Former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan became famous through fake fights. Turns out the big real one he just fought and won wasn’t quite what it seemed, either.
And the true ramifications of that battle royale may be as hard to pin down as he once seemed to be.
Hogan was the victor of a $140 million verdict in his invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media over its posting bits of a sex tape.
His success was in no small measure thanks to a legal blitzkrieg funded — secretly, until recently — by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, billionaire co-founder of PayPal and a member of Facebook’s board of directors.
This might be the single most emblematic story of 2016 so far.
You have a reality TV star, a sex scandal, a billionaire-funded campaign to advance a personal agenda, a court case, a bid to intimidate or crush a media outlet, someone in Silicon Valley unconcerned with the repercussions of disruption, plus the whole needless secrecy thing.
It turns out Thiel, who feels he was outed as gay by a Gawker site a few years back, has been funding lawsuits against the company’s network of snark-heavy news and gossip sites.
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel told The New York Times when he finally emerged from the shadows.
Although Thiel branded Gawker a bully and distinct from what he considers legitimate journalism, his involvement has occasioned considerable concern even among those who agree Gawker in this case crossed a line it was unwise to breach.
“I think it’s a little rich for somebody worth $2.7 billion to spend a portion of their fortune really to describe anybody else as a bully,” Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton told “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday.
In any case, the fear is that this tactic will stifle free expression and crush not just media outlets one might scorn. After all, what might be considered legitimate journalism in certain circles might be cast as treasonous, libelous or worse in others.
Wealth can give a person self-confidence and the means to act on it, but whether net worth confers wisdom outside a specific field of expertise is open to debate.
Thiel may feel he’s doing God’s work. Critics are worried he’s just playing God.
But the ultrarich, as always, remain different than the rest of us.
(How many people can relate to this New York Times weekend headline: “A Worrisome Pileup of $100 Million Homes”?)
What seems to have changed is the upper-upper class’s willingness to destroy the established order, which those of their income bracket might once have fought hard to preserve.
It may be Silicon Valley’s pro-disruption mentality creeping into more aspects of mainstream of American life, the idea that the march of progress cares little about what may be trampled en route.
Come up with an app or platform that makes investors a fortune but reduces an industry to rubble by upending its business model? Efficiency wins.
People get what they want cheaper and easier. Investors get their cash back and then some. Sustaining the actual service or content required to keep meeting user needs is usually a problem for someone else and another day. And it’s not just business.
Thiel, who has written, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” was an early investor in Facebook. That’s the same Facebook that has tried to fend off accusations of anti-conservative bias.
It’s the same Facebook on which you’ll find rumors and fake news links passed along every day as easily and widely as some of the legit stuff.
Think about it: Have more people gotten more bad information over the years from Gawker or via links shared on Facebook? Is it even close? For that matter, if you use social media, how do you usually find stories from Gawker, Deadspin, Jezebel and other sites made viable (and some might say cocksure) through disruptive new technology?
Celebrities can die three deaths on Facebook: Once by a hoax that goes viral, once for real, and once some time later when an obit link bobs back to the surface.
It’s fair to ask whether Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea), a third- or fourth-tier celebrity whose most recent star turn was in an inane reality TV show, merited the media scrutiny via Gawker that, say, an elected official would face.
But these days, it’s also fair to wonder who’s so sure of the difference.
Just because someone is rich doesn’t mean he or she is always right.