Why it’s so hard to trust the blockchain ‘news’ industry

How often do you read Bitcoin or blockchain news sites? Are there some you trust more than others, and how certain are you that you’re not just reading paid advertorials? Before believing everything you read in an article, it’s important to remember a few truths about the blockchain industry, and online media in general.

“Fake news” is one of the past decade’s favorite catchphrases. It’s often overused. People on all points of the opinion spectrum—political or technological—deploy it against any writer they feel is biased against their own belief system.

On the other hand, it’s also a legitimate term to describe articles published deliberately to mislead and misinform. And there’s a lot of that around.

Then there’s plain old bias and advocacy reporting. Story choice, structure and word use is an effective tool in fighting for a particular worldview. Ordinary bias is hard to avoid, and it’s often subconscious. Every individual has opinions and every organization has a mission. Even when you’re trying to be completely impartial and maintain a distance from the topic you’re covering, bias kicks in on a subconscious level.

Pay-for-play media

What you need to be more aware of, though, is good old-fashioned “checkbook journalism”. That expression itself gives an indication of how long it’s been around. It’s different to (conscious or subconscious) bias. It’s more akin to the tradition of a mercenary; a professional soldier who cares more about making a profit than any cause they’re fighting for.

At least the merely-biased actually believe in the causes they advocate. Mercenary reporters and entire “news” sites are happy to publish any piece of writing, no matter how potentially harmful, as long as they’re making money from it.

And some companies will pay well to get their names, stories and messages published. They’ll often pay even more to make it look like they didn’t. The technology industry is particularly competitive, and blockchain is a niche segment of that. Its legitimate startups and illegitimate scams can only survive with intention, and their projects die without that oxygen.

So too do niche news sites starve without funding. This might sound cynical, but the longer a 100% impartial tech news site stays online, the less chance it has of surviving. From experience, I can say you make many new friends as a tech journalist—but those friends can flip in an instant, should you say anything critical about them, their company, or even their worldview. The pressure to keep the coverage positive can be great.

Again, money comes into play here. It’s easier to skew things positively when it means extra income, especially if the alternative is unemployment. News media, even for large mainstream publications, is often called a “loss leader”—something operators are happy to make a loss on, as long as it serves some other purpose. Therefore, almost every news site in the blockchain and wider technology industry needs financial support. Since the birth of the World Wide Web, competition for diminishing advertising revenue in online news has become extreme. It’s also easier for anyone at all to set up a credible-looking news site, whether they have standing in that field or not.

Financial backing comes in the form of either a larger and well-resourced company, or per-article “sponsorship”. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, though—the problem is when it isn’t disclosed.

But but but

“But CoinGeek and its owners support BSV”, you’ll often hear people say. Yes it does, but that’s not a secret—it’s right there on our “About Us” page:

In 2017, the Calvin Ayre Media group acquired and relaunched CoinGeek.com as a cryptocurrency news site with a focus on the technology of Bitcoin, now reborn as Bitcoin SV (BSV).

I doubt any online writer would apply for a job at CoinGeek unless they’ve assessed the history and current state of Bitcoin, and come to the conclusion that BSV is Satoshi Nakamoto’s vision. Likewise, readers know exactly where we stand and nothing is hidden.

Can you be so sure, when reading other blockchain news sites? Sometimes. For example, if a site is called “The Daily Decred” or “Lightning Network Latest,” you can probably assume it supports that blockchain project.

But I’m not talking about those. What you need to be careful of is sites that purport to be neutral, and/or don’t disclose sponsored content.

I’m not going to name any sites or individuals explicitly here, but against all those known facts about the online media (and especially tech) news industry, you can assume payola is pretty rife across the board.

The ICO clown show of 2017-18 (actually it still continues) only made things worse. Previously, blockchain initiatives were just as often naive as they were fraudulent. But the promise of 1000x-and-more gains only made things worse.

Questions to ask

To test the accountability of a blockchain news site, ask these questions: Are the site’s owners and/or main financial backers publicly known? What other investments or projects are they involved in?

Does the site clearly mark any content as sponsored or paid? (If nothing is marked, it’s a red flag.) Do its writers have public social media profiles with faces, where you can check the history of their views? Has the site changed ownership at some point in its history, and did they publicize that change?

And remember, it’s possible for a site itself to be (mostly) credible, while some of its individual contributors aren’t.

From personal experience

Here’s a few anecdotes from my own experience as a Bitcoin/blockchain reporter to illustrate how common this phenomenon is.

I started writing on this topic in 2013, for one of its earliest and best-known news sites. Editorially, it was genuinely impartial. But frequently we’d get emails from startup companies saying outright, “How much do you charge for an article?” We turned them down. That site eventually ran out of cash and changed hands, sold to a large blockchain investment firm.

Since then I’ve worked for a handful of other sites, one of which I part-owned with a few friends. At that company (like most) we published press releases—marked as paid content and with full disclosure at the bottom of each article, as required by U.S. law. Occasionally companies would ask us if we were able to publish their articles without the disclosure—again we refused, as we couldn’t afford fines and didn’t want to go to jail.

Along the way I’ve stumbled across a few individual reporters secretly taking side-payments for coverage. Calling them out usually produced a backlash that made it not worthwhile; another sad truth.

I can also say that most blockchain news sites don’t pay contributors that much. Some well-known sites pay rates are fairly competitive, but I’ve heard of writers making as little as $20 per article. Depending on where the writers live, it could even be less. That’s a perfect economic incentive to (a) crank out re-writes of any press release that drops into your inbox regardless of merit, and (b) earn some extra income on the side, if you can.

So I can personally attest that the opportunity for undisclosed paid content exists. And if it exists, you can bet there’s a lot of people out there making money from it.

Trust is personal

Trusting news sources is important in the cryptocurrency industry for a few reasons: one is that it’s financial technology. Bad actors have exploited public fascination and historic bull runs to promote scams. The topic draws a lot of interest from people with little understanding of economics and finance, and some are more than willing to profit from that ignorance.

Unfortunately there are no sure-fire ways to guarantee the information you’re reading is accurate, though asking the questions above can help. In the end, you’ll need to use your own critical thinking skills and maybe do some personal due diligence on individual writers.

Most readers and amateur investors won’t bother to do that, though, and paid/shill news sites rely on that laziness. If you want reliable information, don’t be lazy. Learn for yourself who you can trust, and who you shouldn’t.

New to blockchain? Check out CoinGeek’s Blockchain for Beginners section, the ultimate resource guide to learn more about blockchain technology.