Ask anyone in a key role at Facebook what they view as the social networking service's mission, and you're bound to eventually hear some lofty words about the free exchange of ideas. "Facebook stands for giving everyone a voice," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said when the social network recently found itself in hot water over allegations it had been monkeying with its algorithm to downplay conservative-learning news. "We believe the world is better when people from different backgrounds and with different ideas all have the power to share their thoughts and experiences."
That's some pretty noble talk about freedom of expression. It is also, unfortunately, nothing but talk, as Facebook proved this week when it continued to embrace a board member who's devoted a chunk of the money he's made off investing in the social network and other tech ventures toward suppressing the kind of free exchange of ideas Zuckerberg and his fellow executives feign support for.
That would be Peter Thiel, an early backer of Facebook who was re-elected to his seat on Facebook's board of directors this week without a peep of dissent. You would have figured some objections might have been in order since Thiel's extracurricular activities as of late have included anonymously bankrolling lawsuits aimed at media outlets who've displeased him.
To give Thiel credit, he's proven to be as successful at surreptitiously exercising vendettas as he is at funding tech ventures. Thiel has been funding lawsuits against online news site Gawker — how many the otherwise press-shy billionaire won't say — because he objects to the way Gawker goes about its business. Thiel told the New York Times that his antipathy toward Gawker stems from allegations that the site has "ruined people’s lives for no reason" — a 2007 Gawker article outed Thiel and the news site was particularly unsparing in its coverage of the lavish wedding of Thiel chum Sean Parker — though it's hard to shake the feeling that the real source of Thiel's beef is that Gawker and its various Web properties failed to cover tech companies with what the billionaire considered to be sufficient deference.
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Whatever the reason, Thiel scored a hit in the form of a lawsuit he bankrolled on behalf of former wrestler Hulk Hogan, who successfully sued Gawker for publishing a sex tape involving him. A Florida jury awarded Hogan $140 million, with the judgment prompting Gawker to file for bankruptcy. (Gawker is currently appealing the ruling, even as it seeks a new buyer.)
Judging by the reaction to Hogan's legal victory (and, by proxy, Thiel's), Thiel could hardly have picked a less sympathetic target to exact his revenge. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been particularly giddy about the longtime bane of their existence getting some legal comeuppance.
I have no particular ties to Gawker other than as an occasional competitor and frequent reader. I could probably rattle off a list of stories published on its sites that I think should never seen the light of day just as I could rattle of stories that I wish I would have had the wherewithal to pursue. Even if I thought nearly every story ever published on a Gawker site was without any journalistic merit, I'd still be appalled by how Thiel is exploiting his wealth and privilege to silence a news organization, on the sly and from the shadows. Apart from the Hogan case, Thiel hasn't confirmed the lawsuits he's actually funding, and the lawyer in that case continues to threaten legal action against Gawker, most recently over Donald Trump's hair. Thiel, notably, will be a Trump delegate at next month's GOP convention.
Which brings us back to Facebook, and its guilt by association by continuing to keep Peter Thiel on its board of directors. Yes, the way Facebook is structured, it's Zuckerburg himself and not the board of directors who makes the decisions for the company. And Zuckerburg's decision to retain the counsel of someone who's made it clear he has little use for a free and independent press speaks volumes about his real values, which have precious little to do with giving everyone a voice.
That's especially troubling as Facebook steps up its efforts to be your one-stop shop for news and information. As the social networking site has become more of a primary news source for its users, it's launched programs such as Instant Articles where publishers can deliver articles directly to Facebook's newsfeed. To put it another way, Facebook wants you to get the bulk of your news from its service at the same time one of its board members is using his financial pull to influence the kind of news that's out there.
Since news broke of Thiel's involvement in suing news sites that fail to promote his particular world view, I've become less enthused about using Facebook. My last status update was back in late May and, apart from posting a link to this article, I don't expect that to change now that Zuckerberg and Co. have signaled that they're A-OK with talking up support for the free exchange of ideas while a high-profile board member promotes exactly the opposite.
Facebook's silence over Peter Thiel's assault on the free press speaks volumes about what it values as a company. If you appreciate freedom of expression — even if that expression isn't always polite — you should let your silence on Facebook do likewise.