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Could the Peter Thiel-Gawker feud directly affect free speech?

June 09, 2016 / by / 0 Comment
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Here’s the gist: Peter Thiel, the man behind PayPal and among the biggest stockholders in Facebook after Zuckerberg, admitted that he has financed a multi-million lawsuit against Gawker Media, the giant media firm that once questioned his sexuality. And now, here’s the question: Will it put free speech in peril?

Journalists across the web seem to agree that it will. Thiel’s case, writes seasoned journalist Alice Jones, just showed that money can certainly influence businesses and lawsuits, and such a thing is terrifying for media organizations, regardless of popularity or size. Gawker is in no way a small, unknown tabloid either, which makes it more petrifying for budding media firms.

As suggested by Australian journalist Travis Andrews, it could be easier to empathize with Thiel if one would just look at who’s on the other side of the fence: Gawker, the organization that has been ruthlessly exposing celebrities’ “other” side in the past, making it the clear villain in the equation. But Thiel’s admission highlighted the fact that such a thing—billionaires funding a court case for personal reasons and gain—is indeed happening. He could be an anti-bullying proponent, yes, but what if another media company, smaller than Gawker, for instance, revealed something intolerable but true about him?

Undeniably, it can set a chancy principle across the media segment. It could either scare publishers or make them more inspired to follow Gawker’s route—after all, and after all the millions being paid for damages, negative publicity is still publicity. Falsely and hastily “outing” a personality can instantaneously catapult a small brand to fame. It’s reprehensible journalism, yes, but such a thing is worth a shot for any ambitious media company. Needless to say, it is a quick road to becoming a household name.

But the problem arises when responsible journalism kicks in. What if the issues being thrown are real and could directly affect businesses, other people, and even the entire nation? Surely, anyone—perhaps even the most seasoned editor-in-chief—would pause and think twice if it’s really worth the shot, as there surely be another Thiel who has the cash in the world to trample his/her company to pieces.

There’s also a question of how this will affect the likes of Born2Invest, Apple News, and other responsible news curators. Will they be subjected to a lawsuit if they curate a story that has exposé overtone in it? No one knows, but it can also make smaller curators to stay away from this kind of content, which will make gossipy and exposé sites become less attractive to curators and aggregators.

For Chris O’Shea of AdWeek, the issue isn’t about whether Gawker deserves the beating or not. Writing in-depth stories about Thiel and his capability to bring down a media entity simply because he can put a taint on free speech, not only for media companies but also for single individuals on Facebook,  which are countless and ubiquitous here.

However, the immediate question, for now, is this: Will CEO Mark Zuckerberg vote for Thiel’s exit in his company? The decision from the 51.8 billion-worth executive could raise newer questions not only on free speech but also on how brands as big as his could play a significant role in digital publishing, a still-nascent industry replete with loopholes. Zuckerberg is the most powerful man in the online realm today, and he might as well use it properly, for the good of many.

 

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