BROS BEFORE CO'S

Mark Zuckerberg may have to choose between his early investor and freedom of speech

Mark Zuckerberg could get caught in the crossfire in the war between Gawker Media and Peter Thiel.

Thiel, a Facebook board member, PayPal founder and billionaire, told the New York Times that he had been quietly funding legal cases against Gawker Media, because it had outed the venture capitalist as gay nine years ago. Cases backed by Thiel include that brought by Hulk Hogan, who was awarded $140 million in damages, a sum sure to bankrupt Gawker. The Hogan case is under appeal. Meanwhile, Thiel’s attempt to destroy an online media organization while sitting on the board of Facebook, a major media distributor, is raising questions about his position.

As is usual at Facebook, all board members will be up for re-election the company’s June 20 annual shareholders meeting, according to a preliminary proxy statement filed on April 27. That includes Thiel, who became the first outside investor in Facebook when he paid $500,000 for 10% of the company in 2004.

That could position Zuckerberg between one of his early investors and the publishers he is trying to court. Publishers are important to Facebook because they create the content that gets users to keep using Facebook products, especially some of the newer ones. Zuckerberg is currently courting publishers for projects such as Facebook Live videos, Facebook Instant Articles, and chat bots for Facebook Messenger. Those relationships could be threatened if publishers think Thiel’s position on the board of Facebook would compromise the publishers’ editorial direction.

And, at the same time, both Thiel (and Facebook) say they support free speech. Thiel donated to the Committee for Protection of Journalists back in 2009, as Quartz’s Josh Horwitz pointed out.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this post with any response.

Between the Thiel drama and publishers becoming more important to Facebook, the social media giant’s annual shareholder meeting will certainly be one to watch.

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