The billionaire Peter Thiel has made himself vulnerable to a political backlash, according to Nick Denton, the founder and former owner of Gawker Media Group, the blog network that made enemies with the tech entrepreneur.
Denton, who was bankrupted after Gawker was sued by Hulk Hogan over the publication of a sex tape, in a lawsuit funded by Thiel, described a scenario that would lead to Thiel’s comeuppance.
“Peter Thiel, through his financial support of litigation and his support for political disruption through Donald Trump, has become a national figure,” Denton said at an event at at SXSW on Sunday.
“He has become extremely prominent and an avatar, an embodiment, of the merger of the reactionary elite with a kind of populist celebrity in Donald Trump.
“If there was ever a political backlash against this moment, he has made himself very exposed,” he said.
This is particularly ironic, Denton said, given Thiel’s obsession with the philosopher René Girard. Girard’s central idea is “mimetic theory”, which posits that most human behaviour is based on imitation and that the imitation of desires leads to conflict.
When a buildup of conflict threatens to destroy the parties involved, a scapegoat is used to return to balance.
“You punish the scapegoat and it’s a cathartic moment and society can move on,” Denton explained, arguing that Gawker became the scapegoat for people’s tendency to gossip.
Thiel could become a scapegoat of the current political tensions in the US, he said.
But Thiel remains a threat to freedom of the press, Denton added.
He said the media had been strong until the late 20th century because there was a lucrative classified advertising revenue stream, which meant subjects of the stories were rarely more powerful than the media companies covering them.
“Now you have monopoly profits of companies, like Facebook, funding the fortunes of billionaires, like Peter Thiel, and the media, by comparison, is financially outmatched,” he said.
Thiel alone possesses a comparable market cap to that of the New York Times, with a net worth estimated to be $2.7bn, while the New York Times’ current market capitalization is $2.35bn.
“The balance of power has shifted dramatically,” Denton said.
“So if we’re talking about freedom of expression, profitability has to be at the center of that.”
It’s not just billionaires and celebrities who wield this power over the media, but advertisers, he continued.
“An honest review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a dangerous and expensive proposition,” he said, alluding to the defective phone recalled after explosions.
“There will be no drama, you’ll just see no advertising from Samsung for the next few years and the salaries of 10 journalists go up in smoke for one story.”
Denton argued that the concentration of power and wealth was also skewing the justice system.
He cited Thiel’s own words justifying his support of the Hogan lawsuit: “If you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system,” Thiel said at the National Press Club in Washington in October.
Denton said: “Maybe you need to be a billionaire to get justice, as long as the legal process is convoluted and extremely expensive.”
He said that at one point Gawker’s legal costs were running at about $1m per month.
Denton said it was “lucky timing” that he had settled the Hulk Hogan lawsuit a week before the 2016 election.
“Peter Thiel is now one of the most powerful people in the country.
It’s probably wise not to be in a fight with him at this time.”
Denton wants to launch a media company that can try to bridge the political divide.
Without creating places for reasonable conversations, he said, the only other option was escalation and polarization that would eventually lead to civil conflict.
Proper debate and discussion could be restored through careful curation of community, he argued, saying that people who were toxic on Twitter were often far more reasonable in conversations with smaller groups of people.
Gawker would publish incendiary posts, but journalists would respond to readers in a more measured way in the comments, which he said was where the site’s strengths lay.
He argued that the proper response to increasingly sensationalist and factually questionable sites, such as Breitbart, should not be a leftwing site with similar tactics, but rather a “Zen buddhist response”.
He conceded this would be difficult.
“The temptation is you want to punch the Nazi,” he said.
“But they have the guns. Once the civil conflict begins, it’s really hard to stop.”