Reasonable Crypto Debate Striving for the Impossible
The use of cryptocurrency in the United States has become more polarizing and political than ever before.
Ironically, this indicates that the issues surrounding this technology have become less of a fringe concern for ordinary Americans. With Florida Governor Ron DeSantis expressing his support for Bitcoin during his presidential campaign launch and President Biden accusing Republicans of protecting “crypto traders” during debt ceiling negotiations, cryptocurrency is gaining attention and, as a result, is being treated divisively like other mainstream topics. What should be a detached, technical discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of policy options is now loaded with emotion and exaggeration, making it even more difficult for the public to understand the technology’s potential and risks.
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As we know from the wider political arena, social media is a significant contributor to this problem. Provocateurs from both the right and left spread fear-mongering exaggerations about their opponents and simplistic solutions. It is a proven method for building the real currency of power of our time: online attention.
The result is a society that is incapable not only of compromise but of even allowing space for an informed examination of the facts. It is not that discussions are consumed by outright lies and disinformation, although there is plenty of that. It is that every debate seems unable to progress beyond a superficial state. A complex reality cannot be encapsulated in 140 characters. Yet it is in the complexity where we will find truth.
This is the broader context in which the crypto discussion seems trapped right now. People either love or hate crypto, with strong but often ill-informed opinions. There seems to be less willingness on either side to understand the other’s position and little search for compromise.
If you are reading this column, you are likely a believer in cryptocurrency. So, you might be inclined to blame politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and regulators like Securities and Exchange Commission Gary Gensler, whose uncompromising stances have played into an increasingly hostile posture to the technology from progressive Democrats. That is understandable. (I am guilty of the same instinct.) But simply doing so does not help. It takes two sides to create a toxic discourse.
The industry needs to figure out how to converse with its detractors. Less Twitter, maybe, more real-world interactions.
In this environment, it takes good reporting like that of my colleagues Nikhilesh De, Cheyenne Ligon, and Doreen Wang in a piece entitled “The Bitcoin Mining Debate Is Ignoring the People Most Affected,” to identify where both sides in the crypto debate need to cede ground.
The trio visited Dresden, NY, home of Greenidge Generation’s bitcoin mining operation, which has become a lightning rod in the wider debate over Bitcoin’s environmental impact and, in particular, the political battles over New York State’s move last year to impose a ban on new mining projects. They found that both sides have made wildly exaggerated claims about the harm or benefits of Greenidge’s operation. New York Assemblywoman Anna Kelles, a Democrat, has repeatedly made the false claim that the facility is heating nearby Seneca Lake and killing aquatic life. At the same time, many mining advocates dramatically overstate community benefits such as the number of jobs created.
Most strikingly, the piece cited Dresden’s mayor, William Hall, saying that before CoinDesk’s visit, he had never been contacted by a reporter, lobbyist, or politician about Greenidge, whether they are from the Bitcoin advocacy community or from critics who claim it is harming the local environment.
The idea that an entire town’s multifaceted experience with an industry can be overlooked while the competing factions in a wider national debate create alternative, fact-starved abstractions of that reality is a true sign that an issue has become politicized.
As procedural gridlock has left Congress unable to pass clarifying legislation for this industry and as emotions have been stirred up by the ignominious collapse of big-time political donor Sam Bankman Fried’s FTX exchange, the bipartisan spirit that once existed around crypto on Capitol Hill has, sadly, evaporated. While there are still many supporters on the left, criticism increasingly feels like a Democratic position, while advocacy is owned by Republicans. Little good can come of this division.
Don’t be a troll
The blame for this situation lies on both sides, as I mentioned earlier. So, as a considerate and well-meaning member of the cryptocurrency community, what can you do to help?
One thing you can do is take a look at the upcoming Consensus @ Consensus report, which CoinDesk will be publishing next month. This report is the result of a deliberate effort to bring together competing voices during our Consensus event in Austin last month. Eleven core issues for the industry were discussed and debated in an attempt to find a way forward.
More generally, we can all evaluate our behavior on social media and other platforms.
Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind: Don’t be arrogant. Don’t dismiss your critics’ concerns. And, most importantly, don’t be a troll.
An example of trolling behavior is the spoof video that Riot Platforms released in response to a New York Times article on the environmental impact of bitcoin mining. The video showed an official in safety gear walking through Riot’s Texas facility with a CO2 emissions reader, declaring that bitcoin mining released no carbon emissions. It was intended as satire, a way of saying that we should not be judging energy use choices, but rather examining the carbon output of the energy source itself. However, critics saw the character as embodying the “bitcoin bro” stereotype, ignorantly believing that a mining operation has no carbon footprint. Billions of people have valid and urgent concerns about climate change, and bitcoin’s massive energy consumption is by no means an irrelevant issue. Did the Riot team expect this Borat-like exercise to enlighten people, instead of riling them up?
In Washington, advocates should also avoid baiting industry critics. They should criticize and express their views firmly, but in a way that allows their opponents to find common ground. A letter from crypto supporters House Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) that criticized SEC Chairman Gensler for not approving applications for bitcoin exchange-traded funds was seen by one Washington insider as a “red rag to a bull.” Why provoke Elizabeth Warren’s “anti-crypto army?”
If you consider yourself part of the moderate majority that is open to compromise, resist the temptation to support extremists whose overly loud voices seek attention on social media. Even when they’re making on-point arguments, don’t hit the “like” button.
In summary, don’t be a troll, and don’t feed the trolls.