Strange Days in Crypto as Citizen Journalism Takes Over
Bitcoin and crypto receive significant mainstream coverage as markets are surging to new highs, or, by contrast, when there are catastrophes, collapses and sell-offs.
Currently, the big stories are overwhelmingly negative, but there are some puzzling aspects to recent media coverage, and a stark divide has opened between mainstream media outlets, and, alternative online analysis and citizen journalism.
The story currently at the center of (and generating) the storm is, of course, that of the now-bankrupt FTX and its sister operation, Alameda Research, which have been run into the ground by the Founder and former CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried.
Besides managing his collapsed empire in a stunning fly-by-night manner, customer funds appear to have been misappropriated, and Bankman-Fried is fielding allegations of a client-fleecing, industry-wrecking multi-billion dollar fraud, incorporating significant political donations.
Bahamian Life and New York Events
FTX is under investigation by the SEC and the US Justice Department in the Bahamas (where it is headquartered), and yet Bankman-Fried still seems to be carrying on with his luxury life as usual.
Affairs are due to become even stranger this week, as the disgraced Founder of FTX is scheduled to speak at the New York Times’ DealBook summit, alongside the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Janet Yellen and Volodymyr Zelensky, although there are reports that Bankman-Fried may not appear in person.
For a sense of perspective on that, consider how it would have appeared if, a few weeks after his crimes had come to light, Bernie Madoff had (after spending the intermittent period living exactly as normal) been invited to a well-heeled metropolitan event to chat publicly about business.
And, by the way, if you want to attend the DealBook event, it will cost $2,499. Perhaps the organizers are hoping to get several million attendees, and then they’ll raise enough to pay back the money that FTX has lost.
Puff Pieces and Whitewashing
One might expect that financial and tech media, particularly in the US, would be highlighting Bankman-Fried’s alleged misdemeanors, and expressing some curiosity as to why and for how long he can continue to spend his time relaxing in the Caribbean.
However, supplementing the unsettling peculiarity of the speaking engagement in New York, there have been several articles published in mainstream outlets engaging in what looks, at times, like a whitewashing of the FTX story, and deflection from the actions of the protagonists.
The New York Times was particularly brazen in taking such an approach, the Washington Post initially thought it appropriate to lament that Bankman-Fried could no longer appropriate money for favored causes, the Wall Street Journal also placed Bankman-Fried’s supposed philanthropy front and center, while Forbes attempted to present Alameda's CEO, Caroline Ellison as a sympathetic character in the story.
To be clear, more straightforwardly critical reports have appeared, but that is perhaps a consequence of the tremendous and palpably angry online backlash to early articles. It was a reaction that may have acted as a media wake-up call, although speculation about the reach of FTX corruption into politics and partisan media circulates with intensity.
Any lack of desire to report robustly on Bankman-Fried and the chaos within his companies is only apparent in mainstream channels, while online, particularly on Twitter, it’s a different matter.
In this alternative, increasingly essential realm, there is the investigative analysis and up-front speculation, while pleasantries are eschewed in favor of demands that Bankman-Fried faces legal consequences for his actions.
One well-known influencer in the self-starting world of independent crypto media is leading the charge. Ben Armstrong, also known as BitBoy, runs his own YouTube channel and has a large following. A divisive character with past controversies of his own, he nonetheless has been full-throated in his denunciations of FTX and Bankman-Fried and has widespread support on this particular issue.
Last weekend, he took the step of personally flying out to the Bahamas to try and confront Bankman-Fried in person, all to be updated in real-time on social media. At the time of writing, Bankman-Fried has managed to evade Armstrong, but the latter’s trip has generated no shortage of appreciative online engagement.
Some observers commented archly that they expect Armstrong to be arrested for a harassment-related violation before SBF is detained for financial crimes, and affairs are so upside-down that they might have a point.
However, what really stands out here is that, in an on-the-ground media context, Armstrong’s actions are not extreme.
Investigative journalists traveling to get to the bottom of a murky conspiracy, or to make direct contact with the lynchpin at the center of a scandal, is an essential component of the journalistic trade, and if credentialed members of the press will no longer perform these tasks, then others will fill the vacuum.
In this case, it falls to an independent content creator to take up, with compelling enthusiasm, what were once considered core journalistic tasks.
New Models for Changing Times
Perhaps this is all indicative of an incoming model for the future. It’s striking, also, that this story unfolds at the same time as Elon Musk liberalizes Twitter, placing a greater emphasis on freedom of expression, and restoring previously suspended accounts: moves which should further facilitate independent journalism.
We are in turbulent times, during deep technological shifts, and, suddenly, cryptocurrencies, social media and traditional journalism find themselves intertwined on the front lines, with FTX and the damage it wrought as the catalyst.
Cryptocurrency is built on decentralization, which equates with verification over trust and reduced coalescing of power. This directional shift, it seems, is cultural as well as technical, and is occurring not only in money and finance but in the media and journalism too.
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