Bitcoin Journalists #2: The Effect of Intent on the Ethicality of Bitcoin Ownership

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I am not the author of the first article on the Ethicality of Bitcoin Journalists, as that was written by Sean Wince. I am one of the two founders of Coin Brief, and the next few paragraphs should be considered my “disclaimer”. However, as this is a digital currency based website, it should not be surprising that I own and use digital currencies.

I had not planned on writing on this subject, as Sean covered the original rebuttal to Michael del Castillo’s article. I had left it in his hands to respond to any additional debate from Mr. del Castillo, or continued discussion in the community. However, upon reading a recent article on Vox titled, “We made the wrong call on buying Bitcoins” I felt it necessary to respond.

It’s not a secret that Coin Brief is supportive of Bitcoin. Of course, we are also supportive of many other digital currencies, including some that do not even exist in a functional way at this time. That said, we have never attempted to hide the fact that we, the owners of Coin Brief, as well as some of our journalists, have a large portion of our funds in cryptocurrencies. The amount varies from individual to individual, but we are not doing this for some speculative reason where we expect 1 Bitcoin to be worth $1,000,000. In general, we do believe that the Bitcoin price will rise significantly in the future — but we also spend our coins constantly, which means price rises end up having having a negligible impact on our overall wealth.

Is It a Conflict of Interest to Own Bitcoin, or Digital Currency, and Write Articles About It?

Absolutely, yes. Of course it is a “conflict of interest”. If Bitcoin crashes, and our coins are worthless, that would be devastating. Every one of us want Bitcoin to continue to increase in adoption, and of course we would love it if the Bitcoin price were to rise. However, that is of no consequence for journalists writing about Bitcoin. The fact that the value of the coins they own could go up or down does not automatically cause an ethical issue. If that were true, then the same could be said of anyone that covers finance of any sort.

Bitcoin Ownership Can Be Compared to USD Ownership

320px-US_Dollar_banknotes

Owning Bitcoin and Writing About Bitcoin is Similar to Owning USD and Writing Articles About US Financial Markets, or US Monetary and Economic Policy.

Journalists in the United States who are writing on economic or monetary policy issues have the same conflict of interest. They almost certainly own USD, and if the dollar were to be replaced as the world’s reserve currency, or if hyperinflation were to begin, or if the dollars purchasing power started to plummet it would quickly erase a large portion of their wealth. It is in their own self-interest to write their articles in a way that paint the dollar in a positive light, as a currency’s value is ultimately determined by what people believe its value is. Value is completely subjective.

Owning Bitcoin Causes a Conflict of Interest, but These Conflicts Are Everywhere

The issue here is not about determining whether or not Bitcoin ownership causes a conflict of interest, as conflicts of interest are unavoidable. Every day, every person on earth is being influenced by many, many conflicts of interest, and generally the conflict revolves around their own self interest. That is human nature.

Image courtesy of James Schwartz

George R. Price – Image courtesy of James Schwartz

Egalitarianism does not exist. Every person, consciously or subconsciously, is biased, in one way or another, toward what is best for themselves and those that they are close to. Even when giving to charity, helping others, or any engaging in any other “noble” act, it is still selfish. People would not do any of these things unless it made them feel good, righteous, superior, liked, etc., because otherwise there would be no reason to do it. George R. Price, who was a genius, and whose life (or, rather, the end of his life) was tragic, realized this when he developed the Price Equation. He spent the rest of his life, before committing suicide, attempting to disproving himself.

However, the fact that conflict of interest exists, or that every action is selfish in one way or another does not make the action immoral, unethical, or wrong.

How Can a Bitcoin-Owning Journalist Write Ethical Articles While Having a Conflict of Interest?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC Today, but Previously a Venture Capitalist and Lobbyist for the Cable and Wireless Industries
Image Courtesy of UNC Center for Media Law & Policy

As I alluded to above, the term “conflict of interest” seems to instantly bring to mind unethical, immoral behavior. Many people think of the government official that is making regulatory decisions for an industry that provides campaign financing for him/her, or in which he/she has a vested interest. They may think of the traditional banking industry’s influence on the government’s monetary policy. They may think of press releases being published as legitimate news, with no label, or articles that were written for a company in exchange for payment with no disclaimer. They may think of a “celebrity” financial analyst buying large amounts of stock, then screaming for everyone else to buy it, or shorting a stock and “warning” their viewers that it is tanking.

However, that is not what conflict of interest means on its own. That is a conflict of interest that is being unethically exploited. Bitcoin journalists, generally, do not fall into this category.

Writing Positive Articles About Bitcoin Is Ethical If The Content Is True

 

When a journalist that owns Bitcoin and is writing a positive article about some new development in the Bitcoin community, or industry, it is almost always because that individual truly believes that Bitcoin is the future. They are not misleading anyone. We are not misleading anyone. Bitcoin is a revolutionary system, and the breakthrough in networking and payment processing it has created are changing the world. That is a fact.

People in Africa, that were previously unable to access the global market because remittance costs completely eliminated any potential profit, are now becoming entrepreneurs and creating startups. A single person can now start a company from their computer, without a bank account, and not only hire employees, but pay them instantly for their work. I’m proof of that. Coin Brief only recently opened a bank account, because it was completely unnecessary before we signed up with Google Adsense.

Owning Bitcoin, and Using it, Is Required to Understand It Fully

Yes, I am biased. Yes, I have a conflict of interest. However, no, it is not unethical for me to write about Bitcoin, nor is it unethical for other writers at Coin Brief. We own Bitcoin, are part of the community, and actively use the currency (as well as other cryptocurrencies), and this is the only reason that we can write about Bitcoin accurately. It is the only way to truly grasp how revolutionary Bitcoin truly is…or, almost the only way. I believe that many people that work at high levels in financial institutions understand exactly what Bitcoin is, and what it is doing, simply because its success would negate many of their most lucrative revenue streams. However, that is a discussion for another time.

Bitcoin is a Hybrid Network and Corporation, Bitcoins Are a Hybrid Currency and Stock

I understand Vox’s Ezra Klein’s confusion. Bitcoin is something new. It is a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization), or a DAC (Decentralized Autonomous Corporation), depending on whose definition you use. Nothing like it has existed before, though new, even more complex systems are being built based on its breakthrough. Traditionally, a corporation and stock were easy to identify, and it was quite straightforward to conclude that a journalist should not own shares of a corporation that they were covering. However, currency has always been considered fair game, as it isn’t ownership of a corporation…yet, truly, they have always been quite similar. A government currency is, essentially, equivalent to shares of ownership in that government. They even convey additional voting power via lobbying, campaign contributions, or outright bribery.

Still, there is a difference there that is identifiable, as the corporation is privately owned entity, and shares tend to equate directly to votes. In this manner, Bitcoin resembles a government style currency more than a corporation, because ownership of bitcoins gives no direct voting ability. Instead, it only offers the ability to gain an indirect increase in voting power. This voting power, which could be considered the Bitcoin equivalent of lobbying, would be purchasing mining equipment, or servers and software to run a mining pool. Miners are the ones that ultimately make the decisions with Bitcoin, not the owners of the bitcoins. Though, Bitcoin does have an added, hidden layer of protection on this front. While 51% of the mining power making a negative decision could cause issues, and disrupt the system temporarily, the community itself has a “veto” power via the need for consensus in order for the system to continue to function in a usable manner. If a corrupt 51% tried to make nasty changes to Bitcoin, the community could just choose to switch algorithms, reset to before the negative event, and leave the corrupt miners behind, hashing away on a now worthless chain. However, again, that is a discussion for another article.

Bitcoin may seem like a corporation without a board, which would make bitcoins stock, but bitcoins function more like currency. It is something entirely new.

How Can a Bitcoin-Owning Journalist Write Unethical Articles Due to Their Conflict of Interest?

Of course, this is always a danger. This is a danger in every industry, but is especially true in the financial sector. There have been examples of journalists who own Bitcoin publishing false information in an attempt to influence the price. In the past, I have personally noticed this happen more with “news” coming out of China, or some other country outside of the Americas or Europe. This “news” is often not actually originating from inside that country, at least not in an official form. In some cases it has been incomplete information that lead to misleading conclusions, and other times the “news” is an outright lie, with no basis in reality at all.

Lying About Bitcoin Regulations Can Influence the Price

However, we see this in other financial markets too. It is not limited to Bitcoin, nor is it anything new. Fake news is a fact of life, and the only way to fight it is to verify facts before jumping to conclusions. In fact, one does not even need to own a single Bitcoin in order to profit from this sort of false information. Generally, this kind of fraudulent, unethical reporting is published to drive the price of Bitcoin DOWN. The one reporting it is not holding any cryptocurrencies when they release the information. They are waiting to buy it in the inevitable dip, to resale it as soon as the truth is revealed and the price rebounds.

Bitcoin Articles That Stretch the Truth Can Drive Traffic

Then there is the issue of fact-based news vs. opinion-based articles, or unlabeled press releases that I mentioned before. This is an issue that is, once again, not limited to Bitcoin. There are many major media outlets in the United States and around the world that engage in these practices, and only a very small percentage are related to Bitcoin. There has been an alarming trend in opinions being presented as factually backed news, and one of the biggest offenders is also one of the biggest media corporations in the world. I won’t name any names, but I will say that they have multiple channels on nearly every television in the United States, and are constantly under attack for their lack of integrity. They aren’t alone, as sensationalism sells.

Both Inside and Outside of the Bitcoin Industry, Companies Will Pay for Unlabeled Press Releases

 

The issue of press releases that are not labeled as such is quite simple, and very common. Ranging from “reviews” that are just rewritten PR, to direct posting of an article written by a company’s marketing department, but labeled as “news” with no mention that it originated from the company itself. Why would anyone do this? Well, companies will pay more for a press release that isn’t labeled as a press release. It has a much higher CTR and results in more sales…and it is wrong. Notice that here at Coin Brief we have a section for Press Releases. We refuse to write them for companies, and the most we will do is edit it for grammatical mistakes or translation errors, as many companies in the Bitcoin world are not based in English speaking countries.

Ownership of Bitcoin is Not the Issue – Intent, Sincerity, Integrity, and Honesty Are the Important Points

Bitcoin Journalists with Honesty, Sincerity, and Integrity are Ethical

Image Courtesy of Mark Hall

The core of this issue has nothing to do with Bitcoin. It has everything to do with intent. If a journalist is writing an article with the intent to influence or mislead the readers, then that is unethical. If an article is based on opinion or theory, then that needs to be clear. It should not be presented as fact. If an article is paid for by a company, then it is an advertisement, and should be labeled as such.

However, if an article is written in a way that is stating facts that are verifiable, then the fact that they own Bitcoin means absolutely nothing. If they want to inject their opinion, then they should make it clear that what they are saying is what THEY think, but is not a fact. It is simple. It is easy. The only place that it starts to get hard to differentiate (in finance), and cannot really fall into either category is when an author is discussing economic theory. However, economists have traditionally been excluded from conflict of interest ethical judgement simply because economics are never concrete, and cannot be truly proven. That being said, there is a push in the Economic community to change this, as high level Economists have the ability to influence governments in a way that would be considered unethical in other professions, due to specific conflicts of interest.

No one should be forced to ignore Bitcoin, sell any BTC they own, or to stay out of the market, just because they write about it. In the same way that no one should be forced to transfer all their USD to something else to write about USD, or sell all their gold to write about gold. That is nonsense.

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Coin Brief is an open source website for digital news. It provides cryptocurrency tools, mining calculators, tutorials, and more. It was acquired by 99Bitcoins on September 2015.

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