A letter to crypto media: Slow down, be thoughtful, and get the facts right

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Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: Cointelegraph screwed up massively yesterday.

Call it this year’s tweet — er, xeet? — heard round the crypto world. The crypto publication’s X account posted that BlackRock’s much-ballyhooed spot bitcoin ETF proposal had, miraculously, been approved.

Despite the lack of evidence, like a regulatory filing or document, the crypto world ran wild. Bitcoin’s price soared. Influencers signal-boosted the “news” with wild abandon. 

But the “news” fell apart almost as quickly as it began. Fox Business’ Eleanor Terrett scored the all-but-expected denial from BlackRock. Other confirmations swiftly followed. 

Cointelegraph, flailing in the virtual winds, first added a “reportedly” to its post, then removed it entirely. An apology and promise of internal investigation followed. 

The financial wreckage from the incident was swiftly apparent. Bitcoin’s price briefly touched $30,000 on Coinbase before gravity took hold once more. As much as $100 million in market positions were wiped out, chiefly on the short side. The social media dunkings commenced — even the US Securities and Exchange Commission got in it.

Later, Cointelegraph published a post detailing its investigation into the incident, claiming that “[t]he news lead originated from an unconfirmed screenshot posted by an X user who claimed it was from the Bloomberg Terminal.” The publication said its internal social media policies were violated when the tip was posted to its X account.

There are implications for crypto media within this situation — call it a disaster — that I’d like to unpack. To begin, let’s look at some comments by Kristina Lucrezia Cornèr, Cointelegraph’s editor-in-chief, that emerged via a video post on X. 

In the interest of fairness, it’s important to say that we don’t have the full remarks, just the video of part of a panel discussion shared by Timothée Semelin. Semelin said that Cornèr sought to highlight that the social media post was just that — a post, no article — which, yeah, that’s not a very productive distinction to draw, as if there’s a difference in 2023 when a news outlet puts something out in the world in any form. 

In the video, Cornèr (correctly) called the situation “disastrous” and “an example of what cannot happen.”

She goes on to say: “But this is what happens when we are having constant pressure to be the first with every news. And this is not a problem of journalism per se. It’s a problem of the society that, and of the technology — I’m talking about indexation of Google, and talking about social media where if you’re not the first, you’re the last. There’s no second, third, etc.”

Cornèr’s comments were cut off as she appeared to be saying “and this is a big problem.”

I think Cornèr is describing a real issue. But she’s misdiagnosing the patient — specifically, what led to Cointelegraph’s blunder. 

Publications face tough incentives from the likes of Google, X and other information technology giants. If you lack the heft of the majors, you’re left with the implicit need to elbow your way to the front. Even those majors are suffering, as Axios recently reported. 

I can see why the idea of muscling your way to the front of the pack with a news tip — sans article — that you think *could* be true might seem attractive. Bitcoin ETF news is, after all, all the rage. A surprise approval on a Monday morning isn’t the most impossible-seeming scenario. Being first to that news? Internet paydirt!

I suspect this is why some well-known crypto influencers (you know who you are) rushed to repeat Cointelegraph’s error, only to later qualify or delete their posts. Perversely, the rewards for being wrong online can be immense. 

Read more from our opinion section: Hot take: Someone at Alameda was actually good at their job

This incentive structure is also why many publications, crypto and mainstream alike, screwed up so badly in 2021 when they encountered the fake news that Walmart would accept litecoin payments.

Cointelegraph’s own investigation echoes this dilemma: “In an effort to publish the developments as soon as possible, Employee 2 posted the report to X without prior confirmation of the source’s veracity from the editor.”

How to fix this? First, stop treating your audience like it’s sitting in the Colosseum of Rome, awaiting the next bloodbath. Be slower, smarter, more thoughtful. Don’t yank something from Telegram and stick it on X. A crypto publication can move markets — act accordingly. 

If you are shooting for speed, optimize for it. Build a breaking news operation and figure out how to pay for it. Train your staff to deal with the uniquely high-pressure situations that arise during breaking news scenarios.

There’s something a bit deeper going on, too. I think the Solana Foundation’s Austin Federa made a good point: Crypto markets, he said, followed the news just as blindly as Cointelegraph did. Despite, you know, any available evidence to support the claim. 

“Markets,” Federa noted, “have as much growing up to do as media.”

Michael McSweeney has worked in crypto media since 2014, including editorships at CoinDesk and Blockworks. In his spare time, he writes fiction and plays disc golf. Contact Michael at [email protected].

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