Be Careful What You Wish For, Mr. Thiel

A report available today from Pew Research Center finds that 62 percent of American adults “get news on social media, and 18 percent do so often”. Those statistics should frighten new and old media, but more so critics like billionaire Peter Thiel, who bankrolled wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker; the blog and news site lost. Depending on the outcome of a court hearing, Gawker could be shuttered or sold, if forced to put $50 million in escrow during the appeals process. The amount exceeds yearly advertising revenues.

Thiel admittedly put up about $10 million, if not more, to support Hogan’s lawsuit and unnamed others. Destroying Gawker might seem like an enviable outcome for one of Silicon Valley’s tech elite—he is a PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor—but, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, which replacement isn’t waiting around. Social media increasingly fills the niche that Gawker vacates. 

Revenge Killing
The new millennium industrialist considers himself and others as “victims” of ValleyWag, Gawker’s notorious, snarky, and rip-roaring gossip rag that ceased publishing on Dec. 31, 2015. Thiel tells the New York Times: “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest…I thought it was worth fighting back. I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category”. Hence Hogan’s secret bankroll.

Ah, the little people. The ones who cannot fight back. They are the Internet. They troll Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and other social media hangouts spreading rumors without editorial oversight. They don’t need your attempts to censor what you don’t want to read, Mr. Thiel. If Gawker is gone, or some other news organization, the little people will fill the spaces where they don’t already.

Destroying Gawker reduces the amount of editorially-curated content. Thiel and his band of arrogant, entitled Silicon Vally compatriots are likely to be greater victims, when the social media mob latches onto a rumor and flings it across the vast InterWebs. Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Thiel.

The Outing
Among the most infamous of the ValleyWag posts about the billionaire: “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people“. Writing today for the Huffington Post, Michelangelo Signorine astutely states (in the headline, and within): “Gawker Didn’t ‘Out’ Peter Thiel—Nor Did It Wrong Him in Any Way“. Michelangelo is correct. The Gawker site didn’t exceed the bounds of protected free speech in its accurate reporting about the Silicon Valley robber baron—21st Century industrialist. Justin Peter’s commentary, for Slate, agrees and extends the thinking. Dek: “The multibillionaire is spending a fortune to destroy Gawker in court. It will be catastrophic to democracy if he gets away with it”.

Success made Thiel a public figure and fair game for a news blog reporting about the culture, lifestyle, and shenanigans of its local audience. ValleyWag served a vital role, robbed by its closure five months ago. The best local newspapers put, well, local first—that’s exactly what the Gawker site did during its nine years of operation.

Behind all the snark and snooping was an air of accountability and reminder for the little people that the demigods of Silicon Valley are flawed humans, too. Contrary to Thiel’s assertions, ValleyWag’s approach very much is in the public interest. Many among the tech elite are accidental successes, spurred forward by insular culture of venture capitalist funding and exploitation, alongside fortuitous timing. As a tech reporter of more than 20 years, I have much experience witnessing the over-sized heads on San Francisco-area entrepreneurs’ little shoulders.  ValleyWag punctured over-inflated egos—something Thiel presumably resents.

In a story posted earlier today, one of the site’s reporters, JK Trotter, adds historical and current perspective from the frontline. What’s missing in too much of the commentary: Gawker’s so-called bully reporting, while aggressive, is largely accurate. The scoop-hungry newsroom isn’t lose with facts, just the language reporting them.

Mob News
Industrialists’ disdain for the news media is centuries old. Gawker belongs to a long legacy of proud muckrakers targeted for retribution. I know from experience that lawyers at many news outlets live in fear of lawsuits behind which there is wealth funded by malice.

Thiel tells the Times about his covert legal assault: “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence”. Less isn’t the same as none. His coordinated war against Gawker is more about revenge than anything else. Or is it coincidence, perhaps cold chance, that led Hulk Hogan’s lawyers to seek the exclusion of Gawker’s insurance carrier in paying damages. That’s a put-the-defendant-out-of-business strategy.

If the sneaky, secret legal funding campaign destroys Gawker, everyone loses. You, too, Mr. Thiel. Using different meaning for the G word, the gay parade of news social sharers aren’t accountable to you. The little people are too small for your legal pursuits, but their voices are big—booming across the InterWebs. No one should extinguish new or old media sites that report factually, even if nastily, while providing forums for people to gather and comment.

Sure, for example, Facebook provides a platform for news publishers. Many of them will be gone in five or 10 years because the advertising model is broken. The platform of the future, without something like Gawker, is unflattering photo of you and your date on Instagram and video on Vine. Raw and unfiltered. No editors. No curators. Just the mob hungry for celebrity gossip.

Photo Credit: Dany Sternfeld