Oct 18, 2022 - Technology

Rich conservatives fund new media universe

Illustration of an elephant trunk holding a smartphone glowing red.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

New investments in "free speech" social media platforms, podcasts and video channels are upending the media landscape and giving voices to conservatives who feel rejected by traditional networks and outlets.

Why it matters: Many of today's conservative media moguls are both rich and politically active.

Driving the news: Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, on Monday unveiled his plans to acquire Parler, a Twitter-like social media app that has become a haven for conservatives.

  • Ye's purchase of Parler, he said, will ensure people with conservative opinions "have the right to freely express ourselves" online. Ye has toyed with the idea of running for president. The current CEO of Parler is married to Candace Owens, the conservative media personality.
  • Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter is also expected to dramatically shift the way conservative content is filtered on the app, should the $44 billion deal finally go through in the next few months. Musk in May said he will vote for Republicans.
  • Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance's investment in Rumble, a YouTube alternative for conservatives, has helped the site remain on track to complete its merger to go public via a blank check company. Vance is running for Senate in Ohio.
  • Former President Trump's Truth Social has faced many legal and financial problems in the past few months, but it continues to provide a consistent platform for the former president and his allies to repeat and spread unproven claims that the election was stolen.

The big picture: Most of these new apps haven't grown to the point where they can meaningfully rival companies like TikTok or Instagram, but collectively, they have begun to create a new environment for conservative voices.

  • A new Pew Research Center study found that 15% of users of alternative social networks like Gettr, Telegram and Truth Social have been banned from at least one mainstream platform.
  • In August, following the FBI's execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, downloads across 10 alternative apps hit nearly 1 million collectively.

Flashback: The creation of a new conservative media reality began to ramp up in the wake of the content moderation crackdown following the 2021 Capitol siege.

  • A majority of alternate social media users, per the same Pew Research Center report, say they feel a sense of community on alternate sites and are generally satisfied with their new experience.

Yes, but: The space is becoming more crowded, and several big platforms are now competing for the same type of user.

  • Parler, for example, had just 42,000 downloads in the U.S. since finally being made available again in the Google Play Store on Sept. 2, per Apptopia.
  • Ye, who created a Parler profile Monday morning, only had 9,500 followers as of Monday evening. Major celebrities typically attract hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new followers when they launch new accounts on bigger social platforms like Instagram.

In the future, alternative platforms could begin to draw in other communities that also feel disenchanted by mainstream media and tech.

  • "I think a new digital economy will emerge, but it won’t just be people on the right participating," said Jason Miller, co-founder and CEO of Gettr, an alternate social platform that launched last year.
  • "It will be people who are attracted to the idea that a social media or e-commerce platform is not going to cherry pick winners and losers based on a preferred ideology."

What to watch: In addition to social networks, an entire economy — from cloud hosting networks to book publishers — has grown around conservative ideals and free speech absolutism, although not all companies are finding success.

  • On Monday, the CEO of a Texas banking startup for conservatives resigned in the wake of a turbulent start, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Trump's Truth Social faces a slew of financial and legal issues, including a whistleblower complaint with federal securities regulators.

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