Silicon Valley A-lister and Facebook board member Peter Thiel has become infamous for funding the Hulk Hogan “sex tapes” lawsuit that bankrupted his nemesis, Gawker Media. He is also making a name for himself as a prominent supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations. Now he has drawn the two threads together in a newly published op-ed in the New York Times.
If Thiel thought the piece would add to his stature as a thought leader, guess again…
Thiel, Trump and Univision
Before taking a look at Thiel’s op-ed, let’s pause to note that the law of unintended consequences seems to be at play here.
Thiel has always claimed that his support for the Hogan lawsuit is rooted in a brief (very brief) 2007 Gawker article that outed him as a gay man. The way he tells it, he is a defender of personal privacy and a champion of the little guy against media bullies.
However, Gawker’s status as a regular critic of Thiel’s business endeavors appears to be the real working factor behind Thiel’s desire to run Gawker out of business.
If that’s the case, Thiel just pulled the rug out from under himself.
The deal is awaiting final approval by a bankruptcy court, but for now let’s assume it goes through.
If Univision chooses to run stories about Thiel, those stories will go far beyond Gawker’s niche audience to reach millions of mainstream viewers and readers.
Coincidentally or not, Univision intersects on a negative plane with the Donald Trump for President campaign. It was one of the first organizations to earned a spot on Trump’s media blacklist, and its international audience is hardly appreciative of Trump’s appeal to nativism.
As a prominent Trump supporter, Thiel could easily find himself caught in the crosshairs whenever Univision trains its sights on the candidate.
That goes double because Thiel himself has demonstrated a proclivity for white nationalism.
Is personal privacy really the issue?
Aside from a shared affinity with white nationalism, an antipathy to the media is the main trait that Thiel and Trump have in common.
That’s where the new op-ed comes in. It appeared on Monday under the title “The Online Privacy Debate Won’t End With Gawker.”
The first thing to notice is actually the last line in the column, which provides this brief identifier:
Peter Thiel is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor.
If the issue is privacy and the media — and it is — then perhaps the New York Times should have insisted that Thiel’s identifier include a few more relevant details, namely, that he is a prominent supporter of the media’s self-proclaimed arch-enemy Donald Trump.
How prominent? Thiel emerged as a Trump delegate in California in May, a role that he somehow parlayed into an important speaking slot during the Republican National Convention in July.
Thiel also happens to be a Facebook board member. That high status position has become particularly relevant this year, as Facebook plans to transition from social media to a more inclusive news platform.
The matter of Thiel’s role as an “investor” also deserves some explaining. One of his major, longstanding investments is in the data mining company Palantir. Palantir is in the business of connecting the dots to expose corporate fraud, terror plots and domestic crime but it can also dredge up information that ensnares the innocent.
In other words, Palantir is not a good look for someone who insists on the sanctity of personal privacy. It’s almost as if Thiel is using the privacy mantra to distract attention from his financial interests.
The Peter Thiel Op-Ed Irritates Rep. Jackie Speier
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at that op-ed.
Thiel spends almost the entire first part of the piece — a hefty 700 words — on a detailed defense of his involvement in the Gawker case. He avoids the topic of how his actions — bankrolling a lawsuit to put a media company out of business — might undermine the ability of the media to serve its role in American democracy.
After those 700 words he leads off with this platitude:
A free press is vital for public debate.
That thought takes up just one paragraph, after which Thiel quickly launches back into self defense mode.
This next part of his argument is even more self serving than the first 700 words. In essence, Thiel claims that the entire U.S. House of Representatives is on his side:
The United States House of Representatives is considering the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, a bipartisan bill that would make it illegal to distribute explicit private images, sometimes called revenge porn, without the consent of the people involved. Nicknamed the Gawker Bill…
Regarding that nickname, apparently Thiel made it up on his own. The op-ed brought a swift rebuttal from the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), as reported in The Hill:
The “[Intimate Privacy Protection Act] was not created to address any one case specifically,” she said. “At the core of my legislation is the critical need for the federal government to deter this destructive conduct and to provide victims — no matter who they are — with access to justice.”
And she pushed back against the use of the “Gawker Bill” moniker in Thiel’s piece.
“It is not ‘the Gawker bill’ or the ‘revenge porn bill,’” she said. “It is the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, and it does exactly what its name suggests: protects the intimate privacy of all individuals.”
Peter Thiel really steps in it this time
Thiel’s ties to white nationalism, data mining and other quirks, such as his interest in consuming the blood of young people, are still flying under the mainstream radar.
However, the op-ed has lit a fire under organizations that share space in the media landscape with Gawker.
Vice, for example, weighed in with the headline, “Peter Thiel ties his Gawker crusade to a revenge porn bill, but advocates are skeptical.”
[Thiel] also radically downplays his influence in matters of online privacy as a billionaire board member of two companies with vast data-mining operations: Facebook and CIA-backed Palantir.
TechCrunch wasn’t buying what Thiel was selling, either:
…Thiel framed his crusade against Gawker as a gay rights issue in an essay that distorts the truth of the situation and fails to address the implications of a billionaire choosing to bankrupt a media company.
Mainstream media is also beginning to weigh in. The Atlantic scored this meaty statement from Rep. Speier’s chief of staff regarding the invented “Gawker Bill:”
“That is 100 percent not a thing,” her chief of staff, Josh Connolly, told me. “And it’s really self-serving, I think, on his part, to try to conflate our bill with their very specific case that has all sorts of loaded issues associated with it.”
That’s just a sampling. Now that Thiel has got everyone’s attention, his next public attempt to explain himself will most likely be examined more closely.
Just as Trump has blown up the current iteration of the Republican Party, Thiel — a self-identified Libertarian — is on track to expose present-day Libertarianism as nothing more than a justification for self indulgence.