Anyone who’s trudged through the past fortnight’s worth of punditry about the Gawker–Hulk Hogan–Peter Thiel donnybrook can be forgiven a fugitive longing for the codes of honor that settled sexually charged dude-feuds back in the bad old age of chivalry. As recently as the mid-nineteenth century, when aggrieved, heavy-breathing gentlemen found their honor tainted, their privacy violated, or their reputations defamed by scheming gossips and sensationalist tabloids, out would come the Derringers and the horsewhips. Amid much solemn, self-dramatizing ceremony, the tongue-wagging villain would be laid low—for eternity, often enough, as any Hamilton fan will know. The privacy-and-deference-minded order of things would be restored, and with God in His heaven, yesterday’s maligned media victim would return to his hearth, profession, and/or drinking club as a conquering hero.
Yes, yes, dueling is a barbaric relic of the Old World aristocracy. But can you deny that, compared to this ongoing legal fiasco, there wouldn’t be at least as much edification and satisfaction in, say, settling the affair of the Hulk Hogan sex tape via a wrestling bout pitting Gawker Media founder Nick Denton and Silicon Valley VC king Peter Thiel against one another, with Hogan playing Burgess Meredith to Thiel’s Rocky? What the hell, have Donald Trump emcee the thing—he knows much more about staging wrestling spectacles than about the niceties of NATO reciprocity or the provisions of Chinese trade accords.
Yet here in the less colorful and flamboyant realm known as consensual reality, Hulk Hogan, whose grainy adulterous sex tape was plastered across the Gawkersphere back in 2012, sought redress in the courts. Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) filed a suit against Gawker Media alleging emotional distress and invasion of privacy that netted a whopping $140 million judgment in his favor. Gawker naturally wrapped itself in the mantle of First Amendment absolutism, and contended for good measure that Hogan’s complaints were a desperate bid to halt the release of another, more damaging audiotape that featured Hogan letting loose with a tirade of ugly racial expletives. Nearly all onlookers could at least agree that the trial’s lowlight was testimony from former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio saying that the only sex tape he might not deem newsworthy would involve partners who were beneath the age of 4. (Regardless of the ultimate disposition of the Hogan case, which recently survived a Gawker petition for appeal, Daulerio is best advised to remain in an undisclosed location for the next decade or so.)
[Disclosures: Here I should append a boatload of disclaimers. Gawker editor Alex Pareene has contributed to The Baffler; I also edited his 2012 insta-book on Mitt Romney. Gawker Media honcho John Cook formerly worked for me at Yahoo. Just this week, the site featured an excerpt from my just-published book. On the other side of the ledger, Gawker has cheerfully ridiculed me on more than one occasion. It also made my first wife famous, which, Lord knows, did nothing to prolong the half-life of that elective affinity.]
Back to the saga: things have managed to get slimier. Last week, Forbes reported that Paypal titan Peter Thiel had been secretly bankrolling Hogan’s suit, to the tune of a cool $10 million—which helped explain why the plaintiff reportedly spurned an eight-figure settlement offer prior to trial. So now a dispute about whatever reasonable lines may demarcate the outer limits of free expression and the improper journalistic invasion of privacy has become a tale about big money and the administration of justice on a pay-to-play basis. This is America, after all.
Thiel’s rooting interest in Hogan’s suit appeared to stem from an item published on Gawker’s tech-industry site Valleywag in 2007, outing Thiel as gay. And since Thiel is a billionaire, who’s famously funded pet libertarian crusades like seasteading and a grant program encouraging kids to bag college in favor of private-sector entrepreneurship, bankrolling the Hogan suit involved zero financial duress, and presumably yielded great pleasure. Indulging a private grudge against the media was an after-dinner mint, following several main courses of full-on Randian delusion.
In the wake of the Thiel disclosure, press critics predictably roused the specter of a brewing legal “war against the press,” as New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann put it. And to be sure, this plutocratic big-footing of a First Amendment case should be alarming to all journalists, particularly as they continue to toil in a profession hemorrhaging revenue faster than Marco Rubio loses credibility.
Indulging a private grudge against the media was an after-dinner mint for Thiel, following several main courses of full-on Randian delusion.
In reality, though, Peter Thiel’s war against the press has been in play for quite some time, and it’s a deeper and uglier thing than anything portended by a fistful of fat checks signed over to Hogan’s legal team. Its chief instrument is a company called Palantir—which, in true geek fashion, is a callout to a Lord of the Rings wizard-stone permitting its user to see far beyond the conventional horizons of visual data. Thiel’s company specializes, similarly, in the customized parsing of reams of big data for a whole panoply of shady-to-crooked corporate clients. Not for nothing was one of the lead investors in its early rounds of VC funding (together with Thiel and Facebook goon Sean Parker) a company called In-Q-Tel—another coy Valley portmanteau word chosen by the fund’s backers, the CIA.
That’s right: Peter Thiel, libertarian true believer and Trump delegate, has seen the future of data collection, and has helped entrust it into the hands of the worst possible government actors. And much like the Hogan saga, Palantir’s info-profile curdled promptly into something even nastier—moving from the “corrupt and distasteful” category straight into the realm of “reprehensible and market-authoritarian.”
An activist leak of emails from one of Palantir’s contracting partners, HBGary Federal in 2011 showed in nauseating detail that Thiel’s data combine, which fancies itself as a front-line scourer of global terrorist info-profiles, specializes in truly odious private-sector spookery. In conjunction with still another data contractor, Berico, Palantir and HBGary went merrily to work at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently embarrassed by reports of illegally laundering funds on behalf of foreign firms seeking to influence U.S. elections, as well as spearheading a similar cash-scrubbing initiative for the depraved insurance behemoth AIG.
Palantir and its two partners set out to smear the Chamber’s critics on the left, by any means necessary—and their methods may as well have been ripped right out of the FBI’s defamatory COINTELPRO [*] playbook. As Lee Fang reported at The Nation, the Chamber first reached out to Palantir, who then enlisted the other two firms in a disinformation master plan:
The [working group’s] presentations . . . contained ethically questionable tactics, like creating a ‘false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information,’ to give to a progressive group opposing the Chamber, and then subsequently exposing the document as a fake to undermine the credibility of the Chamber’s opponents. In addition, the group proposed creating a ‘fake insider persona’ to ‘generate communications’ with Change to Win, a federation of labor unions that sponsored the watchdog site, US Chamber Watch.
Even more troubling, however, were plans by the three contractors to use malware and other forms of malicious software to hack into computers owned by the Chamber’s opponents and their families. Boasting that they could develop a ‘fusion cell’ of the kind ‘developed and utilized by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC),’ the contractors discussed how they could use ‘custom malware development’ and ‘zero day’ exploits to gain control of a target’s computer network. These types of attacks can allow an attacker not only to snoop but to delete files, monitor keystrokes and manipulate websites, e-mail archives and any database connected to the target computer.
This track record of maliciously undermining dissent—and invading dissenters’ privacy—for profit should make any student of Orwell shudder. It’s admirable and necessary, of course, for media critics to highlight the dire threat to First Amendment freedom that covert deep-pocket funders like Thiel represent. But freedom of assembly—the constitutional right that protects workers who join unions—is also a central provision of the First Amendment; what’s more, the activists targeted by Palantir were on course to lose something at least as crucial as the freedom of self-expression: their ability to control the nature and content of their own communications was going to be abridged by the Palantir assault.
So it’s more than a little odd to see Thiel being hauled up only now as a potential threat to First Amendment freedoms, when his illegal campaign of data defamation of the Chamber’s labor-backed enemies has been a matter of public record for nearly five years. Peter Thiel has been hiding in plain sight as a mortal enemy of the First Amendment ever since Palantir cashed its first check from its first client. How’s that old saw go, again? That’s right: Freedom of speech for me, but not for thee.
[*] An early version of this post associated COINTELPRO with the wrong government agency. It’s hard to keep track of the government’s spying apparatus.