Crypto and Twitter: A Toxic Combination, a Troubling Future

OK, Ardor fans. You have your wish. Your favorite token is getting a mention on CoinDesk.

Not, perhaps, for the reasons you want. But they do say all publicity is good publicity. So, there you have it. The response to my column last week on layer-two solutions was mostly positive with the usual dose of critics, but it was the Ardor tribe who caught my attention when one reader’s tweet, complaining that I hadn’t mentioned the blockchain platform, prompted others to pile on with accusations of my bias and ignorance.

It got me thinking about how financial self-interest, which has always skewed people’s perceptions of the media they consume, is being taken to a new level when crypto tokens are involved.

I do believe blockchain technology and related ideas around prediction markets and reputation will one day help us sort through the free-for-all of competing truths that the social media age has produced. For now, though, I worry that all we’re doing is creating a global brawl of angry people, all believing that they and only they own the truth.

This is really not about Ardor. (From what I can tell, Ardor’s framework for enabling “child chains” makes an interesting contribution to the evolution of crypto technology.)

What this is about is how people invested in the multiple tokens attached to competing projects that similarly claim to be making some quantum leap in blockchain capability come to passionately believe that theirs is superior to everyone else’s and deserves more prominence than it’s getting.

In Ardor’s case, it’s the holders of the main platform’s ARDR token as well as those invested in the child chain Ignis token. But I could just as well be talking about holders of ETH, XRP, IOTA, BCH and yes, BTC.

Fanatical, blinkered investors are nothing new, of course. It once was the case with GE’s shareholders – definitely, not any more. It’s always been so for investors in Warren Buffet’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, and in this past decade we’ve seen it with Tesla. But there are two factors that make the phenomenon more extreme in the age of cryptocurrency.

The first is the sheer volume of coins and the large retail investor base they attract.

The second is that social media is now the primary means by which market-relevant information is distributed. And social media, for better or worse, is essentially anarchy.

Combine these two and you end up with something worse than the troll armies that already cause such public angst around social media. You get monetized trolls.

The scammiest way this plays out is with bots. Bailey Reutzel’s great little survey of some classic spam bot moments in “Crypto Twitter” shows how distorting the combination of crypto and social media can be.

But there’s also lots of human-led ugliness: anonymous trolls disrupting healthy dialogues with ad hominem attacks and coin-pumping tweets filling our news feeds.

Now I believe that, eventually, anarchic social media might evolve to point where it’s far superior to the traditional media model that preceded it. And, as I mentioned, blockchain-based “proofs” and skin-in-the-game staking systems might one day help us sort through this mess.

Under the old, centrally-managed system, where news organizations filtered the important public information before it reached its intended audience, there was an inherent constraint on the amount of information available. And there was an access problem.

So, just as ICOs have shown how access to capital might be democratized, one could argue that social media has also created a potentially more democratized model of access to publishing systems. (I say “potentially” because in many respects what has happened is we’ve shifted power from the old news establishment to a new form of media behemoth: the follower-rich celebrity – think Donald Trump, or Justin Bieber.)

However, with no viable, decentralized mechanism as yet for rewarding honesty and good behavior, or for processing information so that some kind of consensus can be formed around it, we’re left with noise. Worse, there’s a broken feedback loop in which metrics such as the market cap of a token or the followership of a social media account reinforce and confirm people’s biases.

We saw it with the XRP mob that jumped on the New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper after he cited bankers saying they weren’t using the token associated with Ripple. The mob was unleashed, ironically, by a former co-editor of TechCrunch and now vocal investor – Michael Arrington – who vehemently claimed that Popper must have made up his quotes.

The swarm of XRP fanboys was unmoved by the logic that for a reporter at the Times to do such a thing would be professional suicide – read about Jayson Blair for background on this.

Or there’s the IOTA gang that collectively pumped out an alternative narrative that my colleagues at the MIT Digital Currency Initiative who’d discovered flaws in IOTA’s hashing algorithm were conflicted by business interests. Or the gang of ethereum supporters who took as gospel truth Vitalik Buterin’s claim that CoinDesk is complicit in enabling crypto scams.

Attacks on the press have happened for as long as it has existed. That’s not a bad thing per se. Any functioning society maintains a vigorous critique of media organizations. Some form of bias is unavoidable in media coverage. It deserves to be questioned.

But news organizations are no longer the all-important filters they once were. They represent one, increasingly small sector of a vast array of sources claiming to offer relevant information.

And unlike those other individual and corporate sources, news organizations – the good ones at least, those that can get beyond their owners’ and their advertisers’ interests and practice sound journalism – shouldn’t be captured by the same heavily financial biases.

So it’s disturbing that we’ve gone from discovering Facebook’s #fakenews problem to the appropriation of that term by those who peddle the view that mainstream media is the main source of disinformation, to the even more extreme scenario in which a market for information is composed of participants with tokens whose value they want to protect.

If we’re going to tokenize everything, which may or may not be a good idea, this cacophony of competing truths peddled by different self-interested mobs will likely get even worse. What happens when celebrities and companies and dictators have their own coins, with armies of rabid supporters doing their bidding in this battle for truth? Decentralized solutions to this are still a long way off.

I’m not totally sure how we stop this train for now, except to make a plea formed by my own, unavoidable pro-journalism bias. I humbly ask that people in the crypto community have a little more respect for journalists who, while far from perfect, are at least trying to produce news and content that’s not skewed by their or anyone else’s investments.

Without them, what have you got?