Last week, Human Rights Foundation executive and Bitcoin evangelist Alex Gladstein tweeted that a recent article in Wired UK threatened to set back the cryptocurrency’s cause, by working in a well-worn and what he considers overdone, genre: bitcoin crime stories.
The article, “The bitcoin terrorists of Idlib are learning new tricks,” written by CoinDesk alumna Rachel-Rose O’Leary, examined how Syria-based jihadi are using encrypted tools like cryptocurrencies and Telegram to further their cause. This isn’t a new trend. What’s different is, with increased surveillance of their operations, there’s less open discussion about crypto among terrorists. They’re going further underground.
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Bitcoin’s strength comes from being an open-access tool. Anyone, anywhere can transfer BTC to anyone, anywhere. Its emergence was a revolutionary moment in the history of money. It prevents governments and private companies from meddling in the basic human need to transact. Humanitarians, laypeople and criminals alike benefit.
“Bitcoin’s non-discriminatory nature should be celebrated,” Gladstein said. His main issue with the article, primarily its headline, is that by focusing on the criminal application of Bitcoin, Wired is providing yet another reason for governments to attempt to stymie adoption.
Gladstein thinks in this instance the data in O’Leary’s article doesn’t support a sensationalist headline – he did the math, and the “bitcoin terrorists” only transacted about $10,000 in BTC two years ago. But it’s also indicative of a general anti-Bitcoin stance in the mainstream press.
His criticism is context-dependent. Of the 18 articles Wired UK has published on Bitcoin, almost all – except for a glowing profile of the Winklevoss twins – were “negative,” by his reckoning. This is all the more relevant given “the significant history of using terrorism as a pretext for cracking down on civil liberties.” Just recently, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen called the illicit use of cryptocurrencies a “growing problem.”
All this may be true, but it may miss the larger story of what Bitcoin means for the world. It also over-emphasizes the power of the media to shape reality in the year 2021, especially the reality about Bitcoin, which famously doesn’t care what people think it is or isn’t.
In a phone call yesterday, Gladstein made reference to a media establishment that largely ignores how Bitcoin is being used as a means of emancipation by those who were born under the yoke of authoritarianism. There is a clear anti-Bitcoin bias in the mainstream press, he said.
I am doubtful that an article, or even the entire media establishment, could harm Bitcoin adoption. The media is simultaneously over- and- undervalued. Overvalued, precisely because of the control some think it exerts in influencing – rather than simply reflecting – public opinion. Undervalued because, well, the collapse of the industry speaks for itself.
The first time I heard about bitcoin on Reddit I thought it was cool, downloaded the source code to mine some, never did and then forgot about it. The first time I bought bitcoin was to purchase a grey-area good on the clearnet. When my unspent UTXOs started rising in value, I took a closer look. It wasn’t until I read an article in New York Times Magazine that I fully understood what was going on.
I’d wager there are many adoption stories like mine. As Gladstein noted, the majority of Bitcoin’s users “aren’t on Twitter,” even fewer read Wired. Adoption comes from utility. People stay either because they can make money, or they become ideologically aligned. From Turkey to Morocco, across Latin America, Asia and Africa, real people are finding value in crypto. These stories are told in numerous publications, not least of all in CoinDesk.
The same attributes that make Bitcoin a tool for fostering self-reliance also provide a boon for criminals and despots. North Korea has a sanctions-busting crypto stockpile. And, yes, Al Qaeda, ISIS and Hamas have taken advantage of direct, unstoppable and irreversible payments. There must be a reason why “RC” (research chemicals) sites offer discounts on purchases made through cryptocurrency.
O’Leary noted in her article that only a small fraction of crypto payments are for criminal activity, citing Chainalysis research. But the criminals are here, and to say otherwise is to obfuscate the power of Bitcoin.
“Bitcoin doesn’t care what you write about it. Bitcoin is unstoppable,” Gladstein said. Negative articles “damage people’s ability to use it, it scares them away – whether they are in advanced economies or in places like Syria.”
It’s possible that when Bitcoin was young, less known and less accepted these negative portrayals might have sunk the project. Satoshi thought WikiLeaks would draw regulatory attention. But now, Bitcoin has a patina of respectability. Publicly traded firms are buying BTC, insurance companies are betting on it and some of the most influential people are singing its praises.
As much as external criticism won’t bring the network down, there is an internal series of conflicts among bitcoiners that could harm it. Gatekeepers, so-called “maximalists” and those who chill criticism have done their damage. I know smart people who turn away from BTC after being dragged on Twitter.
If greater adoption is the aim, then we might as well tell the truth about what that world would look like. The whole truth. “Uncensorability” means more freedom — and more terror. That’s the point.
That may be a world many would prefer not to live in. O’Leary showed, to some extent, that world is already here.
UPDATE (April 9, 21:15 UTC): Added more details of Gladstein’s critique of the Wired article.