.
Cristian Clementi, 25, is a Turning Point USA field representative in Miami, working to activate young people around conservative causes. He was frustrated by Truth Social’s waitlist and said he thinks most alternative platforms are echo chambers.
“The people that they’re trying to reach are on the major platforms,” he said. “I think it’s kind of counterintuitive to make your own platform, but it’s all everybody that agrees with you rather than the people that might be in the middle or don’t agree with you at all.”
Clementi said the creation of the new apps probably won’t help with recruitment for Turning Point USA.
"We’re trying to reach a lot of students that either haven’t heard of us or aren’t familiar with us,” he said. “And those people probably aren’t the most politically inclined, which means they’re not on these other social media apps.”