Facebook investors and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have chosen to keep venture capitalist Peter Thiel on the board of directors despite the controversy surrounding Thiel’s actions concerning Gawker as well as Donald Trump.
Facebook held its annual shareholders meeting on Monday, and voting shareholders chose whether or not to keep the eight members on Facebook’s board. These members include Thiel, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
As Zuckerberg owns 60 percent of Facebook’s voting shares, the decision on whether to keep Thiel or not rested on him. And he chose to keep Thiel and the other seven members despite calls to remove Thiel from the board.
Thiel’s history of controversy
Thiel, who co-founded PayPal in 1998, has had a history of eccentric behavior. He told Bloomberg in 2014 that he intends to live to the age of 120 and takes human growth hormone to accomplish that. He also launched a fellowship encouraging potential entrepreneurs to drop out of college and go into business and invested in establishing ocean communities that would be free from state control.
But in May, the New York Times reported that Thiel had backed wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, a gossip website that had released a sex tape of Hogan. Thiel provided Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, with about $10 million to help fund the lawsuit.
Gawker lost the lawsuit and was ordered by a judge to pay $140 million to Bollea. Gawker was thus forced to declare bankruptcy, and its assets are currently up for sale as it also faces lawsuits from other parties claiming defamation.
But some journalists felt that the revelations of Thiel’s involvement were deeply troubling. Slate said that Thiel’s actions “will be catastrophic to democracy if he gets away with it.” Gawker had reported that Thiel was homosexual back in 2007. Slate, among others, felt that Thiel had used Hogan to take revenge on Gawker, creating a troubling precedent where rich men could use lawsuits to shut down media companies.
In addition to Gawker, Thiel had also attracted controversy for his support of Donald Trump. Thiel is serving as a Trump delegate in California, an unusual decision given that Silicon Valley leaders have been almost unanimously opposed to the Republican candidate. Zuckerberg himself has indicated that he is in favor of immigration and a more open world, a stark contrast to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
An unlikely removal
Given Facebook’s outspokenness in favor of free speech and tolerance, some felt that Zuckerberg should have removed Thiel from the board, as his presence represented an attack on Facebook’s values.
However, Zuckerberg’s decision to keep Thiel was not a surprise. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg stated that Thiel would remain a director earlier this month. Sandberg stated that Facebook did not know about Thiel’s actions but noted that Thiel “did what he did on his own, not as a Facebook board member.”
Zuckerberg and Thiel have worked together for a long time, and Thiel is the longest-standing member on the board of directors. Thiel bought early into Facebook’s stock and became wealthy through it. He also praised Zuckerberg in a six-minute speech before Monday’s vote, noting how Facebook has become a place “where the bulk of discourse is civil, reasonable and people bring out the best in other human beings rather than anonymously bringing out the worst.”
In addition, removing Thiel would likely re-anger conservative users. Many conservatives have become suspicious of Facebook’s political biases after allegations that Facebook employees had routinely suppressed conservative news on its News Feed. Thiel was with Zuckerberg when the Facebook CEO met with leading conservative figures to hear their concerns about how to avoid an unconscious liberal bias.
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