Was it right for billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel to financially back wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media?
The debate has only gotten hotter since reports came out last week that Thiel (pronounced “teal” like the color) was the secret wallet behind Hogan’s lawsuit. Since May 24, when Forbes first reported that fact, both Thiel and Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton have given public interviews on the matter. (Thiel talked to the New York Times; Denton went on CBS This Morning.) And while some might say the whole story is only interesting to journalists and media insiders—that is the basic argument of a blog post by Tom Glocer, former CEO of Thomson Reuters—notable figures in the tech industry have deemed it important enough to make their opinions public.
Some have come out in support of Thiel, while others have criticized his decision. (Many have also hedged, expressing one view while simultaneously trying not to dismiss the opposite view or hate the opposite entity.) Many people (not just tech entrepreneurs and investors like Thiel) say Gawker has published baseless stories over the years and deserves to pay for it; Journalists and others say that Thiel using his money to help bring down a media organization—while technically legal—sets a dangerous precedent.
Here are all the Silicon Valley figures who have gone public with an opinion so far.
In support of Thiel:
A cofounder of Sun Microsystems, Khosla worked as a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Byers Caulfield, then created his own firm, Khosla Ventures. His firm has invested in many of the hottest tech startups, including AppNexus, HowAboutWe (which sold to IAC in 2014) Jawbone, Stripe, Zenefits, and Zocdoc, and bitcoin companies Blockstream and Chain. Khosla made his support of Thiel no secret, tweeting: "Clickbait journalists need to be taught lessons” and adding, “I’m for #theil.” (Yes, he misspelled Thiel.) Denton responded in kind: “Of course you’re for Thiel. Same class interest.” Khosla doubled down in a follow-up tweet at the New York Times: “Time to shut it down.”
As the founder of a venture capital firm made up of people who have known Thiel for years, it’s no surprise that Andreessen, as well as other partners at influential venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (often called a16z), would support Thiel’s right to back Hogan’s lawsuit. Almost across the board, the people at a16z have not overtly stated their support, but have either retweeted pro-Thiel or anti-Gawker tweets, or made veiled remarks of their own that appear to back Thiel.
It starts with Andreessen, who has tweeted articles that defend Thiel, and appended the identity of the author as a way of showing that reasonable people side with Thiel. He retweeted an editor from The Guardian saying he disagreed with a Fusion piece that called Thiel’s decision a “dangerous blueprint for perverting philanthropy.” He retweeted a Slate columnist saying: “A friend on Gawker: No other industry thinks they can abuse people with their product and not face legal liabilities.” He retweeted the former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review sharing a post that argued, “Gawker can’t hide its bad behavior behind press freedom.” He tweeted a blog post by Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, in which Adams calls eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s decision to back Gawker “a branding mistake.” He retweeted Tom Glocer’s post, which appeared to defend Thiel’s decision by dismissing the lawsuit as a non-story.
And when FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver tweeted, “Silicon Valley has unprecedented, monopolistic power over the future of journalism,” Andreessen retorted that journalism was “far more centralized, homogenous, and monopolistic before the Internet.” Andreessen also retweeted a series of tweets from author Greg Ferenstein that do overtly defend Thiel. One said, in reply to Andreessen, “editors literally control what is and isnt worthy. noone in the valley, even zuck, has that power,” and the other claimed, “Many (most?) agree w thiel b/c they believe quality speech needs protection.”
Journalism was, of course, far more centralized, homogenous, and monopolistic before the Internet. https://t.co/v3eI2VdNnB— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) May 31, 2016
Horowitz is Andreessen’s cofounder at Andreessen Horowitz. He has retweeted many of Andreessen’s tweets of pro-Thiel blog posts, and retweeted market analyst and author Nassim Taleb saying, “Bankrupting immoral journalists is good for journalism.” He retweeted an executive from VR company Ortelian saying “There is no reasonable view of journalism that includes this,” with a screenshot of a tweet from Gawker writer Richard Lawson admitting he wrote “baseless” posts. In the same thread, Horowitz added, regarding Lawson’s tweet, “This was consistent behavior from Gawker. No fact checking, no retractions when they are proven wrong, privacy invasions… thugs.”
@jgfarb This was consistent behavior from Gawker. No fact checking, no retractions when they are proven wrong, privacy invasions . . . thugs— Ben Horowitz (@bhorowitz) May 29, 2016
Another partner at Andreessen Horowitz, Evans is vocal on Twitter. On Monday, he tweeted, “Reading 500 articles demanding no-one ever sue the media has been informative as to what industry might be hostile to criticism.” Many people replied, accusing him of a “straw man” argument, but he went further in defending Thiel’s right to fund a lawsuit: “So it’s OK to sue with your own money, but no OK to help someone who otherwise couldn’t afford to sue?”
Reading 500 articles demanding no-one ever sue the media has been informative as to what industry might be hostile to criticism— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) May 31, 2016
The CEO of the most well-funded bitcoin startup in the world, 21.co, and a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, Srinivasan has, like other a16z folks, retweeted others that appear to support Thiel. (Of course, a retweet is not necessarily an endorsement, as the old caveat goes.) He retweeted Andreessen’s tweet about how journalism was more monopolistic before the Internet. He retweeted author Greg Ferenstein telling FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver that Silicon Valley, “very much favors more information not less, including speech.” And he retweeted Scott Adams’s post trashing Omidyar.
(Yahoo Finance has reached out to Andreessen, Evans and Srinivasan to ask for any further comment from them on Thiel and Gawker.)
A member of the so-called “PayPal Mafia” along with Thiel, Rabois was a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in LinkedIn, Yelp, and Square. Unsurprisingly, he has made clear his distaste for Gawker. Last week, Rabois found and retweeted a Daily Beast article from 2015 about Gawker’s efforts to out James Franco, and said, “Before you even think of defending Gawker or criticizing Peter, read this.” He has subsequently responded to many journalists on Twitter who were defending Gawker and made arguments such as, “If even James Franco or Hulk Hogan doesn’t have the resources to stop Gawker, obviously Peter was saving lots of people,” and, “If not an isolated incident and instead a pattern, why should the organization not receive a death penalty?”
A founding partner of tech accelerator Y Combinator, Livingston thanked Peter Thiel for financing Hogan's lawsuit. Her tweet was retweeted by many others in Silicon Valley.
Another member of the "Paypal Mafia" and another hugely influential angel investor, the cofounder and chairman of LinkedIn has shown his support the same way that many of the Andreessen Horowitz partners have, by retweeting only posts and tweets that side with Thiel. He retweeted Jessica Livingston, and retweeted venture capitalist Matthew Ocko saying, "To criticize Thiel for using his $ to stand up to legalized character assassination, when attacks were themselves for profit, is sanctimony."
Founder of VC fund 500 Startups, McClure jumped into the conversation between Vinod Khosla, who said “click bait journalists need to be taught lessons” and tech journalist Kara Swisher, who responded, “We don’t need to be taught lessons or ethics by a billionaire with an ax to grind.” McClure chimed in, “Denton could sure as hell use some ethics lessons.” McClure also shared a Daily Mail story about Gawker and said, “Here's a reminder of the "free speech" Gawker is known for: editor refused woman's request to take down rape video.”
Calacanis created Weblogs and sold it to AOL; he worked at Netscape early on; he worked at Sequoia Ventures; and he is now an angel investor. (Calacanis also possesses the @Fortune handle on Twitter and has refused to give or sell it to Fortune Magazine.) Calacanis retweeted Swisher pointing out that Denton is attending a Re/code conference, but that no Silicon Valley folks want to debate him, and he added: “I’m shocked no player wants to put themselves, family & colleagues in the crosshairs,” seemingly a dig at Gawker’s editorial practices.
The biggest surprise defender of Gawker is eBay (EBAY) founder Pierre Omidyar, who for now appears to be in a minority among tech circles. But Omidyar has shown his interest in supporting muckraking journalism. In 2013 he created First Look Media, which includes the web site The Intercept, aimed at “fearless, adversarial journalism.” (Of course, investing in journalism is no guarantee of supporting Gawker; Vinod Khosla, who has made clear his support of Thiel, is an investor in Vox Media.) The Intercept even hired a slew of Gawker writers and editors at one point, though many left. Omidyar and First Look are “looking into organizing amicus support for Gawker in its legal fight and appeal,” First Look’s general counsel Lynn Oberlander told the New York Post.
A television and film producer in L.A., an entrepreneur and creator of Artwalk TV, and a major personality on Twitter (her handle is simply @kim), Sherrell tweeted, “I stand with Gawker” because of Thiel’s position as a board member of Facebook (FB), and added, “Thiel’s tactics are gross.”
Facebook tried to ruthlessly murder Twitter, buying Insta out from under them. Not defending Gawker per se, but Thiel's tactics are gross.— Kim (@kim) May 31, 2016
An entrepreneur who sold his company Buddy Media to Salesforce (CRM) for nearly $800 million in 2012, Lazerow took to LinkedIn this week to write that he doesn't support Thiel's "tactics.” In the post, Lazerow writes that Thiel’s decision “violates core principles of Silicon Valley.” In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Lazerow tried to backtrack or hedge, cautioning, “I didn't side against Peter... but the tactics were out of line.” Yet in his post he wrote, “I am disgusted by Peter’s actions.”
The founder of defunct tech news web site GigaOm is now a partner at VC firm True Ventures, which has invested in Blue Bottle Coffee, Fitbit, and others. Malik tweeted Lazerow's post criticizing Thiel, andin a separate tweet, said, "Tech is now all pervasive, touching every corner of life & society. And that is why there is, will be & should be higher degree of scrutiny," a view he repeated on Bloomberg TV this week and a view that would appear to suggest support for journalism and wariness of Thiel's approach.
An early blogger and entrepreneur turned digital media consultant, and the first hire at Six Apart, which created Movable Type and TypePad, Dash is a major voice on the Web and fired off a series of tweets criticizing Thiel and the general culture of Silicon Valley. "It's so hard for many in tech to speak up because Thiel directly or indirectly has a stake in their companies. Those who do deserve credit," he said. Dash continued, in subsequent tweets: "There seems to be a real schism in tech. The closer folks are to Silicon Valley's culture (& money), the more they see criticism as heresy... If you think tech titans' attacks on media are dramatic, wait until they begin attacking government and regulatory institutions in earnest."
We don't yet have a name for the quiet but powerful community that doesn't want tech to be synonymous with antisocial & destructive efforts.— Anil Dash (@anildash) May 31, 2016
The Amazon CEO surprised many on Tuesday night when he came out against Thiel's lawsuit in remarks made at Re/code's Code Conference. Asked about Thiel's actions, Bezos said, "Seek revenge and you should dig two graves—one for yourself... The best defense against speech that you don't like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin." Bezos owns the Washington Post, and used the chance to remark on free speech in general: "Beautiful speech doesn't need protection; ugly speech does. If you step back and think about what a great society we have, part of it is we have these cultural norms that allow people to say these ugly things. You should let them say it."
Speaking at Recode's Code Conference on Wednesday night, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at last commented on Thiel; Facebook had remained silent until now. "Peter did what he did on his own, not as a Facebook board member," she said. In an interview on CNBC, she elaborated: "This is not something Facebook would do or support and not an action we would take.”
That sure sounds like a stance against Thiel's actions, but with one big caveat: Facebook says Thiel remains a boardmember.
Still no comment:
The No. 5 most valuable private tech startup on the planet (with a valuation of $20 billion), Thiel is Palantir’s chairman and its largest investor. Palantir hasn’t commented, nor has CEO Alex Karp.
Yahoo Finance will keep updating this post as more tech figures come out in support of Thiel’s actions or against them. It was last updated at 12:30pm EST on June 2.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.