Peter Thiel during the Web Summit 2014 in Dublin.  Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA Photos Limited Peter Thiel during the Web Summit 2014 in Dublin. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA Photos Limited

The Saga of Peter Thiel vs. Gawker Media is a heck of a yarn. If you haven’t been following it, here’s the gist: Thiel makes millions from co-founding PayPal, which he leverages into billions by investing early in Facebook. Some time after, Gawker publishes a snotty article publicly outing Thiel as gay; he is pissed. Years later, Gawker publishes a sex tape featuring 1980s wrestling star Hulk Hogan; Hogan is pissed. Thiel secretly funds Hogan’s successful US$140 million suit against Gawker, which hurls the company into bankruptcy protection.

It’s a gloriously surreal revenge tale replete with sex, money and intrigue. No one comes out of it looking particularly good. Aaron Sorkin must be writing a screenplay already.

As fascinating as the story is, it sets an icky precedent, because it demonstrates how easy it is for the new-economy elite to use their wealth and influence to do whatever they want—whether that’s acts of altruism or acts of spite. Thiel sees no reason why he shouldn’t destroy a major media outlet because it wrote something that hurt his feelings. That’s dangerous behaviour for any leader.

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In 2016, big-thinking tech billionaires are our society’s royalty. One could argue, quite convincingly, that the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have as much—and, likely, more—power as any elected or religious official. To their credit, most of them demonstrate a genuine commitment to using their spectacular fortunes for good, via foundations and charities dedicated to solving massive, even global problems related to energy, health care and poverty. In the New York Times late last year, reporter Alessandra Stanley described such entrepreneurs as “21st-century heirs to Carnegie and Rockefeller” who believe they can “apply the same ingenuity and zeal that made them rich to making the rest of the world less poor.”

Stanley didn’t write about Musk in the piece, but he is a particularly apt example of the phenomenon. As billionaires go, he certainly skews eccentric, but his actions have consistently demonstrated devotion to making the world a better place to live. Barring the odd bizarro remark (such as his recent musing that our entire universe may just be a simulation in a futuristic society’s video game), when Elon Musk makes the news, it’s usually because he’s released a car that could eliminate society’s reliance on fossil fuels, or a rocket that could democratize space travel, or an entirely new mode of public transportation that could finally solve urban gridlock.

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Compare Musk’s legacy to that of Thiel, his erstwhile partner at PayPal. Thiel, too, has done some remarkable things for the world, even if you don’t subscribe to his unique brand of libertarianism: He’s invested significantly in organizations devoted to prolonging human life, safely developing artificial intelligence and, perhaps most famously, awarding $100,000 grants to promising entrepreneurs who agree to drop out of college. Yet thanks to the tremendous volume of coverage the lawsuit generated, Thiel will forever be linked to an act of astonishing vindictiveness. His reputation has taken a serious hit.

The fact that Thiel sees his campaign as a noble effort—he’s called the lawsuit “one of [the] greater philanthropic things that I’ve done”—reveals the hubris of a leader who has not been told “No” in a very long time. You do not need to advocate for Gawker’s abrasive brand of journalism to find Thiel’s cold-bloodedness here slightly disconcerting.

The whole ordeal offers a lesson in why the most powerful leaders need advisors to provide a little perspective. Someone in Thiel’s inner circle should have questioned whether this lawsuit is really in his wheelhouse. And, when that question came up, Thiel himself should have given it some serious thought.

The world needs bold, slightly kooky geniuses with big, slightly kooky ideas—that’s how progress happens. The world does not need big brains (and even bigger fortunes) like Peter Thiel’s tied up with exorcising old grudges. Here’s hoping he, and his fellow tech tycoons tempted to wield their influence in trivial or malicious ways, solicit some sober second thought and focus on what they do best.

Deborah Aarts is a senior editor at PROFIT and Canadian Business. This article is from the August 2016 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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