Among the many juicy details in this good, lengthy Washington Post recollection of how Facebook got to where it currently is are a few particulars about secretive billionaire, tech investor, and free-press enemy Peter Thiel, and his relationship to the company he backed before nearly anyone else.
The most interesting of these small details comes back in the spring of 2016, after the tech website Gizmodo published a series of reports outlining how human editors in charge of Facebook’s Trending Topics section treated conservative publications and news sites — which Gizmodo described as “suppression,” but which was often just deciding that sites trying to relitigate things like the 2012 Benghazi attack and American sniper Chris Kyle in the year 2016 weren’t immediately relevant to Facebook’s broad audience.
In an attempt to save face(book), Mark Zuckerberg agreed to a meeting with outraged right-wing publishers at the time. Attending the event — headed by Zuckerberg, Thiel, and COO Sheryl Sandberg — were conservative media members like Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, Fox News personality Dana Perino, and leaders from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Some attendees found Facebook’s attempt to affirm its neutrality reassuring, others found it to be nothing but a photo op.
The emergency meeting with conservative media was viewed, at the time, as a PR stunt designed to save Facebook. Thiel’s involvement was self-explanatory — as the most prominent political outsider on Facebook’s board, his support of the company would subdue some of the criticism (and protect his significant investment). In short, it seemed like Thiel was playing defense, not offense.
But the event, as the Post points out, was viewed in a substantially different context after Thiel unveiled two other initiatives: his support for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and his bankrolling of a lawsuit engineered to destroy Gawker Media. In doing so, the Post reports, “[s]ome executives thought he was using his position on the board to court political allies and influence the media contrary to Facebook’s goal to step away from any perception of political partisanship.”
But with the added information of Thiel’s other dealings with conservatives and the media industry, and the perception among Facebook’s executives provided to the Post, we can look at this another way: Mark Zuckerberg is getting played. Zuckerberg has continually defended Thiel’s presence on Facebook’s governing body as vital to the company, a balancing presence to stop the site from sliding too far in any one political direction. He presents their partnership as amiable disagreement and mutual respect — equals.
This doesn’t seem to be the case, though. In reality, it looks more and more like one of the few people who can actually influence Mark Zuckerberg’s decision-making process is leveraging that position not to benefit Facebook’s users, clients, and even its own employees, but to bolster his own influence within political and media spheres. The chess master strikes again.
Zuckerberg seems prone to try to assume the best in people. That his social network will be used for good, not for ill; that Facebook’s easily deceived users can reliably determine which news outlets are the most trustworthy on their own; and that his closest confidants have the best interest of him and his site at heart. Particularly on that last point, Zuckerberg might want to reevaluate who he’s taking direction from.