The Signpost

In focus

Cryptos and bitcoins and blockchains, oh no!

Contribute  —  
Share this
By David Gerard
As well as editing on Wikipedia since 2004, David Gerard wrote a book on why cryptocurrencies and blockchains are terrible — all of them — which he's too modest to link here. David apologises for the usage of the short form "crypto" in this article, which, sadly, is accepted finance jargon now. You can treat it as short for "cryptosporidium".

Bitcoin is the first example of a new form of magical Internet money: cryptocurrency. The idea is a form of currency that has no central controller — you can just trade it as digital cash, directly. And no-one can stop you.

Of course, it's all a lot more complicated than that: the crypto world has attracted an unholy melange of idiosyncratic economics, ultra-libertarian politics, bright-eyed naïve hopefuls ... and scammers, to prey upon them. So, so many scammers.

Whenever there's a whole new paradigm of money, and the old rules of finance just don't apply any more — the promoters show up on Wikipedia as well! And we delete their spam, and block the worst offenders. But there are always more.

Blockchain, as a buzzword, is the enterprise-friendly version of the Bitcoin idea — that a decentralised database something like this, with or without a central controller, could make business work better.

Enterprise "blockchain" has serious problems. The hype was literally copied from Bitcoin hype with the buzzword changed, the press releases don't distinguish "actually does" from "could hypothetically", there's still no real-world production systems where the blockchain bit actually does anything ... and its promoters are just as enthusiastic about getting their vapourware into Wikipedia.

I write about this stuff, go on TV as a public expert, and have strong opinions on the topic — but here, I'm just another Wikipedia editor who knows the area, would like it properly covered by Wikipedia, and has to cite his claims like anyone else.

I don't have any special powers to declare how a topic area should be edited — even one with floods of financially-conflicted drive-by editing. Many others on WikiProject Cryptocurrency will disagree with my opinions here! But we all want the area to be good, and not spammy.

This is a good worked example of a perennial Wikipedia issue: how can we properly cover an area with notable topics, but that has a massive spam problem?

The answer that worked for the cryptocurrency area: strong reliable sources.

Scams with real victims

Despite the past hype, cryptocurrency doesn't affect the real economy that much — and media interest is through the floor since the 2017 cryptocurrency bubble popped. (At least until Facebook foolishly thinks starting a crypto is a good idea.)

But covering it properly is actually important — because people look stuff up in Wikipedia, and they trust us, and assume we've done our best.

The usual way to do financial fraud is to make your target feel like they're more of a big shot than they are. They put their money into your ill-regulated financial scheme, where they could win big!! ... and they get burned, and lose everything.

The cryptocurrency world plays at doing finance — but it's pretty much unregulated, with none of the safety nets that most people assume any reasonable financial product would have. You can get rich from cryptocurrency! And you can also lose your shirt.

Some crypto disasters, like the collapse of Mt. Gox, seem to be from well-meaning individuals being seriously out of their depth. Quadriga seems to have been a money laundering chop shop run by a serial scammer who may have faked his own death. (It's sadly unsurprising how often crypto scammers turn out to be serial scammers.) Others, like OneCoin or Bitconnect, were straight-up Ponzi schemes. ICOs are unregulated, and frequently fraudulent, unregistered penny stocks that only work as long as the whole market is on the upslope of a bubble.

One of the reasons we have financial regulation for retail investors is that, without it, the mum-and-dad investors get skinned — every time.

User:MER-C notes that in a world with financial predators, "this is a topic that is almost as sensitive as medicine."

But you gotta hear about this one!!

The crypto bubble of 2017 brought such a stupendous flood of promotional rubbish that the administrators' noticeboard was flat-out dealing with the proponents. Even after the 2018 crash, the ongoing firehose of spam and spammers was such that the call for general sanctions on cryptocurrency and blockchain articles got unanimous support.

And so we have: General sanctions/Blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

Look through these restrictions — where promotional or tendentious editing risks a general topic ban or even a year's ban from Wikipedia, and pages may be protected or semi-protected, or "any other reasonable measure that the enforcing administrator believes is necessary and proportionate".

Contemplate, for a moment, just how bad an area must have become to need that level of sanction.

Our entire crypto problem — and the reason the general sanctions for crypto articles exist — is a stupendous conflict of interest: how desperately these guys want to spam Wikipedia.

They'll even hire PR firms, expecting them to generate an article that sticks. (That agency was wise enough to demur — though they tried to blame a cabal of "no-coiners.")

There's good reason that "holding a cryptocurrency" is listed as a financial conflict of interest for Wikipedia editing about that currency.

Reliable sources are your best friend

But plenty of crypto and blockchain stuff is genuinely notable, and we should cover it properly. How do we hold off the flood of financially-interested spammers, while we try to write an encyclopedia?

Regular editors in the crypto area have come to a rough working consensus on sourcing — we stick to strong reliable sources (commonly abbreviated WP:RS) only. Mainstream press or peer-reviewed academic sources. Since the 2017 bubble, there's plenty of mainstream press coverage — the financial press is increasingly well-informed on the topic — and academics have always found the area interesting.

No crypto blogs, no crypto news sites — because these look like specialist trade press, but they're really about advocacy: promoting their hodlings. Many are blatantly pay for play, and very few ever saw a press release with "blockchain" in it that they wouldn't reprint.

This isn't a written sourcing rule — but the editors following crypto tend to enforce it in practice, and anything other than solid third-party RSes in an article is a death sentence at articles for deletion. But, solid sourcing means it'll live!

Off-wiki crypto advocates complain regularly, but the rule has stuck — because the Reliable Sources principle is solid, and what we're applying here is basic Wikipedia rules.

(I'm arguably speaking against my own personal interest there — I make some money as a crypto journalist, often publishing in these very sites. I know my stuff is good, and my editors are good, and my friends are good journalists! But I also know that if some subject or fact isn't noteworthy enough to make it into mainstream or peer-reviewed sources, it's probably not noteworthy enough for Wikipedia.)

Wikipedia also has many editors who are fans of cryptocurrency and blockchains, who have realised that WP:RS is an excellent and effective way to make our articles better! Because they're tired of the crypto spammers too.

If you love cryptos and I hate them, WP:RS lets us work together.

If your own favourite topic area has a spam problem, get strict on sourcing.

Scammers and spammers are eternal — but we don't have to let them ply their trade on Wikipedia. Neutral Point of View, informed by Reliable Sources, is — as always — our best protection against promotional nonsense.

In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0