Yesterday, I was a bit flippant about Peter Thiel funding lawsuits against Gawker, mostly because, while I love a lot of the sites like Deadspin and Gizmodo and IO9, Nick Denton is distasteful and outing private citizens for clicks means that the end is pretty deserved. But as Thiel revealed his long game to destroy a media company he (justifiably, since it outed him in 2007) hated, it became clear that this was more than a billionaire vendetta, which is terrifying enough. It’s the blueprint for the destruction of an independent press.
Felix Salmon smartly lays out the dangers in an essay for Fusion.
It gets worse. If Thiel’s strategy works against Gawker, it could be used by any billionaire against any media organization. Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the list goes on and on. Up until now, they’ve mostly been content suing news organizations as plaintiffs, over stories which name them. But Thiel has shown them how to go thermonuclear: bankroll other lawsuits, as many as it takes, and bankrupt the news organization that way. Very few companies have the legal wherewithal to withstand such a barrage.
This is scary because there is no recourse. We all like to laugh when idiots say that their 1st Amendment rights are being stolen because a private company takes down their racist comment on a message board. At this point, on the internet, there are more jackasses ready to pounce on the misconception of what “Freedom of Speech” means than there are people doing the misconcepting. And in a way, that’s what is brilliant about Thiel’s plot. It’s perfectly legal and constitutional, so long as he can find enough cases.
That’s what makes it so terrifying. If a billionaire can come up with enough cases that are plausible enough to not get thrown out, any media company can be bankrupted defending themselves. Unlike with 1st Amendment cases, there is no legal or constitutional recourse. And so what will most likely happen is that media companies won’t want to pay for these lawsuits, so the choice is to fold, or to self-censor.
In every authoritarian country, self-censorship is the more insidious form of silencing. It’s not like totalitarian countries, where there were clear lines. In these semi-states, it isn’t always clear what will get you in trouble. You fear for your life or livelihood, and so don’t go near issues that skirt the danger zone. Then the skirt gets pushed back further and further, and eventually, you don’t even think twice about your silence. It becomes second nature. We have that for national security, here, which is bad and dangerous enough, but not for much else.
Well, Thiel has shown how the monied will be able to impose self-censorship on anyone who wants to continue making money producing content. And if that sounds sterile, it is. If it gets to the point where journalism that offends anyone rich and powerful becomes financially impossible, all we’ll have is content, a set of listicles stomping on the human throat, forever. That this comes against Gawker makes it seem like just desserts. It isn’t. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the Rule of Money, and if we elect a billionaire who has made silencing the press an open part of his platform, the transformation could be complete.
(Update: initial version said “in every totalitarian country” in first sentence of penultimate paragraph, but that wasn’t accurate. Clarifications added)