Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, said today on stage at Vox Media’s Code Conference that Peter Thiel would remain on the company’s board of directors despite the controversy surrounding his involvement in a lawsuit against Gawker.
It was revealed that Thiel was backing Hulk Hogan in a lawsuit against Gawker that’s raised questions about the future of free speech when it comes to criticizing billionaires. His involvement essentially amounts to a proxy duel with the media organization that could arguably have a dramatic effect on the industry.
So, naturally, there were questions about whether he would remain on the board of directors of Facebook — a company that effectively champions the free speech of its users. The question was asked directly: “He’ll remain on the board, just to be clear?”
And the answer was also clear: “Yes.”
“We have very independent board members with very independent thoughts they share separately, those strong people make strong board members because they have strong views,” Sandberg said. She said that the company had no knowledge of what was going on.
It’s a tricky situation to be in. Thiel, although he was operating on his own, has a big presence within Facebook in his role as a director for the company. He was an early Facebook investor, accruing a fortune from his investment as the company rocketed to a valuation in the hundreds of billions. Sandberg said that his views did not represent Facebook, and were his independent views — which he basically has a right to.
It’s also a challenging position to be in when executives like Jeff Bezos come out swinging against Thiel and the whole situation. Bezos went so far as to quote Confucius at an interview at the Code Conference: “Seek revenge and you should dig two graves, one for yourself.”
Sandberg stressed that Thiel was not using any of Facebook’s resources in his involvement in the trial, meaning the company decided not to comment. It’s a different situation when Marc Andreessen commented on Facebook’s Free Basics program in India, which the company felt compelled to comment on to distance itself from Andreessen’s statements.
Gawker, she said, got access to the same resources that every other of Facebook’s partners had on the platform.
“They’re our partner,” Sandberg said. “If he did anything with Facebook resources that would be a Facebook issue. I understand there were complicated issues. It’s hard to answer all these hypotheticals, what matters is we’re an open platform, Gawker is getting distribution from us, as is Fox News, and others.”
Facebook, too, has faced some questions as to whether its Trending Topics section had a liberal bias. As part of that discussion, Facebook invited people to the company’s campus to discuss its involvement in the process — and essentially how Facebook worked, and how they could better use it. Again, Sandberg stressed that individuals may and can hold their own ideas, but that doesn’t mean that Facebook’s approach is biased.
“They need to know we are separate as individuals as we are, that didn’t come up in the meeting, they really wanted to understand how the platform worked,” Sandberg said. “I also think, they wrote this, they found Mark and all of us really open to the dialog. We were happy to have them come, grateful for them to come on short notice, want the continuing dialog on what makes the platform work for them.”