Facing a $140 million legal judgment, the leaders of Gawker had to face their sins. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to out billionaire Peter Thiel as gay in 2007. And maybe the world would have been a better place if they hadn’t released Hulk Hogan’s…private film in 2012.

But it was too late for regrets. The die had been cast. Gawker Media had to fall on its sword, selling off Jezebel, io9, Deadspin, and Kotaku.

And as for gawker.com itself? Well, the name would become so toxic that it would take two years for anyone to buy it back. And even then, it was for the paltry price of $1.35 million, which wouldn’t even get you a nice house in New York City, where Gawker was headquartered.

Gawker stopped publishing articles in 2016 despite still being an incredibly popular website. Its demise was as sordid and twisted as any article they ever published. Yet even though so much time has passed, I can’t stop thinking about how this story is more relevant now than it was then.

This happened in 2016. Why talk about it now?

For one, the story is just plain fascinating, maybe more so with years of distance. But also relevant to this story is that Gawker recently relaunched under the Bustle Digital Group, which, again, bought all the company’s assets for $1.35 million at a bankruptcy auction. 

But most importantly, I think the story is important because with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Gawker was emblematic of a transitional phase in news media. So too was its destruction.

Gawker’s existence and demise was a wonderful illustration of the perils of the internet as a source of news. In an era of fake news and emotionally manipulative algorithms, Gawker serves as a cruder, easier-to-understand version of what social media networks do at scale. It’s also the last media outlet that I can remember facing dire consequences for bad behavior. 

The fact that it took an extraordinarily powerful man with a laser focus on revenge to take down the site also shows us something too. But these days, with almost half of Americans getting news from social media, accountability is decreasing.

The rules of media are changing ridiculously fast. Every one of us, as consumers of news and runners of businesses, must update our understanding of how media works. We’re in the middle of a revolution of many-to-many communication that, when history books are written, might very well be as big as the invention of the printing press.

A billionaire suing a media outlet out of existence – isn’t that pretty dystopian?

Yes. It’s scary as all hell. But if you want to dunk on the rich, email me your best rant about Jeff Bezos spending billions and burning enormous amounts of fossil fuel to pop into space for .02 seconds. That’s a clear-cut case of ego.

But this story? Well, it’s a lot more nuanced and deserves a closer read. That’s because this is not a battle between angels and demons. Gawker v. Thiel was an evil v. evil fight, a train wreck, and a spectacle. 

I’ll start by explaining the sordid details of what happened between Gawker and Thiel first. Then I’ll talk about how Gawker eerily forecasted the behavior of modern social media news feeds – a legacy that is growing more significant with each passing day.

But let’s get back to that point in a minute. We first need to talk about…

How Gawker enraged Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel is a billionaire in Silicon Valley. He made his fortune by investing in a variety of companies including PayPal and Facebook. He’s a mysterious figure in mainstream media known for his strong libertarian politics, endorsement of Donald Trump, and his early investment in New Zealand property.

He’s also gay. But that’s not a surprise, thanks to Gawker, who outed him in 2007. 

Attitudes toward gay marriage have changed temendously in the last 20 years. According to Pew Research Center, 35% of Americans had a favorable view of gay marriage in 2001. As of 2019, this has increased to 61%.

In the 2000s, being gay was still pretty controversial and being outed could really wreck your life. Peter Thiel, to be sure, was insulated from many of the worst aspects of this by his wealth, but let’s not forget that even consensual gay relationships were illegal in 14 states as late as 2003.

At that time, and honestly – even still now – your sexual orientation or gender identity could be used against you. It’s prime material for blackmail and shaming. In the 1980s and 1990s, being outed as gay could cost you your career and get you killed. The year 2007 was not that far away from that time.

So Peter Thiel nursed a hell of a grudge for years and plotted complex legal ways to take down Gawker. But his ultimate opportunity wouldn’t come until Hulk Hogan in 2012.

How Gawker enraged Hulk Hogan

On October 4, 2012, Gawker published a short sex tape of Hulk Hogan, without his permission. Hogan attempted to solve the problem amicably, issuing a cease-and-desist, but Gawker did not remove the video. They then went on to brag about it in the article “A Judge Told Us to Take Down Our Hulk Hogan Sex Tape Post. We Won’t.

So Hulk Hogan, whose proper name is Terry Bollea, took them to court in the landmark case of Bollea v. Gawker. It was filed in Pinellas County, Florida in 2013 and led to the demise of Gawker Media in 2016.

Hulk Hogan was suing for invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He sought $100 million in damages. He ultimately received $115 million in compensatory damages and another $25 million in punitive damages. That left Gawker with an unpayable $140 million bill sitting on their desk that left the company so indebted that the company couldn’t even be sold off.

“I fear no man, no beast or evil, brother.” Yeah. No kidding.
Photo credit: Matthew Glover, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

How Thiel & Hogan Legally Leg Dropped Gawker

You might wonder how Thiel plays a part in this twisted tale. Remember how I said he had a hell of a grudge? I wasn’t joking – he was paying lawyers to scout for lawsuits he could fund against Gawker Media. And considering how inflammatory and reckless Gawker’s reporting was, this was not a particularly difficult task.

Now sure, Hulk Hogan is a millionaire, but suing an entire media company takes an amount of money that is frankly inaccessible to all but a handful of people on this planet. So Thiel bankrolled Hogan’s legal team until Gawker was utterly outmatched.

Thiel added that “it’s safe to say” that this isn’t the only case against Gawker that he has financed, and that he thinks of it as “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”

Peter Thiel says backing Hulk Hogan’s Gawker suit was ‘one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done’, Vox

“It’s not like it is some sort of speaking-truth-to-power or something going on here,” Thiel said. “The way I’ve thought about this is that Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully. In a way, if I didn’t think Gawker was unique, I wouldn’t have done any of this. If the entire media was more or less like this, this would be like trying to boil the ocean.”

Peter Thiel says backing Hulk Hogan’s Gawker suit was ‘one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done’, Vox

And just like that, Gawker was utterly crushed. Thiel nursed a grudge for years and Hogan just happened to be a convenient ally for his larger agenda. And the quotes above show that I’m not just making up a conspiracy theory. He’s proud of what he’s done.

Gawker was an early iteration of sensationalized online media, but it still had standards

I do want to reiterate that Gawker was reckless, irresponsible, and cruel. I also want to reiterate that I really hate the idea of a billionaire suing an entire news organization out of existence, even though he had an excellent reason to be mad. The only person in this story that I feel unmitigated sympathy for is Hulk Hogan.

Still, the fact that this happened the way it did is incredibly telling. Gawker was on the leading edge of a new wave of sensationalized news, which led to Thiel’s revenge. Thiel was able to have his revenge because he took action at the tail end of an era in which media could be held accountable (rightly or wrongly).

Basically, we live in a new era now. Gawker had all the mean-spiritedness of a tabloid, but the writers were actually talented and they had a funny way of riling up elites. But future media likely will not have even the extremely minimal restraint Gawker had.

What this fiasco teaches us about the future of media

You might scoff at this and say, “the real lesson here is don’t build a business based on pissing off billionaires.”

I mean, yeah, that’s one interpretation and one I think is true. But I think there are deeper lessons here about the nature of our new media. And these lessons are relevant to you as a consumer of news and as a business professional trying to navigate choppy waters.

Modern internet news runs on raw emotion

Gawker was a sort of bridge between mainstream print media and disparate news sources distributed by social media. It ran on shocking, emotionally manipulative content. But unlike social media, there was a clear responsible party – not an algorithm or anonymous users.

Yes, “if it bleeds, it leads” has been true for a while. Network criticism is not new. Just look at the movie Network from 1976! But the modern internet takes this basic principle, amplifies it tremendously, and removes all barriers to the dissemination of news no matter its quality.

Here’s how it works. Social media feeds serve up a mix of news and posts made by your friends. Any post that gets shared a lot gets prioritized in your feed, and the feeds of others. The same can be said for any post that gets a lot of read or watch time, reactions (positive or negative), comments, and so on.

So the question then is, “what makes people share?” People need to experience a state of emotional arousal. The higher the state of emotional arousal, the higher the odds of sharing the post. High arousal emotions include stress, fear, alertness, and excitement. Low arousal emotions include sadness, boredom, calmness, relaxation, serenity, and contentedness.

Take this and scale it up tremendously to networks of billions of people, and what you get is a nonstop feed of stressful, frightening, and occasionally exciting news. This is how cable news worked before the internet and yellow journalism in the newspaper industry before that.

The difference this time? The news is coming from your friends, which makes you likelier to trust it. And you also have a chance to participate yourself.

Inhuman forces out of your control are pushing you to lower quality news

Gawker was really well-suited to go viral on the internet of the 2000s and early 2010s. But these days, news comes from a variety of “sources” which often include blogs and other websites with no credentials or editing process. These websites now have a better chance than ever of being discovered, provided they appeal to high arousal emotions. 

Appealing to mean-spirited emotions sounds a lot like Gawker’s modus operandi. But the key difference is that Gawker edited their work and targeted elites, even if their focus was selective and biased.

Your news feed is customized to your worst qualities

Low quality news is a problem in its own right, but there is also another key problem with social media. Every social media website – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok – customizes what you see based on your personal history. That means your feed or recommendations start out pretty standard and mainstream, and then quickly get weirder and weirder.

If you’re lucky, this means that you’ll spend more time engaging with your hobbies and specific fandoms. If you’re unlucky, that means you will engage with more news that stokes your fears and outrage. The worst part? The more news you see that backs up what you always feared was going on, the more likely you are to believe it – confirmation bias.

Around 2017 or 2018, YouTube came under fire for pushing people into alt-right content. This was later confirmed in a research paper called Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube, published in January 2020.

This is best understood with an example. You may start out watching some Joe Rogan Experience on YouTube, because it is a very popular podcast with a variety of guests. Then you might start seeing Canadian psychologist and hard-to-classify firebrand Dr. Jordan B. Peterson show up. If you feel like he’s speaking your language, you may then feel compelled to click on a recommendation for right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro. 

Given enough time, the chain of YouTube recommendations pushed a lot of people into really weird places, many of which I am frankly not comfortable listing on this blog.

Of course, it’s not just YouTube. Twitter has echo chambers. Every subreddit on Reddit has a self-reinforcing karma system that pushes people to ultra-specific beliefs. TikTok runs on an artificial intelligence that no one really understands yet, but that clearly makes the platform engaging. And Facebook, well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Gawker blatantly appealed to its readers’ negative qualities. But it still had brakes and standards and the ability for human beings to intervene, which our current social media ecosystem does not.

This is happening to everyone all at once, and it’s affecting society

That brings me to another really important point. Gawker was shut down for its bad behavior. It may not have been good for the free press, but someone was held accountable for the consequences of what was being published.

But Facebook? Every feed is personalized, and done so by algorithms that run on machine learning. Not even the programmers understand how the algorithm chooses what it chooses. But we do know one thing: the goal is to keep users on the site for longer so that more ads can be served, and more revenue generated for Facebook.

On top of that, it is impossible to police every single link and post that is published to social media networks. So you cannot effectively punish bad actors on the platform and you cannot go after the programmers.

At that point, you can really only go to leadership. Shareholders are not going to ask Facebook – or any other social media network – to change the structure that makes the company profitable. And the US government is not likely to regulate social media anytime soon.

Social media has radically changed the way we consume news. Reputable outlets are requiring subscriptions to stay afloat, which insulates them from having to create articles around anger and fear. Yet it’s these very paywalls that make them harder to justify sharing on social media. This just makes more room for loud, uninformed, angry voices to shout and shout and shout.

We’re only just beginning to understand the kind of impacts social media is having on society at large. Social media, in general, has been credibly blamed for giving authoritarian regimes a weapon to use against the masses. A wonderful propaganda tool, if you will. 

There are some countries where “Facebook” and “the internet” are interchangeable terms. That means what people see there is taken as truth. In the case of Myanmar, this led to the incitement of genocide and a coup.

But this isn’t just a problem happening far away from Facebook’s home country of the USA. Many of Facebook’s own employees believe their company to be responsible for the insurrection on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Gawker has done some bad things, it’s true. But we can at least intuitively understand what Gawker was doing. Social media has taken their same basic toolset and added automation and scale, which results in consequences that are a hell of a lot worse.

Appealing to emotions is important and it works, but you have to be careful

Yes, it’s important to be able to write an attractive headline. Yes, it’s important to write copy that converts, and so on. It’s true that when you write any kind of advertisement or make any kind of content marketing, that you need to appeal to high arousal emotions.

Saying that the internet runs on clicks is not exactly novel, sure. But if we really take this truth and ruminate on it for a while and realize what it means, it can provide a sense of what to do next.

I wrote this article’s headline to make you curious and angry. But my goal was to take that curiosity as an opportunity to educate you about how news media works. I wanted to take your anger, and the motivation that comes along with it, and give you an emotionally resonant reason to set boundaries with social media. And I wanted to do this in a way that has practical business implications.

When given the choice, I will work with my clients to create ads that appeal to excitement. I suggest doing the same, because it’s the most positive high arousal emotion there is. When that’s not possible, and appealing to stress and fear are necessary, I at least try to direct it at something that needs fixing. Given how ingrained social media is at this point, this seems like the most ethical possible way to use the system.

Practical takeaways for you and your business

At this point, I would like to leave you with just two simple takeaways. One for you and one for your business.

For you

Pay attention to what you’re consuming online. Social media is designed to push you into emotionally-charged content that confirms your biases. If you’re not vigilant, you will encounter and perhaps fall for content that is either untrue or misleading. It’s happened to me, too, and I’m a digital marketing expert and generally cynical reader of the media.

Understand that no one is reviewing what you read online. There are no editors and there are no standards. This is different than even ten years ago when the emotionally manipulative articles nevertheless felt the need to have some nugget of truth at the core of their work.

Be aware of what you read.

For your business

Gawker worked because it appealed heavily to high arousal emotions like fear, stress, and excitement. That’s why social media works too. If you want your business messages to spread, you will need to appeal to high arousal emotions too. Just make sure you do so with a sense of ethics.

People don’t act without a good reason to. It’s part of the nature of consumer behavior. Give people a reason to act – preferably a nice one.

You cannot topple a media ecosystem based on emotional manipulation alone. What you can do is take responsibility for what you’re telling people, and do so in a way that still allows you to run your business. This lets you make a profit while also making the world of social media nicer – even if only a little bit.

Words have weight. Use them wisely.