Peter Thiel, one of the longest-serving board members of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, plans to step down, the company reported Monday.
Thiel, 54, wants to focus on influencing the November midterm elections, said a person with knowledge of Mr Thiel’s thinking who declined to be identified. Thiel sees the midterm elections as crucial to change the direction of the country, this person said, and he backs candidates who support former President Donald J. Trump’s agenda.
In the past year, Mr. Thiel, who has a fortune estimated by Forbes at $2.6 billion, has become one of the largest donors to the Republican Party. Last year he gave $10 million each to the campaigns of two protégés, Blake Masters, who is running for Senate seat in Arizona, and JD Vance, who is running for Senate in Ohio.
Mr. Thiel has been on the board of Meta since 2005, when Facebook was still a small start-up and he was one of the first institutional investors. But criticism of Mr. Thiel’s position on the board has steadily increased as the company has become embroiled in political controversies, including Mr. Trump’s exclusion from the platform, and as the venture capitalist has become more politically active.
With the departure, Meta loses the most prominent conservative vote of the board. The 10-member board has undergone significant changes in recent years as many of its members have left and been replaced, often by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Drew Houston, the chief executive of Dropbox, joined the board of Facebook in 2020 and Tony Xu, the founder of DoorDash, joined the board last month. Meta declined to comment on whether it plans to replace Mr. Thiel.
The company, which recently celebrated its 18th anniversary, is shifting to the so-called metaverse, which Zuckerberg says is the next generation of the Internet. Last week, Meta reported that they have spent more than $10 billion on the effort by 2021, along with mixed financial results. That wiped more than $230 billion from the company’s market value.
“Peter has been a valuable member of our board of directors and I am extremely grateful for everything he has done for our company,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, in a statement. “Peter is truly an original thinker who can bring you your toughest problems and get unique suggestions.”
A look ahead to the 2022 US midterm elections
In a statement on Monday, Mr Thiel said: “It has been a privilege to work with one of the great entrepreneurs of our time. Mark Zuckerberg’s intelligence, energy and conscientiousness are immense. His talents will serve Meta well as he is leading the company into a new era.”
Thiel first met Mr. Zuckerberg 18 years ago when he provided the entrepreneur with $500,000 in capital for Facebook, valuing the company at $4.9 million. That gave Mr. Thiel, who controlled a 10 percent stake in the social network through his venture company Founders Fund, a seat on the board of directors.
Since then, Mr. Thiel has become a close confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg. He guided the company through its early years of rapid user growth and the company’s difficulties in transitioning its business to mobile phones around the time of its IPO in 2012.
He is also seen as the contrarian with the ear of Mr. Zuckerberg, who champions unfettered speech on digital platforms when it suits him. His conservative views also gave the Facebook board what Mr. Zuckerberg saw as ideological diversity.
In 2019 and 2020, as Facebook grappled with how to handle political statements and claims in political ads, Mr. Thiel urged Mr. Zuckerberg to resist public pressure to remove those ads, even as other executives and board members thought the company should change its stance. Mr. Zuckerberg sided with Mr. Thiel.
But Mr. Thiel’s views on speech were sometimes contradictory. He funded a covert war against the media website Gawker, which ultimately resulted in the site’s bankruptcy.
Thiel’s political influence and ties to key Republicans and conservatives have also provided Zuckerberg with a crucial gateway to Washington, especially during the Trump administration. In October 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Thiel had a private dinner with President Trump.
Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg have long waited for Mr. Thiel on the board. In 2016, Mr. Thiel was one of the few tech titans in largely liberal Silicon Valley to publicly support Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
In 2020, when Trump’s incendiary Facebook posts came under scrutiny, critics cited Mr. Thiel’s board seat as the reason for Mr. Zuckerberg’s continued insistence to let Mr. Trump’s posts stand.
Facebook banned Mr Trump’s account last year after the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, because his posts incited violence. The episode became a major rallying point for conservatives who say mainstream social platforms have censored them.
Mr. Vance, who formerly worked at one of Mr. Thiel’s venture capital funds, and Mr. Masters, the chief operating officer of Mr. Thiel’s family firm, have railed against Facebook. In October, the two Senate candidates argued in an op-ed in The New York Post that Mr. Zuckerberg’s $400 million in 2020 donations to local election offices amounted to “election interference” that must be investigated.
Recently, mr. Thiel publicly expressed his disagreement with content moderation decisions on Facebook and other major social media platforms. In October, at an event in Miami hosted by a conservative tech association, he said he “would prefer the conspiracy theories of QAnon and Pizzagate to a Ministry of Truth any day.”
Mr. Thiel’s investment also clashed with his membership on the board of Meta. He invested in the company that became Clearview AI, a facial recognition startup that scraped billions of photos from Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms in violation of their terms of service. Founders Fund also invested in Boldend, a cyber weapons company that claimed to have found a way to hack into Meta’s messaging platform WhatsApp.
Meta declined to comment on Mr. Thiel’s investments.
Over the past year, Mr. Thiel, who is also chairman of software company Palantir, has increased his political donations to Republican candidates. Ahead of the midterms, he backs three Senate candidates and 12 House candidates. Among those House candidates are three people who pose a primary challenge to Republicans to Republicans who voted to impeach Trump before the Jan. 6 events.