Gawker, Facebook, & Governing Truth

A billionaire used money and lawyers to close a company that used journalism as a weapon, but litigation doesn’t win trust. The next frontier for the future of news isn’t law, it’s governance.

Sean McDonald
Sep 13, 2016 · 6 min read
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The Peter Thiel vs. Gawker story is a modern parable about information power politics. It also gave a lot of people with platforms the opportunity to talk about the relationships between journalism, money, revenge, law, fame, and sex. Most writers felt the need to pick a side — either begrudging Gawker their muck-raking or Thiel his billionaire’s revenge. Many more felt compelled to defend or eulogize the innocence of their community. Despite all the pixels spilled bemoaning the unchecked power of information, money, and the legal system, there hasn’t been much discussion of how these powers go unchecked, and what we can do about it.

Gawker picked fights over and over again by publishing inconsequential private facts about public figures, which they’re legally allowed to do. That legal freedom emanates from an influential press freedom case — New York Times v. Sullivan (the New Yorker’s excellent analysis). Sullivan said that news organizations can publish incorrect and damaging information about public officials, so long as they didn’t know it was false at the time (or recklessly disregard whether it was true — the ‘actual malice’ standard). That’s surprisingly hard to do.

Interestingly, the Sullivan verdict itself intended to prevent Southern activists suing journalists over minor inaccuracies to prevent news coverage of civil rights cases. Sullivan, and the verdicts that followed, created historically and internationally unprecedented protection for journalists — and the cases that followed have (mostly) expanded those protections. The interpretations of ‘public figure’ and ‘public interest’ have gotten more complicated in the digital age, leading some legal scholars to wonder whether the pendulum swung too far the other way.

Gawker, by its own admission, stretched the limits of all the legal logic protecting them, and, eventually, found themselves vulnerable, bankrupt, and then closed. A lot of media advocates blame Thiel’s tactics, claiming that they have paved the way for a present and future where billionaires control the media. It’s an odd concern, given how many outlets are owned by billionaires. What should scare journalists is how few people care.

People want journalism’s services and curation — but their trust in journalists and social media platforms are at all time lows. A lot of outlets experts think that’s the industry’s biggest problem, which is no small statement, given journalism’s existential transition, at best, and tailspin at worst. Online advertising revenue is plummeting for nearly every news organization except social media platforms, and readers increasingly don’t know or care where their content comes from.

A lot of journalists blame Facebook (and other social platforms) for focusing on user attention and content consumption over quality and trust. The shift means that Facebook now consumes a lot of what used to be journalist’s revenue. It also means they’ve become the focal point for a lot of trust and curation problems. In the last three months alone, Facebook changed their news algorithm, took criticism for human curation, dramatically fired most of its curation team, had to apologize for its algorithmic curation, and then, just this week, got into and backed off from a stand-off with a Norwegian publication (and Prime Minister) over content guidelines. That’s a lot of headache, especially for a company that doesn’t consider itself a news organization. Regardless of how Facebook thinks of itself, the larger problem — for Gawker, for news subjects (even Peter Thiel), for Facebook, and for the future of news — is governance.

If news is to survive the digital age, the companies that sell it (or the attention of the people who read it) need to start by regaining the trust they’ve lost. As a starting point, news organizations can no longer afford to ignore the people who rely on, and are reflected in, their work. It shouldn’t take a public outcry, a billionaire’s lawsuit, or the intervention of a prime minister to evoke a meaningful reaction from an organization charged with something as nuanced as the truth.

If news organizations don’t want to adjudicate their judgement in lawsuits, they should build systems that help people resolve disagreements without them. ‘Letters to the Editor’ and ‘Corrections/Retractions’ simply aren’t enough, especially with the digital longevity and SEO of the news. Dispute systems should be open, participatory, and adaptable. That’s no small order, but there are a wide range of approaches coming from all over the Internet and journalism: there are public funding models (like ProPublica), granular revenue for content (like Brave’s browser-based micropayments), public facing annotation (like Genius), and ways of representing and earning expertise (like Wikipedia and Quora), among many, many others. None of these approaches are complete enough to save journalism, but they all start from the belief that truth is something we build collectively. And that’s an important distinction for newspapers and Silicon Valley billionaires.

Most news organizations correlate their brand value to their standards of truth — and rather than building new ways to engage they’re investing their dwindling resources in walled garden distribution platforms that are slowly killing them. Larger outlets are getting by, but mid- and small-market journalism is dying. Smaller outlets and distribution platforms can’t afford the cost or risk of experimentation with engagement. Even the high-profile companies above have yet to establish strong, long-term business models that don’t rely on major consumer behavior change. A few similarly motivated initiatives like and, most recently, Beacon Reader, have shuttered under financial pressure. For most, the best outcome is acquisiton or imitation by larger distribution platforms.

The problem is, big platforms are more likely to change what’s good about these approaches than change the way they deliver the news. As we’ve seen recently with Facebook and Whatsapp, corporate acquirers — especially those with large network effects — can change the social contract between a platform and its users. Worse, they can do it unilaterally.

Changing the terms of a relationship, especially when the change is one-sided, usually undermines the other side’s trust, if not end it entirely. The organizations that are serious about building a better future, whether with information, by connecting the world, or realizing the power of data, will first have to distinguish our trust from our attention. Trust doesn’t come from perfect curation, it comes from building systems that recognize the imperfections of the tools, people, and information curated.

There are a lot of ways to build those systems — some are technological, like the public curation tools above; some are contractual, like using civic trusts to embed duties and governance into newsrooms and platforms; and some are through empowering and involving more traditional governance structures like reader boards and boards of directors. The legal system, however, is not that system.

Despite his assertions, Thiel’s “philanthropy” didn’t protect protect journalism or the downtrodden, he radicalized an already desperate industry. And journalism isn’t any better for wielding its exceptional protections against all of us, without anywhere near the checks and balances of those they’re meant to hold accountable. We all lose when journalists become belligerent or timid, and when billionaires exercise their ego via public institutions. The legal system isn’t the way to build the future, it’s barely a way to fix the wrongs of the past. Governance is the way that we build, compromise, and define how we protect the downtrodden.

If we’re going to live in an information society, we’ll need a truth we can build together. Trust through collaborative governance is where we should start.

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