Crypto baffles mainstream media, but should blockchain advocates care?

Before, it was all about crypto prices. But now, the media is “starting to explore the benefits of public blockchains and decentralization.”

The relationship between crypto and mainstream media (MSM) is complex, and it’s probably fair to say that some in the crypto community haven’t been overjoyed with the treatment they’ve received over the years. 

MSM has largely ignored Bitcoin (BTC) and other cryptocurrencies outside of occasional reports of hacks, ransomware attacks and other illicit activities. “They’ve done a fairly poor job of coverage for the last decade and it’s almost always negative coverage,” Samson Mow, chief strategy officer at Blockstream and CEO at Pixelmatic, told Cointelegraph. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a positive piece of news about Bitcoin.”

But recently, the media has found much to report upon. For instance, The Economist ran its second crypto cover piece in as many months, while on Sept. 14, a member of The New York Times’ editorial board published an opinion piece that compared Bitcoin to “cosplay” (i.e., costume play) — probably not intended as a compliment.

The crypto/blockchain space may finally be getting the attention that befits an emerging $2 trillion economic sector, though a segment within the community says the mainstream media still doesn’t seem to “get it.” The Economist, for example, while generally acknowledging the significance of decentralized finance (DeFi) — saying it is deserving of “sober consideration” with a “potential to rewire how the financial system works” — remarked elsewhere that “Bitcoin, the first big blockchain, created in 2009, is now a distraction.”

It raises some questions: Assuming mainstream media is now truly engaged in reporting on crypto, is it getting it right? If understanding is lacking — i.e., a failure to understand crypto/blockchain’s true benefits and risks — what’s the sticking point? Overall, should the crypto community be vexed by MSM’s treatment, as it potentially hinders widespread adoption, or should they view it, on balance, as a sign of public blockchains’ growing acceptance?

“A positive development”

“It’s not the first time we see broad coverage of crypto assets in MSM,” Fabian Schär, professor in the business and economics department at the University of Basel, told Cointelegraph. The media’s focus seems to be cyclical, and it may be correlated with crypto market activity. “What’s new is that newspapers and magazines seem to talk less about prices and are starting to explore the benefits of public blockchains and decentralization,” said Schär. “This is a very positive development.”

MSM simply seems to be following the “influx” of mainstream financial institutions into the crypto space, which began to pick up in the second and third quarters of 2021, Sean Stein Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Lehman College, told Cointelegraph, adding:

“The media is catching up to what financial institutions seem to have figured out earlier in the year. This catch-up is mirrored in the more aggressive approach recently seen by regulators.”

Kristin Smith, executive director of the Blockchain Association, agreed with Schär that MSM coverage tends to be “on again off again,” but it seems to be becoming more constant. “The increase in coverage of the regulatory environment, spurred on by the battle over the crypto tax provision in the current infrastructure bill, has reached a new level,” she told Cointelegraph, adding: “We expect that level of coverage to be maintained as crypto cements its place in the U.S. economy.”

The SALT Conference, a traditional hedge fund event that took place earlier this month in New York City, devoted a significant part of its agenda to crypto-related topics, noted Francine McKenna, adjunct professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business and publisher of accounting newsletter The Dig. “Now that you have the SALT conference with all the hedge funders taken up by the topic, it’s a must do” for MSM, she told Cointelegraph.

Bitcoin as a “distraction”

The perceived slights are still there — like The Economist characterizing Bitcoin as a “distraction” or The New York Times opinion writer describing Bitcoin users as “basically a bunch of cosplay libertarians participating in a game of make-believe on the playgrounds of the nanny state.” To the latter, Mow responded: “If Bitcoin is cosplay, it’s very high level cosplay.” McKenna added with regard to the venerated United Kingdom weekly: “They are notoriously conservative, status quo, and will not go where the wind blows unless it’s a hurricane.”

“They seem to, mainly, be missing the point,” observed Stein Smith regarding The Economist’s characterization. “Bitcoin may indeed be slipping from its unquestionable leadership position in the sector, but it still is absolutely the bellwether for the space at large.” Schär added that he does not see “Bitcoin as a distraction,” continuing:

“Bitcoin has some interesting technological and socio-economic properties, which are very hard to replicate. Sure, most of the economic activity is on other blockchains, but this does not make Bitcoin obsolete. What might be a distraction, though, is the fixation on a purely monetary use-case and the unnecessary infighting between various members of the community.”

What’s the sticking point?

Admittedly, blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies aren’t always easy to grasp. Andrew Smith Lewis, chief innovation officer at Cais — an alternative investment platform for financial advisers (FAs) — has created education courses for FAs, including a course on blockchain and crypto fundamentals that was developed with Galaxy Digital. The concepts in this course have proved more difficult for advisers to grasp than those in Cais’ other financial courses, Lewis told Cointelegraph. For instance, it takes roughly three times longer to master key elements in the blockchain course than in the firm’s hedge fund course, he estimates.

The Blockchain Association’s Smith agrees that some of crypto’s concepts can be problematic: “DeFi is a good example, it’s a relatively new space and these protocols can be complex to understand, even for those who are relatively savvy on the regulatory and technological front.”

“The most difficult aspect of Bitcoin to grasp is that it’s completely unique — nothing like it has ever existed,” said Mow, adding: “There’s nothing for the media to compare it to, and they’re unable to fully understand the magnitude of the coming paradigm shift that Bitcoin will bring.” McKenna added that it is “is the virtual nature of it all” that poses challenges:

“So much of it is in an inscrutable technology space that most liberal arts major journalists will never understand. I mean they can not understand concepts like goodwill and impairment with regard to traditional accounting. I hear it all the time, ‘Too technical.’ Can you really expect them to conceptualize forks and staking if they can not understand restatements?”

Until recently, the people who were very knowledgeable about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology confined their public remarks to focused, niche-type publications, continued McKenna. “Mainstream media didn’t even know who they were.” One consequence is an education deficit with regard to crypto among MSM and regulators. “I still don’t think the SEC or any mainstream media know what an airdrop, a fork, staking or even the mechanics of the issues with the Lend product really are. But they have to try.”

Related: DeFi literacy: Universities embrace decentralized finance education

Would more education help? “More education is always better than less,” answered Smith, going on to add: “People are busy, they have preconceived notions of what crypto is, no matter their age, and we have to meet them where they are. I’ve rarely had a conversation with someone in the mainstream media where the reporter or editor has emerged more critical of crypto after we’ve talked.”

Mow, for his part, is skeptical. “More education won’t likely be helpful. The root problem is Western media is financially privileged and looks at the world from that privileged lens.” According to him, rather than dismiss Bitcoin as a Ponzi scheme, they would do better to visit places like Ethiopia where nascent entrepreneurs pay their workers in Bitcoin because those funds can’t be debased or confiscated. “They [MSM] cannot see why Bitcoin is needed because they cannot see the problems in the world.”

“Coexist and move forward”

So, should the crypto community continue to voice their frustration each time a lukewarm article on Bitcoin or DeFi surfaces on one of the extremely popular mainstream publications? Will going off on a rant on Twitter even have the desired impact of remedying the situation?

On the whole, most probably agree with Schär that the increased MSM scrutiny is positive — another sign that cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology are here to stay. “Now it is our job, as a community, to provide the resources and create an open and welcoming environment that allows MSM journalists and people who are interested in the technology to understand what is going on,” Schär told Cointelegraph.

Related: Bitcoin ledger as a secret weapon in war against ransomware

“We cannot discount the power of the mainstream media to shape public opinion, or the opinions of regulators and lawmakers, for that matter,” added the Blockchain Association’s Smith. “We have no choice but to try to coexist and move forward, both in our work evangelizing through the media and our work with lawmakers and regulators.”

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