Conspiracy (2017) reveals the incredible true story behind the downfall of one of America’s most controversial media outlets. The author explores the motivations and machinations of billionaire Peter Thiel, who conspired against Gawker Media, and details the dramatic courtroom trial that saw wrestler Hulk Hogan win millions in damages against the world’s most notorious gossip website.
“The beginnings of all things are small,” the Roman politician Cicero once said. So it was with the conspiracy at the heart of this story. That small beginning was a blog post published by a gossip website in 2007, which outed a tech investor named Peter Thiel as gay. Just 400 words long, this post is the genesis of a conspiracy that cost millions of dollars and lasted over nine years.
To understand why this post was so significant, we must first learn a little more about both its subject, Peter Thiel, and its publisher, Gawker Media.
Let’s take a look at Peter Thiel first.
In 2007, Thiel was already a wildly successful entrepreneur. Having made his fortune as a founder of the online payments system PayPal, Thiel had also gained recognition as Facebook’s first major investor. Despite coming out to his friends, family and colleagues, Thiel was still discreet about his sexuality in 2007, preferring to keep it a somewhat open secret in Silicon Valley. Indeed, when it came to any aspect of his personal life, Thiel was intensely private.
Now let’s examine the website that published the blog post. This website was called Valleywag. Though it was billed as a tech-news site, Valleywag took its editorial direction from its parent company, the notorious gossip website, Gawker.
Both the Gawker and Valleywag websites were owned by an Englishman named Nick Denton.
Denton’s background may have been in the tech industry, but his true interests were secrets and gossip. Specifically, exposing other people’s secrets via his websites, in the name of entertainment and transparency.
Whose secrets? Particularly those of the rich, powerful or famous. Using an army of young, hungry writers with a gift for witty yet contemptuous writing, Denton encouraged his bloggers to expose and ridicule public people and institutions they felt were hypocritical or hiding something. And audiences loved it. By 2005, Gawker and Denton’s other websites were making $120,000 in monthly advertising revenues. By 2012, Gawker’s revenues were close to $40 million.
However, for all Nick Denton’s media savvy, he gossiped about the wrong person on that day in 2007.