Communities

What Peter Thiel’s Appointment Could Mean For Freedom Of Speech 

by Rachel Vorona Cote

November 16, 2016
Image via Flickr

As Donald Trump commences his ghastly slouch toward Washington, a coterie of sycophants snatches at his coattails: Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie—we knew this particular trio would scurry after heightened relevance and authority. Unsurprisingly, all three have slavered their way to the president-elect’s transition team, and possibly into the Cabinet. Less expected, perhaps, was billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s recent appointment to the same advisory committee. And yet, an alliance between Trump and Thiel, however appalling, seems so fitting that hindsight renders it almost preordained.

We can surmise that Thiel’s explicit relevance to the team resides in his connection to Silicon Valley. Fervently supportive of President Obama, the technology hub does not regard Trump with the same beam of approval; on the contrary, it’s deeply dismayed by his ascendance to the presidency. Apart from his evident love affair with Twitter, Trump oscillates in his position on technology’s consequence to modern life. He has also threatened to renegotiate international trade agreements beneficial to the tech industry. Apple, in particular, fears that it will be barred from overseas production (this might not be a bad thing, considering the working conditions of so many foreign factories).

Theoretically, Thiel will forge a more congenial relationship between his Silicon Valley colleagues and the incoming executive administration. He has previously claimed that his outlier status as a Trump-supporting libertarian has not blighted his business relationships. That said, it’s difficult to conceive of Thiel as possessing much social capital or political influence amid such a staunchly liberal community. And, in any case, would Silicon Valley be cajoled into cooperation with Trump? That remains to be seen.

But while Thiel’s appointment urges questions about Silicon Valley’s future, it engenders solicitude tethered to a more fundamental concept of liberty: freedom of expression. This is not to say that the last eight years have embraced each voice within our country’s vast chorus. Black Americans, Muslims, Latinos, the queer community—every demographic facing persecution under a Trump administration—has long wrangled the hegemonic juggernaut that would silence it. But increasingly (not quickly enough by far), public writing is foregrounding perspectives from the margins. For those of us privileged with easier access to a byline, we don’t fear vengeance from on high when speaking truth to power. Peter Thiel, however, has already laid bare his adversarial relationship to uncensored journalism—and now he is cozied up to the president-elect, someone who just happens to be equally perturbed by the media’s liberties. It is not, I think, far-fetched to suggest that both Trump and Thiel entertain fantasies of a severely circumscribed American press. What we don’t know is whether their unholy union can realize such a dark phantasm.

Trump, for his part, has fussed at the media since he began his presidential campaign. Over the course of the election season, he bleated out complaints that the media was “rigged” against him. He pounded out clumsy tweets about the “failing” The New York Times—it, along with most newspapers in America, had endorsed Hillary Clinton—and threatened to sue it for libel. In fact, after he won the election and, like a coddled child, was permitted to return to Twitter, he swiftly denounced two things: the protests against his presidency, which he claimed were spurred by the media and thereby “unfair!”, and, once more, The New York Times.

For the next leader of the free world to flaunt his grudges on a social media platform is, to say the least, disconcerting.

“The (Times) states today that (Trump) believes ‘more countries should acquire nuclear weapons,’” he tweeted on November 13. “How dishonest are they. I never said this!” (He did.) Scroll past his meticulous documentations of every politician who has congratulated him on his victory and you’ll spot two more Times-related tweets from the same day. In one, he claims the newspaper is losing subscribers due to “their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena.’” In another, he remarks that the Times has apologized to its subscribers for its “BAD coverage of me.” “I wonder if it will change,” he muses, “doubt it?”

For the next leader of the free world to flaunt his grudges on a social media platform is, to say the least, disconcerting. To the extent that we can parse Trump’s psychology, it’s evident that he, like most children, delights in anyone who massages his ego. For as long as someone lavishes Trump with praise, they dwell in his good graces.  

But, as you might imagine, Trump does not smile on the American press for its coverage of him. One might suggest that he is unwilling to be held accountable for his behavior—or that his megalomania precludes him from perceiving himself as flawed. Likely it’s some amalgam of the two. In any case, he has voiced his intention to take both the The New York Times and the The Washington Post to task for, in his estimation, portraying him in an unflattering hue. In fact, last February he vowed to “open up our libel laws so when they (newspapers) write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” In short, Trump proclaims, they’ll “have problems.”

As it happens, Trump cannot “open” these libel laws as he suggests he can. In 1964, the Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, set the precedent that public figures such as politicians can only prevail in libel lawsuits if there is clear proof that a piece was published out of malice—that the newspaper was well aware that it was spreading falsehoods or that it purposefully did not confirm the information before publication. Perhaps Trump’s threat was yet another example of erroneous bluster, born from his combined ignorance and bravado.

Enter Thiel. In the last year, Peter Thiel has successfully bankrupted one of New York’s most prominent media companies, Gawker Media. So wholly did he eviscerate it that when the company was sold to Univision, the masthead site, Gawker.com, was permanently shuttered. The immediate cause for Gawker’s demise was Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against it for publishing a sex tape—one that revealed Hogan to be having sex with a friend’s wife. Eventually, Thiel revealed that he had funded the lawsuit, spending nearly $10 million in the process. It was, he stated, “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve ever done.”

But Thiel did not bankroll Hogan’s lawsuit in a show of fraternity. He had nurtured a grudge since December 2007, when Gawker published an article entitled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Thiel condemned Gawker for publicly outing him, though the site contended that he had already disclosed his sexuality to those in his social sphere. Although Thiel referred to Gawker as “a singularly terrible bully,” he did not pursue legal action. Instead, his rancor smoldered until, nine years later, he landed a belated—but fatal—blow.

I expect more people support Thiel’s vendetta against Gawker than they do Trump’s grievances against the The New York Times. I also expect that a healthy percentage of those who voted against Trump believed Gawker to be in the wrong when they published both the article about Thiel’s sexuality and the one featuring Hogan’s sex tape. The trial was a contentious one and perspectives were scattered across a continuum that, on one end, cried for Gawker’s ruination. But whatever your interpretation of the matter, one blisteringly undeniable fact prevailed: Peter Thiel had initiated another precedent—one I wrote about last August—in which wealth and a grudge facilitated one targeted publication’s undoing. That’s a narrative Donald Trump would endorse. Perform moral superiority, but above all, satiate your basest revenge fantasies. Oh, and don’t forget to tweet about it.

The threat is extant, just as so many other threats have foamed out of the 2016 ballot box.

Thankfully, it generally requires more than money and power to make adjustments to legislation. Whatever punitive measures Trump and Thiel may hope to witch into law, they do not have such latitude. But Thiel, we know, is savvy and Donald Trump is an eager, breathlessly thin-skinned bully. If an unscrupulous Silicon Valley billionaire can attain executive privileges by educating the other in attacks against the free press, well, that sounds like a mutually beneficial arrangement. Besides, for as long as Peter Thiel remains in the public eye—and it seems he may linger for the foreseeable future—he too will attempt to curate his image. For now, the press is well safeguarded, but that does not mean Thiel won’t aid Trump in a search for cracks and loopholes. He certainly has everything to gain by providing such a service.

Regardless, worrying is fruitless. The threat is extant, just as so many other threats have foamed out of the 2016 ballot box. If we want to preserve self-sovereignty, and in so doing, protect freedom of press, speech, and expression, we must hover over this new administration. We must convey under no uncertain terms that no abusive legislation will evade our glance and that no nefarious dealings will go unreported. We have no choice. Against all expectations, Donald Trump has won. And now, so many of us have everything to lose.

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What Peter Thiel’s Appointment Could Mean For Freedom Of Speech