Bitcoin’s technological innovation is available for anyone to use, even bigots; but this shouldn’t sully the entire network’s reputation.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) issued a new report on the use of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies by white supremacists and far-right extremists. In the report, Megan Squire, senior fellow for data analytics, and senior investigative reporter Michael Edison Hayden, link 600 addresses to white supremacists, estimating they hold “tens of millions of dollars” worth of value. Kevin Collier and Brandy Zadrozny, writing for NBC News, then picked up the story, running with the headline, “Bitcoin Surge Was A Windfall For White Supremacists, Research Finds.”
Bitcoiners know what to do: take a deep breath. Let the FUD flow through you. Maintain stoic equanimity. For more than a decade, the media has tarred this open-source protocol, and those of us who use it, by association with all manner of evil: money laundering, tax evasion, terrorist financing, ponzi scamming, and my personal favorite, the boiling of oceans. Such poorly-argued and ill-informed attacks can be calmly dispatched or simply ignored. We stack sats. We stay humble. It’s just another day in the life of a bitcoiner.
But this one hits differently. White supremacism is real, and it is repugnant. For those of us in Portland, Oregon, hate groups regularly march into our town and demonstrate, seeking out violent encounters on the streets. For targeted individuals — which I am not — these groups represent not only an attack on their personhood and dignity but a threat to their safety and bodily integrity. So it’s hard to let this particular story simply pass by without comment.
Neither the original report nor the subsequent NBC story provide context for their findings. Their point is simply that fringe political groups control 600 addresses and potentially tens of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. What they fail to mention, however, is that there are more than 200 million non-empty bitcoin addresses worldwide and nearly a trillion dollars of value in bitcoin.
That means these hate groups hold .0003% of addresses and at least 0.0001% of bitcoin’s value, a far less compelling headline. Imagine Amazon stock ownership could be tracked on a public ledger and some white supremacists were relatively early investors, now constituting .0003% of shareholders. Would it taint the entire company and all other shareholders? Would it merit a news story that made no qualifications and provided no context? I think we know the answers.
Neither the original report nor the NBC story observes that the same censorship resistance that makes bitcoin useful to hate groups in the U.S. is also what allows it to support dissidents and oppressed minorities from Palestine to Cuba to Nigeria to Belarus. Readers of Bitcoin Magazine who follow the work of human rights activist Alex Gladstein will be familiar with dozens of such examples. The SPLC researchers do not track wallets of women in Afghanistan — nor should they!— who were paid in bitcoin as far back as 2013. Their windfalls allowed one to start a new life in Germany, another to pay her college tuition in the U.S. The researchers do not track — nor should they! — the wallets of the Feminist Coalition in Nigeria, whose bank accounts were frozen, and who turned to bitcoin instead. The researchers do not track — nor should they! — the wallets of Cuban bitcoiners, whose peso has lost two thirds of its value since the end of 2020, and who, without bitcoin, may have been unable to afford basic necessities. Yet, without such tracking, the mere fact that 600 wallets are controlled by white supremacists tells us nothing about who is benefiting from bitcoin on the whole.
These researchers also seem unaware that bitcoin’s international usage correlates with low national ratings of democracy, government integrity, investment freedom, monetary freedom, and property rights. Bitcoin thrives wherever money and good governance is failing. Turning to the domestic scene, these researchers seem unaware that while only 11% of white Americans own cryptocurrencies, 23% of Black Americans and 17% of Hispanic Americans do.
In sum, the “windfall” accruing to a handful of white supremacists in the U.S. also lifted millions worldwide. But instead of any attempt to see how bitcoin is being used more broadly, the identities behind 600 wallets are used to besmirch bitcoin itself – and others who’d use it – while the remaining 199,999,400 wallets are ignored.
The NBC story does, at least, frankly acknowledge how easy it is to track payments simply by pairing social-media-posted addresses with on-chain transactions: “The list of 600 addresses we analyzed is just a big list that I made of who owns what, and the way that we get those is just watching these guys tell each other where to send the money,” Squire said. “It’s just literally just looking this stuff up on this public ledger.” And isn't that kind of transparency novel and refreshing? Especially when compared with the by-design opacity of offshore shell companies and cold hard cash, neither of which lends itself to this kind of investigative journalism? But the stories make no mention of these alternatives.
The most glaring omission from a progressive Bitcoiner perspective is any consideration of the actual currency with the closest ties to white supremacism, namely, the U.S. dollar itself. The dollar’s value accrued to whites first through violent conquest, then literal enslavement, and thereafter, by Jim Crow segregation, financial redlining, and mass incarceration. To focus on the use of 600 bitcoin addresses by white supremacists while ignoring this shameful, systemic legacy of racism betrays a disturbing lack of perspective.
Neither the racist history of the dollar nor the revolutionary potential of bitcoin is, of course, lost on Black Bitcoiners. Dawdu M. Amantanah, in “Closing The Wealth Gap: Black America And Bitcoin Adoption,” highlights Bitcoin’s decentralization, which means the monetary network, unlike traditional banking, offers financial inclusion, and the promise of financial freedom, to all. As Twitter persona Lawrence Douglas, aka @AxeCapYa, who publishes a newsletter called “Black And Bullish,” explains, “Bitcoin is the first asset that allows the average citizen to participate in a global financial system on equal footing. Its low barrier of entry allows bitcoin to transform the financial lives of those that choose to adopt it as a long-term store of value.”
Black bitcoin is its own universe with books like “Bitcoin And Black America” by Isaiah Jackson, “Bitcoin And Black Powernomics,” by Will Hobdy, and “From Bars to Bitcoin” by Justin Rhedrick, as well as websites, Twitter spaces, Clubhouse chat rooms, podcasts, clubs, newsletters, fin-tech apps, and conferences. This burgeoning world, created entirely by and for Black investors is aimed at financial education and entrepreneurship, encouraging Black ownership through bitcoin and cryptocurrency. SPLC and NBC fail to acknowledge its existence.
It must be said that certain corners of the Bitcoin community are, in fact, bigoted in a variety of ways. I have witnessed instances of it myself. And we must all, always condemn such bigotry when encountered, simply as a matter of decency and humanity. Something similar was true in the early days of the internet, when neo-Nazis recruited on online bulletin boards. As a percentage, white supremacy groups probably marred the internet to a greater degree then, than they pollute the Bitcoin blockchain now, and in fact, such online recruiting is still a problem. YouTube and Facebook algorithms have probably done as much as anything to radicalize segments of our society. Yet few are calling for a shutdown of the internet or shaming all its users because it is a neo-Nazi recruiting tool. Instead, we recognize the issue’s inherent difficulty: there are unavoidable tradeoffs between freedom of expression, utility, and safety, and we recognize, too, the perils of designating and empowering authorities on the matter of what speech should and should not be permitted by global networks of communication.
Perhaps it is too much to ask for subtlety, for complexity, in an era of clicks. But the real issue here is whether, on balance, the benefits of bitcoin's censorship resistance outweigh the negative consequences of bitcoin being spent in odious ways and accrued by nefarious characters. Here lies a deep philosophical question about the proper reach and limits of our rights to property and exchange, as well as an empirical question about what positive and negative outcomes are enabled by Bitcoin’s technology. Absent proper comparisons, absent context about the network as a whole, absent imagination about the possibilities for bitcoin ranging across the whole moral spectrum, we're left with an icky feeling, but nothing of substance. Maybe that was the point.
This article was inspired by a conversation with a group of progressive Bitcoiners. For journalists or researchers who may not be aware that there is such a thing as a progressive Bitcoiner, this collection of resources is a great place to start.
Thanks to @jyn_urso, Andrew Bailey, Nicole Dobrow, Lawrence Douglas, and Kyle Saunders for comments on an earlier draft.
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