Ryan Holiday’s Conspiracy (Portfolio-Penguin 2018, 319 pages, $28) is a story of revenge. The premise, while true, is outlandish: It is the tale of the furor unleashed in October of 2012 when the gossip blog Gawker published excerpts of a sexually explicit video involving Terry Gene Bollea (better known by his professional wrestling stage name, Hulk Hogan) and Heather Clem, the wife of Hogan’s friend, Todd Alan Clem, a TV/radio personality.

When Hogan took Gawker to court over the video, the gossip website was forced to pay over $100 million dollars in punitive damages for invasion of privacy. The onerous payment eventually forced Gawker to declare bankruptcy and shut down.

The details surrounding the tape are a prime example of content that many would call “celebrity gossip” at best, or “trashy” at worst. As is often the case with this kind of content, the ensuing ballyhoo was magnified by developments occurring both before and after the fact: It would seem the encounter took place with Clem’s approval; and indeed it was Clem who recorded the 30-minute video without Hogan’s knowledge, and subsequently handed it over to Gawker’s editorial staff six years after the fact.

Although only 10 minutes of the video were actually released by the website, it was enough to cast a harsh spotlight on Hogan, who went on record affirming that this affair was merely the final act in his failing marriage; his spouse Linda Claridge had filed for divorce in 2007, one year after the video was recorded.

Importantly, Hulk Hogan was not alone in his suit against Gawker. This is the meat of Holiday’s narrative, and what elevates the book above celebrity gossip drivel: Gawker was taken down by a ring of conspirators. Secretive entrepreneur Peter Thiel, a serial investor who made his fortune as one of the co-founders of the online transaction platform PayPal, fumed over Gawker outing him as gay in 2007. Another day, another entrepreneur, and the public revelation might have been shrugged off; but this certainly wasn’t the case for Thiel. His public image already suffering from bad publicity following unsuccessful business decisions and a poorly received opinion piece published by a libertarian think-tank, Thiel was furious at the prospect of being further defined and boxed in by others on the basis of his sexuality. A hefty dose of personal dislike towards Gawker’s founder, Manhattan-based British entrepreneur Nick Denton, added fuel to the fire.

Here then begins the “conspiracy,” somewhat narrowly defined by the author in the archaic sense referring to a plot to cause someone else’s downfall. Thiel had complained about Gawker to anyone who would listen; from personal friends to journalists. However, it would be a chance encounter with a young man at a university tour that would yield a timeline and a budget. It would all come to fruition when Hogan’s tape was released; Thiel agreed to financially support Hogan’s ensuing lawsuit, and successfully forced Gawker to close down.

When narrating events and describing characters, the book is truly gripping. This is rather unsurprising, given that 30-year-old author Ryan Holiday is a media and public relations wunderkind. A native of California, he left college as a sophomore to take a $30,000-a-year job at a talent agency right when the events in Conspiracy were taking place; he now heads his own PR firm in Texas and found the time to author six books prior to this one.

There is no doubt the book tells the story of privacy laws and a seedy Silicon Valley feud. But the author’s insistence on dwelling on events and characterizations through florid metaphors, referencing topics as disparate as ancient philosophy, renaissance politics, and modern cinema, not only pulls the reader out of the narrative but also feels like the book tries too hard to affirm its own importance, as well as pads the word count.

Interestingly, both Nick Denton and Peter Thiel not only consented to being interviewed for the book, but according to media reports both separately contacted the author to share their respective views on the case. The anonymous young man met by chance in Germany, who is only ever referred to as “Mr. A,” was also interviewed by Holiday. But much of the meat of the actual court case is already in the public domain, and the book’s premise in painting the events as a grand Conspiracy isn’t entirely convincing. It is clear from the start that Peter Thiel’s team, and Hulk Hogan, would be able to build strong and sympathetic cases for themselves. And besides, it was only a matter of time before Gawker overconfidently crossed the line looking for increasingly “viral” celebrity scoops; by the time of the trial, the website would be facing a barrage of criticism from personalities crossing a multitude of industries, from celebrities to the video gaming world.

Thiel spent millions researching material with which to challenge Gawker, and millions more to support Hulk Hogan, who was represented by Los Angeles-based attorney Charles J. Harder; a leading expert on image rights whose clients include a multitude of celebrities. Most notably, Harder was even hired by Donald Trump to fight the publication of journalist Michael Wolff’s exposé Fire and Fury. Holiday quotes the Italian statesman Niccolò Macchiavelli’s affirmation that conspiracies are the tools through which the weak can plot against the strong, but how “weak” can we consider a tag-team composed of a Silicon Valley billionaire, a professional wrestling champion, and the United States’ most prominent personality rights lawyer?

(By Yuri Serafini)