ORLANDO, Fla. — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) began Thursday just after Russia initiated attacks on Ukraine, but many Republican leaders took the stage in Orlando to talk about something else: Big Tech.
As Russian missiles bombarded the European country, Republican senators, a former Trump adviser and a sitting governor all opined on major social media companies — which they say are politically censoring them — and celebrated the prospect of what some called a “parallel economy” that’s beginning to take shape in the form of new social media platforms, such as former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social.
The focus on Big Tech has served as a major rallying point for Republicans as they enter a crucial midterm election season, harnessing pent-up frustration from a steady drumbeat of suspensions of conservative influencers and commentators from major tech platforms, including Trump’s 2021 suspensions from both Twitter and Facebook.
Conservatives didn’t mince words when it came to discussing their feelings about major tech companies.
After condemning GoFundMe’s decision to ban donations to the Canadian Freedom-Convoy, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, encouraged Republicans to “break Big Tech up into a million little pieces,” as part of a larger polemic against monopolies and big business.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told audience members that “Big Tech is now the number one institution for censorship in this country.”
Former Trump adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is also Donald Trump Jr.’s partner, compared social media moderation to Chinese censorship.
“What’s the difference between being punished in China for having the wrong opinions and Big Tech companies silencing you for daring to have conservative beliefs?” she said.
For Guilfoyle and some other attendees, Trump’s ban from Facebook and Twitter marked an inflection point.
CPAC kicks off in Orlando with Trump expected to speak SaturdayFeb. 25, 202203:03
“Every major social media platform banned President Trump last year. If the sitting president at the time can be banned on social media, no one is safe,” Guilfoyle said.
Just as present as the attacks on Big Tech were the crop of alternative platforms that could be seen and heard everywhere at the conference.
“Twitter and Facebook aren’t the be all, end all,” Guilfoyle said. “Now we have President Trump’s new Truth Social. Sign up, jump over and enjoy the freedom of expression.”
Trump’s app launched on Feb. 20 but has struggled to accommodate the many people who have downloaded the app and remain on a wait-list with tens of thousands of others.
Similarly, Erik Finman, a technologist known for making millions on bitcoin as a teenager, and as the founder of the alternative Freedom Phone, encouraged the audience to push back against the Big Tech companies by participating in the “parallel economy” of alternative platforms.
“The only way we can fight is not just having similar technology but better technology that they can't touch,” he said.
Gettr, a social media app led by former Trump adviser Jason Miller, had a major presence at the conference, with prominent sponsorship markers on the main speaker stage and throughout the conference space.
Kaelan Dorr, who manages marketing for Gettr, told NBC News that he believed people were just looking for places where they can connect and be themselves.
“I think it’s all about just kind of fostering a community,” he said. “Conservatives should have a safe space of their own, right?”