One of the first talks that took place at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2018 was titled “Conspiracy?! Ryan Holiday on the Gawker Takedown”. As members of the media, we all eyed this case as we wondered what kind of ramifications it could have on the rest of us. Much like the Pentagon Papers, this was a case that could affect everyone in a bunch of different ways. It turned out to be so much more complicated than any of us could have predicted, and Ryan Holiday broke all of it down during a fascinating hour-long talk.
Just the timeline of events, which dates from 2002 to 2017, were 55,000 words and about 150 pages, so I had to wrap my head about what actually happened before I could write it. It’s been this fascinating journey for me, so I thought I’d start there — share with you what the hell happened. How this $300 million dollar company was essentially wiped from the face of the internet.
Holiday goes on to talk about how Gawker outed Peter Thiel and how he wished there was a way he could get back at them. Thiel tried to buy them so he could shut it down, but that wasn’t an option. Instead he sat back, remained mostly quiet, and plotted like an old-school Bond villain.
He gives a few comments about Gawker, from time to time, he calls them the “Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Queda”. He’s, in fact, just plotting his next move.
The events leading up to Gawker obtaining the tape are so insane they almost need to be heard to be believed. Hulk Hogan‘s best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge, illegally recorded Hogan and his wife having sex. When they got divorced, the drawer where the tapes were was left unlocked, and a rival DJ stole the tapes. They weren’t bought with the intent to shame Hogan but to shame Bubba. The tapes would be passed along to an “anonymous” person who left it in Gawker’s Manhattan mailbox.
We would find out later, of course, that that lawyer representing the person who leaks the tape is a man named Keith M. Davidson. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, he’s also the lawyer of the two porn stars who are currently in the process of suing Donald Trump.
This is is exactly the kind of case that Thiel and his benefactor, known only as Mr. A, were waiting for. Thiel essentially gave Mr. A a blank check to take this case and run Gawker into the ground. Hogan alone, would not have the kind of money needed to Gawker down — and Gawker knew that. They thought they would outlast Hogan, and in their hubris it was their downfall.
So Hogan has said, very loudly, that he plans to sue anyone who runs the tapes. But the reality is he would been, almost immediately, incapable of doing so. As Thiel said would say later, in words only a billionaire would utter, “Hogan is only a single-digit millionaire.”
Gawker, not knowing that Hogan had so much financial backing, suddenly found themselves in a courtroom and against an actual jury, which is something they hadn’t ever experienced. Things like their long list of cease and desists painted them in a poor light, and public opinion shifted Hogan’s way. The jury obviously agreed, but Thiel had a hand in that too.
Thiel spends six figures on a number of jury consultants. What they find is this case of revenge porn or invasion of privacy, they find that one type of juror is particularly sympathetic to their argument. So they find that demographic is overweight women, so they profile the jury. In the jury selection, in the actual trial, if you look, three of the six jurors are overweight women.
After getting the jury on their side, it was time for the final nail in the coffin. It seems that the words of Gawker themselves would be their ultimate downfall.
At the opening of A.J’s [original] article there is a line. He says, “We like to watch celebrity sex tapes because we are a society of shameless voyeurs.” In the closing arguments, for Gawker, one of the interesting moments is instead of having Charles Harder, this Los Angeles attorney from Beverly Hills, make the arguments to the Florida jury. They’ve in fact selected a local Florida counsel — two local Florida layers — to do the arguments. In the closing arguments, this sort of beefy Florida lawyer, this real good old boy, he says, “A.J. said that we’re all shameless voyeurs and that’s why we watch tapes. I don’t know what they do up there in New York on Fifth Avenue, but here in Florida we are not shameless voyeurs.”
The trial ended with Gawker filing for bankruptcy, which was what Thiel wanted, but it turned out to be a problem for all involved. He was proud of what he did and bragged about it. The circle got big enough that Forbes found out and published the story. This time it was the hubris of Thiel that would be his undoing.
Thiel doesn’t realize, despite being warned by his friends, that although Gawker may have been seen as a bully up through the trial, as soon as they lose, now they are the sympathetic one. And Hogan would tell me that he regretted not seeing it either. He would say, “In my wrestling days I would oftentimes be winning and beating an opponent, and the crowd would be cheering for me. But I’d deliver one or two one or two too many fake kicks to that opponent on the ground and the crowd would turn.”
The crowd turns, and now Thiel is seen as the bully. When you run someone out of their own house, it’s kind of hard not to be sympathetic. In the end, all of this was fed into the decisions that Thiel made when he decided to back Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
And so, in that courtroom, Thiel sees this sort of anger against the elites. This sort of backlash against the media, and you would say that this inspires him to back Donald Trump in the 2016 election. This is going on as I’m interviewing him, so I sort of watched this process unfold, and it was particularly interesting because he set out to protect his privacy and becomes incredibly famous as a result. Who comes to try to stop bullying and ends up empowering one of the great cyber bullies of our time? He wants to stop this sort of mob mentality on the Internet and somehow ends up empowering GamerGate and the Alt-Right.
Actions have consequences in so many different ways — in more ways than we can even begin to comprehend, even. This made people look at media outlets differently and wonder what was okay to publish and what wasn’t. This was a real conspiracy theory that unfolded right before our eyes. It started with a website outing a man and ended with that same man destroying an entire company and donating over a million dollars to Donald Trump, helping propel him toward the white house. It was a fascinating story that sounds too strange to be real — but that’s what conspiracy theories are. The thing is so few of them ever have any real weight behind. So few of them end up being true.
Conspiracies are often used for people who cannot accept that we live in a chaotic world where “shit happens”. Good people are punished, bad people are rewarded, and no amount of good deeds can you from a stellar black hole coming out of nowhere and destroying everything. Sometimes, though, the conspiracies are real, and it’s fascinating to see it all unfold and how many pieces need to be in play for it to work. Even this one didn’t work out because Thiel was unmasked and didn’t come to the presentation because the legal matter isn’t done. There could be more to this story.