When I was a young girl, my grandfather took me to a lot of pro-wrestling matches. He was a major aficionado of the “sport” and was also an amateur promoter of events, so he knew everyone in the early days. That meant I was lucky enough to meet wrestlers like the over-seven-foot “eighth wonder of world,” André the Giant. This French performer was an overwhelming presence to me, a kid who was topping out at three-foot-nothing. But he was unusually sweet and generous every time I saw him, as he was to all of his fans. Most of the characters in the business were like this off the mat, too, despite their faux beefs and overwrought dramas while they were on it. Thus, I always had good feelings about pro wrestling right through to The Rock.
Which is why a particular tweet caught my eye the other day. Someone called the current use of Twitter by people such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene the “pro-wrestlization” of the medium. On the surface, the analogy certainly works. Consider the use of the 280-character entertainment by former President Donald Trump as a means for whatever in-your-face point he wanted to make or brawl he wanted to start, until he was barred. Aside from screaming on the steps of the Capitol, Twitter is what Greene uses to say something so provocative and plainly ignorant that it causes everyone to react — and to react badly.
It’s a formula she used this past week again, comparing a current pro basketball player who refuses to get a Covid vaccine with the legendary point guard who tested positive for H.I.V. in 1991 before retiring immediately: “The fascist NBA won’t let Kyrie Irving play for refusing a vaccine. But yet they still let Magic Johnson play with HIV.”
It’s all kinds of wrong — H.I.V. is not transmitted by air, for one thing — to make an outlandish, false statement that guarantees that the rage will fly. Several other well-known pot-stirrers did the same thing last week, using the news that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was taking paternity leave to land some fake haymakers that seemed designed to get people incensed.
Take the right-wing writer and podcaster Matt Walsh, who has turned tweeting into a trollist art form. “The thing about paternity leave is there isn’t much for dad to do when the baby is a newborn, especially if mom is breastfeeding,” he wrote in a thread, in which he underscored his expertise by citing his four-kid haul. “His main role is to take care of mom as she recovers but of course that doesn’t apply to Buttigieg so I’m not sure why he needs paternity leave at all.”
Having three kids myself — with a fourth due in December — it took every bone in my body not to tweet back my wrath (on cue). Instead, I managed to put down my phone and make lunch for my third child, who has very much needed my help since she was born in 2019, even if I did not actually deliver her. My eldest, whom I did give birth to, as well as my second child, whom I did not, both rely on me, too.
Does anyone agree with Walsh’s take about parental leave? He seems to see it as a gay-time-off scam. Most weary parents that I know are cheering any mom or dad who manages to carve out some deserved space to devote to a newborn.
Does Walsh even believe what he wrote? Or was it just a way to spark outrage and then mock it, to attract attention with no other purpose except to attract attention, to draw in people he disagrees with to make them play his game with remarks so obnoxious that ignoring them feels nearly impossible. Like Lucy with the football, people like Walsh and Greene can be counted on to be mean, to huff and puff on that reliable sousaphone just to make terrible noise.
Which is why pro wrestling is not the right metaphor to use here. In that medium, everyone is in on the joke, playacting their various roles of villain or hero or something in between for fun and entertainment.
(Disclosure: I’m working on a podcast about the show “Succession” for HBO, which has aired programming featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and André the Giant.)
This week I spoke with Max Chafkin, an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of a new biography of the tech mogul Peter Thiel called “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power.”
1. Why did you pick Peter Thiel as a subject, and what do you think he represents in Silicon Valley?
There are other figures you could tell the story of Silicon Valley’s rise through — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. But Thiel seemed interesting for two reasons: First, he’s full of contradictions. How, for instance, does a gay, immigrant technologist with two Stanford degrees come to enthusiastically support a reactionary nativist like Donald Trump? Second, while those other tech moguls have had a direct influence through their companies, Thiel’s influence has been more subtle and, I’d argue, more profound. “Silicon Valley” is as much an idea as a place at this point, and I think Thiel’s ideology, which combines nationalist and libertarian (Liberthielien?) politics with a view that tech founders should rule the world, has shaped that idea more than anyone else. Silicon Valley’s liberals like to distance themselves from Thiel politically, but when you get down to it, they tend to agree with him on most things.
2. What do people get wrong about him, and what do you think does not get enough attention?
Thiel is not the Randian superhero his tech-bro followers imagine; he’s also not the vampiric right-wing villain imagined by the left. He’s gotten a lot of things right, but he’s made mistakes in his career, which I think contain lessons for both his fans and his critics. At times, he has allowed himself to be blinded by his biases — an interesting problem for someone who has been keen to call out biases of his critics. As I report in the book, Thiel’s climate change denialism caused him to miss a chance to invest in Tesla early, and his need to have a contrarian take caused him to run his hedge fund into the ground during the 2008 financial crisis. Often the consensus view is the correct one.
3. I think Thiel, who is on Facebook’s board, is one of the biggest influences on Mark Zuckerberg and not in a positive way. Please discuss.
I agree completely — his influence on Zuckerberg has been enormous. First, he’s pushed Zuckerberg toward a libertarian worldview, which I think has caused Facebook to take a hands-off position on misinformation and violence. Personally though, I’m less worried about Thiel’s politics than I am about the influence he’s had on Zuckerberg’s approach as C.E.O. The Thiel business philosophy says that founders should have absolute power and should pursue monopolistic growth at all costs — breaking rules and norms whenever possible. It’s pretty clear that this mind-set allowed Facebook to become dominant, but it also made Facebook indifferent to its responsibilities to society. A tiny start-up that subscribes to the Thiel playbook is no big deal; a trillion-dollar media conglomerate with endless data on three billion people that is operating according to that playbook is scary.
4. What is his relationship with Trump now, and what are his current political aims?
Thiel likes Trump on a personal level, but he is positively enamored of Trumpism — cracking down on immigration, pushing back against calls for diversity and pursuing a nationalistic industrial policy. I think he also admires Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. My sense is that Thiel will be supportive if Trump is the Republican nominee in 2024, but that he would prefer a new face, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That said, his real goal goes beyond any single candidate: He wants to put himself at the center of Trump’s far-right movement, with or without Trump himself. That means being the seed investor in the Senate candidacies of Blake Masters and J.D. Vance, and it means supporting other Trump-aligned folks, like Harriet Hageman, who is running against Representative Liz Cheney in Wyoming. Thiel is making a play to be the Charles Koch of the Trumpist right.
The decent thing to do
Changing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives broad immunity to tech platforms for the content that flows from their services, has gotten some momentum of late among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even though the topic has been discussed for many years now.
Last week, a group of Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation called the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act (JAMA). The bill would “limit the liability protection provided by such section when a provider of an interactive computer service knew or should have known such provider was making a personalized recommendation of third-party information or recklessly made a personalized recommendation of such information, and for other purposes.” In English, this change would make the companies liable for a lot more material.
As someone who has long advocated for more liability for tech companies, I am supportive of some creative regulation to make this happen. But this is not it.
First, the language seems vague, which could cause a flood of frivolous lawsuits. It is not clear to me what “recklessly made” means exactly, and it’s certainly not going to be clear to the courts either.
In addition, there is a carve-out for small businesses that doesn’t protect enough of them. The ones in the middle will get squeezed since only big companies such as Facebook have the financial and legal heft to follow new rules. This is a common complaint leveled against Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in May of 2018.
While repealing or reforming Section 230 seems like low-hanging fruit to those who want to rein in tech quickly, there’s a more effective option. We need to pass substantive federal privacy legislation to solve the discrepancies among our current patchwork of state laws. We could also, perhaps, use congressional subpoena power to investigate harms caused by tech giants. Bringing this kind of transparency to reveal what the problems are exactly is fairer to consumers and the tech companies, too.
(If you want to get a good take on both sides of the 230 debate, by the way, I recommend two opposing pieces in National Review: Nate Hochman’s “Conservatives Should Support Section 230 Reform” and “There’s Nothing Wrong with Section 230” by Charles C.W. Cooke.)
Hypocrite of the week
Facebook PR decried the use of embargoes — timing the release of information — even though it uses them regularly. I happen to like the company’s communications executive John Pinette, but this statement he sent out was a doozy: “Right now 30+ journalists are finishing up a coordinated series of articles based on thousands of pages of leaked documents. We hear that to get the docs, outlets had to agree to the conditions and a schedule laid down by the PR team that worked on earlier leaked docs.”
It sounds so deliciously nefarious, but I can assure you it is completely normal. And boring. I wasn’t offered access to the internal Facebook docs, including some that showed that the company knew Instagram was harmful to teenage girls. These were the basis of The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series, which started this recent kerfuffle. But in the past, the company has asked me to honor embargoes on a wide range of information it gave me — at least eleventy-hundred times in my long career.
Pinette also noted, “To those news organizations who would like to move beyond an orchestrated ‘gotcha’ campaign, we are ready to engage on the substance.” To which I say, I would be thrilled to receive all the docs you care to send me at [email protected]. But no embargo, ’K?