Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Facebook Board Member Peter Thiel Distances Self as Russia Scandal Grows

By Tina Casey

Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook member Peter Thiel made his fortune placing early bets on tech startups. His financial sixth sense merged with politics early in the 2016 presidential campaign when he staked his reputation on Donald Trump. The bet paid off for Thiel but Facebook itself has not fared well over the past two years. Now the company faces even more heat this week as evidence grows that Russian operatives used it and other social media platforms to influence voters.

This week, news also surfaced that Peter Thiel is distancing himself from Silicon Valley in general and Facebook in particular. That coincidence of timing opens up an opportunity to revisit some of the corporate social responsibility issues that Triple Pundit has been exploring in regards to Thiel and the prevailing ethos among leading tech companies in particular, and the corporate world in general.

Profit yes, people and planet not so much

For those of you new to the topic, tech influencer Peter Thiel is best known in the popular arena as a founder of PayPal. Though the Paypal venture was acquired by eBay a long time ago, in 2002, the eye-popping payout of $1.5 billion gave Thiel a ticket to the top of startup culture's A-list. His stature also grew thanks to a 2004 investment that helped launched Facebook into the stratosphere.

Thiel's less successful ventures have received less attention in the general press, though they have been covered regularly in tech and financial media.

Regardless of the occasional failure, Thiel has amassed a reputation for bottom line success. That accounts for the "profit" leg of the people-planet-profit stool. However, the other two legs are noticeably absent.

On the topic of planet, for example, a top flight undergraduate education at Stanford University seems to have had no lasting impact on on Thiel. As recently as last spring, Thiel characterized the scientific consensus on climate change as "group think" worthy of debate.

That position supports the Trump party line on climate action, but it does not help Facebook's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Facebook and the entire data-driven tech sector have a clear financial incentive to cut carbon emissions. By failing to support that goal with urgency, Thiel is missing opportunity to leverage bottom line results in the service of broader CSR goals.

Okay, so no planet -- what about people?

To be clear, that missing element of leadership on climate action is not only characteristic of Peter Thiel. It also reflects the attitude of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Though he has acknowledged the need for action on climate change, Zuckerberg has not been as proactive as other corporate titans. That is consistent with his general concept of corporate social responsibility.

In an interview with Fast Company last year, Zuckerberg dismissed the growing consensus that CSR is a strategic management decision in its own right. Instead, he claimed that Facebook's business model in and of itself is sufficient (dismissiveness emphasized):

I think the core operation of what you do should be aimed at making the change that you want. A lot of companies do nice things with small parts of their resources...

As for missed opportunities, Facebook's failure to lead is reflected in CR Magazine's influential 100 Best Corporate Citizens list (note: CR Magazine and Triple Pundit are both part of the 3bl Media organization).

Facebook is not listed among the 2017 top 100, which puts it well out of the league of familiar names in tech like Intel (#2), Microsoft (#3), Texas Instruments (#15) and Adobe (#18).

Peter Thiel and Facebook

Zuckerberg's attitude toward CSR could explain why he has avidly defended Peter Thiel's continued presence on the Facebook board, despite the  growing list of Thiel's controversial non-Facebook activities over the past two years.

During the 2016 campaign that includes Thiel's decision to support the Trump campaign as an official California delegate during the primaries and as a strategically positioned keynote speaker at the climax of the Republican National Convention. Thiel also wrote op-eds at key points in the campaign and capped it with a $1.25 million contribution that helped push Trump over the finish line in the runup to Election Day 2016.

All of this was anathema to forward-thinking Silicon Valley leaders who were horrified at the anti-immigrant, racist and misogynistic rhetoric of the Trump campaign, capped by the release of the notorious "grab them by the pussy" audiotapes However, venture capitalist Ellen Pao was among the very few who forcibly, and publicly, criticized Thiel in the late stages of the 2016 campaign.

Nevertheless, Trump's campaign rhetoric explains at least part of Thiel's attraction. To cite just one example, one core element of Trump's political success is his ability to disqualify his critics in the media. Thiel adopted that formulation in defense of his financial backing for the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that eventually bankrupted Gawker media (it's worth noting that Thiel's money went to Trump-connected attorney Charles Harder, who represented Hogan in the action).

Thiel characterized his support for Hogan as a philanthropic gesture aimed at protecting ordinary citizens from "media bullies." As justification, he cited his personal experience being outed as a gay man in 2009 by Gawker's ValleyWag site, but it also happens that ValleyWag was gleefully shooting holes in Thiel's golden-touch image by repeatedly bringing up the disastrous failure of his Clarium hedge fund.

In an interesting turn of events, Thiel recently indicated an interested in buying Gawker, possibly with the sole aim of shutting down its archive. That would include the digs at Clarium as well as references to his personal life.

Speaking of people...

Another area of synchronicity between Thiel and Donald Trump more deeply involves the people leg of the stool.

As soon as Trump took office, he followed through on his anti-immigration rhetoric. Mark Zuckerberg and many others in the tech world pushed back vigorously, but not Peter Thiel.

That's not surprising, considering the influences swirling around Thiel's role in the Trump campaign. During that time Thiel's affinity for the white nationalist movement and the anti-immigration campaign Numbers USA received renewed attention, as did his notorious 2009 essay on libertarianism which he linked women's suffrage to the purported ills of the welfare state, and his earlier support for the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, who is credited with a record of racist publications.

Among all these issues, the focus on immigrants stands out partly because Thiel was born in Germany, emigrated to the US at age 1 with his parents, and recently became a citizen of New Zealand. In a similar vein, two of Trump's three wives are immigrants and the immigration status of his current wife's parents has recently come under scrutiny, all of which is problematic for his vociferous stance against so-called "chain migration."

Even more interesting is the disconnect between Thiel's longtime affinity for the libertarian ideals of limited government, and his recent activity in both business and politics.

Peter Thiel and the surveillance state

Though professing the limited government ideals of libertarianism, Peter Thiel co-founded a successful big data company, Palantir, known for its facility in collecting and synthesizing mountains of personal information. That's more than a little ironic, especially considering that the Palantir business model rests heavily on government contracts.

In light of the Palantir venture -- and amid concerns that the company can and will play a role in Trump's immigration policies -- Thiel's support for the libertarian cause takes on the appearance of a philosophical version of greenwashing, deflecting attention from the real-world activities of Palantir.

As for the political side, Thiel's payoff for boosting Trump into the Oval Office initially included a seat at the inner circle table through his leadership of the President's now-disbanded tech advisory council, the Strategic and Policy Forum.

Early last year rumors began circulating that the relationship between Trump and Thiel had cooled, but by last fall he was officially in the running to lead the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.

Unlike the awkwardly titled Strategic and Policy Forum, PIAB is no fleeting creature of the Trump administration. It has been a permanent office for 50 years, as described in the Obama White House archive:

The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board exists exclusively to assist the President by providing the President with an independent source of advice on the effectiveness with which the Intelligence Community is meeting the nation’s intelligence needs, and the vigor and insight with which the community plans for the future. The Board has access to all information needed to perform its functions and has direct access to the President.

That last item involves security clearances, and considering the current security clearance travails of the Trump White House it's not surprising that Thiel eventually withdrew his name from consideration.

However, Peter Thiel has still left his mark on the Trump administration. For example, the responsibilities of Science Advisor to the Trump administration fall on former Thiel chief of staff and climate science denier Michael Kratsios. The 31-year-old Kratsios is the de facto head of an office with broad responsibilities including homeland security.

Earlier this month, word also bubbled up that longtime Thiel financial associate Kevin Harrington has garnered a position on the staff of the National Security Council.

Combined with the Palantir activity, all of this seems to indicate no small degree of conflict between Thiel's role in business and his influence on US policy making.

And, that's where things get even more interesting.

What about the Russians?

Whether or not appearances are borne out by fact, the corporate social responsibility trendline is providing Thiel with less room to maneuver in the tech world, and more generally in the corporate world.

In that light, last week's news is not particularly surprising. Apparently seeking kindred souls, Thiel is reportedly moving to Los Angeles, where he will find himself on more sympathetic ground.

The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, offered up kudos from its editorial board:

The news that billionaire investor Peter Thiel is decamping to Los Angeles to escape the stifling political conformity of Silicon Valley won’t shatter the republic, but pillars of the Valley would be wise to heed its warning. One reason the maestros of tech are becoming political targets is because they are seen as partisan and disdainful of middle America.

Setting aside the notion that other "maestros of tech" are political targets on the same order as Peter Thiel, The Guardian takes a more sanguine approach to the move:
PragerU is one of a cluster of LA-based digital media organisations in the conservative movement that have... “a disproportionate amount of influence on the right”. This makes it the perfect place for Thiel to build his new right-leaning media business, first reported by BuzzFeed in January. The plan is to create a cable news network that would compete with Fox News and “foster discussion and community around conservative topics”, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, news of Thiel leaving the Facebook board may be somewhat premature. However, as the Mueller investigation zeroes in on the 2016 Trump campaign, Facebook and other social media, exposing deep and potentially damaging knowledge gaps in US intelligence, it's all the more curious that the name of Peter Thiel has yet to surface.

Photo: Peter Thiel by Luc Van Braekel.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey