In May, the worldwide media gleefully reported an unexpected twist in a story that had scooped headlines for months. The story emerged in the weeks after Terry Bollea, otherwise known as Hulk Hogan, had been awarded a major cash settlement in a lawsuit against Gawker, an online news tabloid. The jurors in the case were unaware that Bollea’s lawsuit had been secretly funded by Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley investor. It turned out that Thiel had nursed a decade-long grudge against Gawker and had actively canvassed for legal cases to support as a third-party funder in order to force the newspaper to close. Thiel later professed to the New York Times that he considered his secretive legal battle to be ‘one of the greater philanthropic things that I’ve done’.
Many commentators were outraged. In Salon Scott Timberg suggested that Thiel’s appropriation of the word ‘philanthropic’ to describe his actions was ‘the strangest use ever’ of the term. Scores of news articles used scare quotes around the word ‘philanthropic’ in order to emphasize their own scepticism over the appropriateness of the term.
Silicon Valley’s appropriation and debasing of philanthropy
The problem with much of this commentary is that it presumed Thiel was an outlier among wealthy philanthropists, that he was single-handedly responsible for debasing the meaning of philanthropy, that he was somehow unique for having the gall to suggest that his self-serving actions were obviously useful for all humankind.