Peter Thiel is Big Tech’s most prominent Trump supporter. He is an unabashed enemy of the free press, having covertly funded a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker three years ago. He has become one of the most vocal pro-monopoly advocates, taking a lonely stand in defense of Silicon Valley’s much-maligned megacorporations. He has channeled his immense wealth into projects that promise total surveillance of everyone and immortality for the superrich. And he has become Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted adviser during the most turbulent period in the social network’s history.
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Thiel, a longtime Facebook board member, has become Zuckerberg’s consigliere. With the company’s leadership under fire for its refusal to vet the veracity of political advertisements or limit advertisers’ ability to target ads—in contrast to Google and Twitter, which have taken steps to crack down on misleading content—Thiel has encouraged the embattled Facebook CEO “not to bow to public pressure.” The Journal noted that Thiel was “extending his influence while the company’s board and senior ranks are in flux.”
Once quiet, Thiel’s influence over Facebook has grown louder as the company has tried to navigate a succession of scandals and seen its popularity plummet. His values are driving Facebook as the company doubles down on policies that empower demagogues and despots and disempower the rest of us.
Hauled before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year to address the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg made the case that his company cared deeply about making the world a better place. “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company,” he said. “For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring.” Zuckerberg and his allies then went on a public relations blitz to convince an increasingly skeptical public that Facebook had learned its lesson.
The rebranding campaign made a warm and fuzzy appeal: Facebook is where you look at pictures of puppies and babies. It’s where you can stay connected with loved ones, wherever they may be. But in private, the company was embracing Thiel’s conservative values.
Much of this has come out via the company’s shifting relationship with the media. Last year, Facebook empowered former Republican Senator Jon Kyl to investigate the conservative claim that Facebook, like other Silicon Valley tech companies, was suppressing speech from the right. Like a similar partnership with the Heritage Foundation, the move may have been intended to bolster the company’s credibility with conservatives. But it backfired, with Kyl blasting the company for not taking conservatives’ concerns about speech seriously, even though those concerns had little to no basis.
Then, in October, Facebook launched a partnership with a number of news outlets. Facebook had become synonymous with the “fake news” problem, and its response was to empower legitimate outlets by launching Facebook News, a tab on its mobile app. But one of Facebook’s new partners was Breitbart, the alt-right hub that regularly publishes racist stories. As The Verge’s Casey Newton noted at the time, “Breitbart was included in the tab precisely for ideological reasons.… Certainly no one at Facebook seems to be suggesting that Breitbart is a reliable producer of high-quality journalism—the argument seems to be rather that it would be poor form to exclude them just because they once (for example) tagged relevant stories with the label ‘black crime.’”
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s public rhetoric has gotten more MAGA. He now makes a nationalistic argument on behalf of Facebook: Empower us, or cede ground to China. Defending the company’s digital currency, Libra, before Congress this summer, Zuckerberg said, “I believe that if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will. If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different.”
As it happens, Thiel has been one of Silicon Valley’s leading anti-China voices, arguing in August that Google was helping the country “gain an intelligence advantage” and “penetrate defenses in the relatively new theater of cyberwarfare.”
In October, Zuckerberg delivered a new manifesto for Facebook. While he continued to claim the company was about bringing people together, he also made a free-speech absolutist case in defense of his life’s work. “I am here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression,” he told an audience at Georgetown University. Facebook, in this telling, could not police its platform out of principle. It could not rid itself of hate speech and manipulative political advertisements aimed at promoting right-wing candidates, even if it wanted to. “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians in a democracy,” he said.
For years, Facebook’s public relations team has tried to present Mark Zuckerberg not as the ruthless billionaire he is, but as a compassionate and curious young man seeking to understand the world around him. That has changed over the past year and a half. Facebook has, as many have noted, always been a covertly right-wing company, “hostage to conservative ideas about economics and speech,” as Jacob Silverman wrote in The Baffler. Thanks to Thiel’s influence, it has increasingly become an overtly right-wing one.