Bitcoin Media Coverage: Is It Fair?

Last week saw the widely commemorated anniversary in the cryptocurrency world of Bitcoin Pizza Day. This marks the occasion on May 22, 2010 when a Florida computer programmer exchanged 10,000 Bitcoin for two of Papa John’s finest pizzas. Yes, you read that right. It is perhaps without coincidence then that the producers of the longest-running news show in the US, 60 Minutes, chose last week to feature this story and a general feature on Bitcoin on the show, giving much of mainstream America real exposure to the topic for the first time. So, now seems a rather appropriate time to explore what was said in the report, and the general state of Bitcoin media coverage. Is the topic represented fairly? And, quoting President Trump, how much “FAKE NEWS” is out there?

The Bitcoin Pizza Guy and Bitcoin pioneer

Firstly, let’s go back to the extraordinary tale of the Bitcoin Pizza Guy, or to give him some dignity, Laszlo Hanyecz. At the time, to be fair to him, it wasn’t so extraordinary, or if it was, it was because the pizza was expensive if anything. The 10,000 Bitcoins used for the pizza amounted to $41, which is quite a lot for a pizza, but shortchange compared to how much they would become in value. As he explained in the interview with Anderson Cooper on the show, he, along with basically everyone else, had no idea how the price of Bitcoin would skyrocket in the proceeding years. Admirably, he goes on to insist that he tries not to think about the fact that if he had held onto the Bitcoin he would be a multi-millionaire today. To much of the mainstream audience learning about Bitcoin for the first time, then this undoubtedly would have seemed flabbergasting to say the least. Hancyez’s story set the tone for the report, titled “Bitcoin’s Wild Ride.”

To be fair the report stayed true to its word. As well as Hancyez, also featured was Charlie Shrem, a well-known figure from the early days of Bitcoin. Shrem was the founder of Bitinstant, a now defunct crypto exchange that he set up in his bedroom with only $1,000 of his savings. In the next few years, he became a millionaire on the back of the business’ success, thanks to growing investment and interest in Bitcoin. The success came all crashing down on him however in 2014, when he was arrested for assisting an unlicensed online business through the laundering of Bitcoin. Shream is shown to be very remorseful for what he did. The report concludes showing Shrem out of prison and riding a boat in Florida, having made money through as he puts it “blogging, consulting and investing in cryptocurrencies”, so clearly doing OK for himself.

While the report doesn’t exactly portray Hancyez and Shrem in a negative light, it doesn’t show the whole picture either. Hancyez, rightly or wrongly, will always be known as the Bitcoin Pizza Guy, but he has contributed a whole lot more to the story of Bitcoin than is explained in the report. He kick-started the Bitcoin movement in the first place with this transaction, the most famous pizza transaction (probably) ever. He wasn’t just some moron who paid for pizza with a then worthless currency. It was done for a reason, to show that physical goods could be paid for with Bitcoin, something that had never been done before. At the time, no merchants accepted them as forms of payment, and it was pretty much worthless in value, these two points no doubt linked.

After Hancyez posted about the transaction on a Bitcoin forum, and more and more people cottoned on to its potential, the rest, as they say, was history. In more recent years, Hancyez has used his cult status to vouch for the advantages of Bitcoin, including in February 2018 making the first transaction for pizza with the Lightning Network. It is a blockchain-based payment system, which although still in development, Hancyez believes has the potential to propel Bitcoin into the mainstream because of the added convenience it uses in allowing virtual payments to be done almost instantly and at a minuscule cost. “If something like Lightning Network takes off, I think you’re gonna see every online retailer just switch to it because nobody wants to use MasterCard, and Visa, and PayPal,” said Hancyez last year in an interview with the Coin Telegraph. Indeed, Hancyez’s optimism about the more widespread acceptance of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general seems to have traction, when you look at the ever-increasing amount of merchants accepting the currency, including Amazon, as reported by Coindesk in April. Other retail giants such as Starbucks and AT&T have also announced they now accept Bitcoin recently.

There is also a lot more to the story of Shrem as well. Before his imprisonment in 2015, he wrote on his personal blog “I did the crime, and I will do the time” and that he did, spending a year in federal prison, but it would be foolish to let that become what he is remembered for. He is a self-proclaimed ‘Bitcoin pioneer’ and for that he should be commended. Like Shrem, he was a visionary who saw the true potential of Bitcoin. As an interview with CoinCentral states, he was one of the first enablers of helping people to get money from A to B without an intermediary, and he enabled people to actually buy and sell it for the first time through his Bitinstant platform.

Truths and untruths of Bitcoin

Elsewhere in the 60 Minutes report, the point about cryptocurrency having the potential to speed up and lower the cost of money transfers is actually highlighted by Neha Narula, Director of the MIT Digital Currency Initiative. Narula also refers to how cryptocurrency is being used in crisis-hit countries such as Venezuela, where it has been used in lieu of real money because of the economic crisis there, and is optimistic about its future, despite admitting it “could go either way”. Lastly, the report also featured Lael Blanchard, a governor from the Federal Reserve, who, it is fair to say, is not Bitcoin’s biggest fan. In response to the point that Anderson Cooper posited, about some people preferring cryptocurrency because of its decentralized nature and that it is immune to manipulation from central bankers, Blanchard went on the offensive. She referred to the ‘deposit insurance’ protection that the US currency has as an advantage over Bitcoin, insinuating that your money isn’t safe if you hold Bitcoin. Well, at Bybit we have something to say about that! We guarantee your funds are safe with us through our industry-leading hierarchical deterministic cold wallet system.

As an overall journalistic piece though, despite not shedding enough light on Bitcoin’s advantages and too much on the “wild ride”, and on the positive things did Hancyez and Shrem for its development (instead focusing too much on their mistakes), it was a fairly balanced and well made report, all things considered. This was seemingly the general consensus in the crypto community too, with many happy that a mainstream media story wasn’t overwhelmingly negative about Bitcoin for once. “Very basic but pretty balanced”, was the thought of one Reddit user on a Cryptocurrency forum, also expressing their pleasant surprise that it “wasn’t a hitpiece”. Indeed, hitpieces have been all too common on this topic in recent years, which in turn have massively contributed to a lot of misinformation and negative sentiment in the public domain.

One doesn’t have to go back several years however to find some notable examples of negative media coverage surrounding Bitcoin. This article from Gizmodo in April is a prime example. The title itself is a giveaway to the article’s tone – “Bitcoin surges 15% overnight because nobody learned their lesson after the last crash”, and goes on to to label Bitcoin as “fake money” and “absolutely worthless”. Nevermind fake money, this is FAKE NEWS! While there’s nothing wrong with highlighting the volatility of the Bitcoin market, it simply isn’t true to say that it can’t be equated to an actual currency. It is now being accepted by an increasing amount of merchants around the world as a method of payment, like a real currency. And as for it being worthless, Bitcoin is actually worth around $8,000 (on May 22, 2019!), and as the title implies, sharp increases are allowing for a bullish sentiment in the market, signaling an optimism that there may be more increases in Bitcoin’s price in the near future.

Negative to positive media coverage of Bitcoin

Seemingly confirming this assumption that the coverage of Bitcoin in the mainstream media has been more negative than positive in recent years is research from the Blockchain-focused research company Clovr. The researchers surveyed 7,527 articles from 48 international media outlets from May 2013 to July 2018. The results paint a pretty clear picture. Articles from ‘Financial and Economic’ outlets such as Forbes and The Wall Street Journal were actually found to be overall 54.4% positive. However, articles from ‘Skew Conservative’ outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News were found to be overwhelmingly negative on the whole to the tune of 88.7%. The researchers did find that media coverage did get more positive over the time of the survey, but overall negative media coverage ruled supreme. It’s no wonder then, Bitcoin has traditionally been perceived negatively by the mainstream.

There is no doubt that things seem to be turning, though. Not just the fact that the researchers of the survey found media coverage to be increasingly positive in more recent years, and the somewhat positive report on Bitcoin on 60 Minutes, but there are other glimmers of hope too. An article in Time in November 2018 went into more depth on Narula’s point on 60 Minutes on how Bitcoin is being utilized in countries ravaged by hyper-inflation like Venezuela as a form of currency, essentially because it is (in relation to the domestic currency), stable, has value and is free from government control. Additionally, in the aftermath of the 60 Minutes report, Google searches for ‘bitcoin’ hit a 14 month high. Hopefully, going forward, more positive, and at the very least objective, media coverage on the topic is seen, so people can see for themselves what Bitcoin can do, not just for them, but for everybody.