"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Peter Thiel and the post-modern “death squads” that hunt the truth.

Recently we learned that Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire, spent $10 million to fund a lawsuit against Gawker Media. He claimed he was doing this because he was interested in the case, he believed the media has become too intrusive, and he wanted to extract a measure of revenge for a previous story, in 2007, which he claimed had disclosed his sexuality.

 On the surface, we find what we want to see.
On the surface, it appears he has a case since Gawker media did publish Terry Bollea’s (Hulk Hogan) sex-tap and they did publish the story about Mr Thiel’s sexuality. If we look closer at the case, his story starts to fragment if not dissolve. First, his sexuality was well known within the community.[1] To put it bluntly, if Gawker heard about it, then it was common knowledge within the relevant communities by that point. Second, his belief in the public interest seem slight since he selects cases where he can punish the media outlets who he finds objectionable. Were he to be doing this on a public interest, rather than his private interest,  he would take cases against the giant media companies, such as 21st Century Fox, NBC, CBS, or ABC instead of relatively small internet based news organisation.

 Lawsuits, suppressed news, and digital denial of service the new threats to truth
What he has done is to extract revenge against a company so that he can silence them. More to the point, he wants to send a message or teach a lesson to other journalists that if they write anything that he disagrees with or finds personally offensive, he can launch an expensive legal assault either on his own behalf or on the “victim’s” behalf. In effect, we are witnesses in Silicon Valley the birth of a post-modern death squad. Whereas Putin uses assassins, political thugs, or the judicial system to silence his political opponents, Thiel has used a squad of lawyers for the same effect. What remains to be seen is whether he supplements that legal hit squad with a technological one that would harass and disrupt the computer systems, networks, and data of media organisations and individual journalists. 

 In Silicon Valley the powerful take care of each other at the public and the law's expense.
We know that Facebook routinely altered its “trending” list to remove stories from conservative political news sources.[2] Mr Thiel is on Facebook’s board of directors.[3] Who can be assured that specific news sources or even journalists will not be vetted from Facebook timelines at the request of Facebook friends like Mr Thiel. If we consider that Google and Apple led a cartel of companies who colluded to fix wages within Silicon Valley, it does seem possible that they would cooperate against media targets this dislike or find overly intrusive in their business affairs.[4] As for targeting individual journalist, it is important to note that Steve Jobs demanded that Google fire an employee and Google fired them.[5] Their attitude to rules, morals, and ethics is not surprising. The powerful often believe they should be beyond the rules and the Silicon Valley elite do not like to be challenged nor held to account in ways that they cannot control.[6] Or, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil for they write the rules for themselves.

 Does it matter who finances the lawsuit if the verdict is guilty? Yes it does.
Now some would argue that it does not matter who finances the case against Gawker. The only question is whether they are guilty or innocent. Such an approach appears deeply, almost dangerously, naïve if not disingenuous.[7] The issue has not been resolved since Gawker still has to appeal yet they have already faced expensive legal bills to defend the case and their appeal. The approach is naïve since it forgets what happened to Arthur Anderson. They were found guilty of fraud for having shredded documents, which lead to the company dissolving overnight. The reality, though, was that Arthur Andersen won their appeal as the conviction was overturned and retrial ordered.

On June 15, 2002, Andersen was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents related to its audit of Enron, resulting in the Enron scandal. Although the conviction was later reversed by the Supreme Court, the impact of the scandal combined with the findings of criminal complicity ultimately destroyed the firm.[8] [emphasis added]

The only problem was that the company was dead so there was nothing left to sustain. The damage was done and we will never know if the charge would have been sustained in a retrial.[9] Gawker, and any media company, faces the same problem. By the time they appeal, the damage is done and they cannot recover even if their case is overturned on appeal. 

 Can you speak the truth if it upsets the powerful? Apparently not if you work in Silicon Valley.
What is at stake is the ability to speak the truth. Peter Thiel and other technology billionaires want to destroy this ability.[10] Thiel has no time for the possibility of truth. He is too powerful to allow the truth to be spoken so if he says that X is not X but is to be said as Y, then he expects, and will enforce, that X is Y or that X is not to be spoken of, it will not be spoken of. In this desire, he is no different from any tyrant such as Kim Jong-un who also wants to be “free” of the truth or anything that limits his life. Hannah Arendt, in her essay Truth and Politics, warned of such a threat.

…[N]o human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously – namely, λéγειν τα éoντα, to say what is. No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is.[11] [Emphasis added]

The same inability to tolerate the truth is displayed by Donald Trump. Does it come as a surprise that Thiel supports Trump’s bid for the presidency? Even though commentators may wish to agree with Thiel as they find Gawker and other tabloid news sites as problematic and beneath their dignity, they have to confront a terrible truth. The truth has become fragile in the digital domain for it is not based on nature or the given; it only exists by what is created within the digital domain in men’s’ minds.[12] She was worried about the potential that a lie would rule us. There is no need to lie or defend a lie, when you can create a “truth” and suppress anyone who wants to tell the truth. In this development, what you are seeing, is a new threat, the post-modern “death squads” who will kill the truth since anyone who speaks it will be denied access, harried with lawsuits, and find they are attacked by colleagues who do not wish to suffer their fate.

 The public interest is being used to further a private interest and democracy is at stake
We may wish to believe that this is one public interest, the story and the first amendment, against another, the rule of law. To focus on that level, misses the role of power and the event’s future consequence. The law is only reflecting what the wealthy can pursue in their private interest not in the public interest. A public interest, as such is democratic and we know that Mr Thiel does not like democracy.

“Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”[13]
Our choice is whether we revise the laws to allow easier redress for such stories, thus pre-empting such lawsuits, or we allow the powerful to decide what is fit for print and in the public interest. In either case, Thiel has achieved what he set out to do, he has made the press hesitant, fearful, and deferential.  


[1] Here is how the author of the 2007 story describes it.

“Owen Thomas, the former editor of Valleywag who wrote the article about Mr. Thiel, offered his side of the story in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “As I’ve said before, I did not ‘out’ Peter Thiel,” said Mr. Thomas, now business editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. “I did discuss his sexuality, but it was known to a wide circle who felt that it was not fit for discussion beyond that circle. I thought that attitude was retrograde and homophobic, and that informed my reporting. I believe that he was out and not in the closet.” [emphasis added]

So far from being a question of outing him, the article and the underlying issue was the approach within the community to whether public figures need to be open about what is known within the community. In that sense, it was less about an action to harm Thiel by publishing his sexuality than an issue within the community of how high profile figures within the community enjoy the benefits of the community without bearing the responsibility they have from their public stature. If Mr Thiel wanted to extract revenge, perhaps he needed to assess his relationship with the community.
[7] John Podhoretz betrays an almost libertarian belief that it does not matter who funds it or the consequences of the context so long as the apparent logic seems to fit. https://twitter.com/jpodhoretz/status/735876265815769089
[11] TRUTH AND POLITICS by Hannah Arendt Originally published in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, and reprinted with minor changes in Between Past and Future (1968) and The Portable Hannah Arendt edited by Peter Baier (2000) and Truth:Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions edited by Medina and Wood (2005) https://idanlandau.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/arendt-truth-and-politics.pdf p.1
[12] Arendt warned of the modern threat to the truth by suggesting it was what men thought it was.

“The modern age, which believes that truth is neither given to nor disclosed to but produced by
the human mind.” p.2

The post-modern era has become one where it is not so much that truth is only what is in men’s minds it is what is created or presented digitally since it shapes and presents its own reality, as reality, within which men can believe reality that contradicts this is distorted and not the truth. One only has to see how the social media age allows lies to be told and the truth suppressed easily. In effect, the digital domain becomes the new cave beneath the cave for it is not simply in man’s mind, it is his “reality” that shapes his mind that has become distorted.

The digital domain allows the truth to be changed while nature, as given, cannot be changed.

Arendt ends her essay with a positive note and one we have to remember was written before the social media age:
“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” p.19

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