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The revelation that billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel was the money behind Hulk Hogan‘s lawsuit against Gawker is replete with ironies. Not least among them is that Thiel has previously funded groups actively working to protect journalists from precisely the sort of intimidation Thiel has admitted was the reason he funded the former professional wrestler’s legal action against the website.
As spotted by an eagle-eyed poster going by the handle “theodp” on the techie discussion forum Slashdot, a 2013 endorsement of the Thiel Foundation’s support for the Committee to Protect Journalists reads:
“Every day across the world, journalists risk their lives to expose corruption and violence. Many of these journalists are harassed, threatened, imprisoned, and even murdered by authoritarian regimes and other enemies of press freedom. Because a free society needs a free press, the Committee to Protect Journalists defends journalists’ rights to report the news freely and without fear of reprisal.” (Italics added)
After news of Thiel’s involvement in Hogan’s lawsuit was revealed, the Committee to Protect Journalists—a nonprofit group that promotes press freedoms—has distanced itself from the libertarian activist who recently signed on to be a delegate for the Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
“Between July 2008 and January 2013, Peter Thiel and Thiel Foundation provided significant financial support to CPJ. As a free expression organization, we have a wide variety of supporters with a wide variety of views,” a spokesperson for the group wrote in a statement.
“Regarding reports that Peter Thiel underwrote civil litigation by Hulk Hogan against Gawker, we note that we support the right of individuals in the United States and around the world to seek civil redress in cases of defamation. However, we do not support efforts to abuse the process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets.”
In a statement provided to the Daily Dot, Thiel said, “I am proud to have supported Terry Bollea [Hogan’s real name] in his successful fight against a bully’s gross violation of privacy. Gawker, the defendant, built its business on humiliating people for sport. They routinely relied on an assumption that victims would be too intimidated or disgusted to even attempt redress for clear wrongs. Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to publish sex tapes without consent. I don’t think anybody but Gawker would argue otherwise.”
Earlier this year, a jury in Pennsylvania awarded Hogan $115 million in damages over running a short clip of Hogan having sex with the wife of his friend, a radio host who legally changed his name to Bubba the Love Sponge. The Gawker post featuring the video is titled, “Even for a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex in a Canopy Bed is Not Safe For Work but Watch it Anyway.”
After Forbes broke the story of Thiel’s involvement with the lawsuit earlier this week, the tech investor gave an interview to the New York Times in which he said that helping Hogan take down Gawker was “about specific deterrence … 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.”
“[Bankrolling the cases against Gawker is] one of my greater philanthropic things I’ve ever done,” Thiel told the Times, noting that he is also responsible for funding other legal actions against the site but declining to specify which ones. “I think of it in those terms.”
The nature of Hogan’s suit as being primarily about putting Gawker out of business, rather then simply to collect monetary compensation for damages, was suggested when Hogan’s lawyers during the trial tried to prevent Gawker’s insurance company from helping pay for both the media outlet’s legal bills and whatever payments were mandated by the jury.
Thiel’s animosity against Gawker reportedly stems from a 2007 post written by Owen Thomas (who also served as the first editor-in-chief of the Daily Dot) entitled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” which publicly outed the investor.
In a comment on that post, Gawker founder Nick Denton, who is also gay, wrote that Thiel had made threats against Denton in the past.
“If Silicon Valley is the bastion of tolerance it likes to believe and if the tech industry cares only about money, it’s surprising that Thiel would have kept his personal life a secret from journalists and his closest colleagues for so long,” Denton wrote. “He was so paranoid that, when I was looking into the story a year ago, I got a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story ever ran.”
While Gawker was unrepentant in its outing of Thiel, the company was much less sure of itself last year when a post outing an executive at rival publishing empire Condé Nast drew widespread condemnation. Denton ultimately took the post down, over the objections of top editorial staff, calling the story “a decision I regret.”
Thiel isn’t the only tech billionaire involved in the fight over Gawker’s fate. Pierre Omidyar—a founder of eBay, which bought PayPal, a company co-founded by Thiel—is reportedly filing an amicus brief in support of Gawker through his news organization, First Look Media.
In an open letter to Thiel, Denton asserted Thiel’s effort to shutter Gawker is largely self-interested, since the site has been openly critical of Thiel’s many business interests and of the controversial Silicon Valley titan himself. Denton pointed to stories highlighting Thiel’s opinion that extending the vote to women was a negative development for the country, mocking his vision of building a radical libertarian utopia on an offshore platform, and critically digging into Palantir, a secretive intelligence contractor in which Thiel is an investor.
However, the most damage Gawker has done to Thiel’s business interests almost certainly came after Hogan’s massive jury award had already been handed down. Earlier this month, Gawker’s tech blog Gizmodo ran a story alleging that the people working on Facebook‘s Trending Topics team routinely suppressed content from conservative news sites. Thiel was the company’s first major investor and sits on the firm’s board of directors.
This incident isn’t the first time the Thiel Foundation has come under scrutiny for hypocrisy.
In 2013, as part of his push to convince more talented young adults to eschew college in favor of going directly into the workforce, Thiel—who received two degrees from Stanford University—announced a fellowship program offering high school graduates $100,000 if they agreed to forgo college and instead spend two years working on a startup in which Thiel would take a partial ownership stake. At the same time, a hedge fund founded by Thiel required candidates for an investment analyst position to have a “high GPA from a top-tier university.”
Naturally, when Thiel announced his anti-college initiative, Gawker made fun of it.
Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.