When the bankrupt cryptocurrency lender Celsius began foundering last month, Ben Armstrong was among the industry personalities leading the online charge against the firm.
There was only one problem: Armstrong had been central to encouraging them to deposit their money with Celsius in the first place.
Armstrong had talked up the company often on his daily YouTube show and, just two weeks earlier, even appeared with Celsius’s chief executive on its weekly promotional video. (“Atlanta is famous for BitBoy, no longer for CNN,” Mashinsky had said admiringly.)
Armstrong is a leading example of a crypto influencer. One-part media personality, one-part untrained investment adviser, the 39-year-old Georgia native wields significant power in the world of cryptocurrency investment, steering tip-hungry online trawlers to the latest token. In polished daily news-like feeds featuring a team of deputies and videos designed to go viral (in one, he drives around the Atlanta area in wraparound sunglasses suggesting the best way to invest $1,000), he has become a go-to source for the newest crypto trends.
BitBoy’s rise — and even his recent Celsius wobble — highlights how low the threshold can be for gaining power amid the morass of gamified finance. In the land of crypto, the one-eyed man is king — and the line between carnival barker and investment guru extremely difficult to find.
Whatever the validity of BitBoy’s advice, there is certainly a lot of it. Armstrong’s daily news show on his YouTube channel (with about 1.5 million subscribers) is a dizzying list of tokens (Cardano, Solana, Ripple’s XRP) and jargon-filled tech-speak — “layer-2 rollups on the ethereum blockchain” — all undergirded by the cheerful supposition that there are just so many darn ways to make money out there.
One key to Armstrong’s appeal is the juxtaposition of this insider-speak with his everyman frame and beard, a bear of a man selling a bull of a market. BitBoy is prone to sprinkling personal details — a moose hunt he will go on in Alaska, the Atlanta United game he just attended — with his stream of recommendations. Some of these details do radiate wealth (the Atlanta United game, he made sure to note, was seen from a luxury box), but that, too, sends a signal: Great wealth is also accessible to you fellow average Toms.
What is perhaps even more effective, though, is how Armstrong does not always predict a steep line up for crypto values — many of his boosts come with a warning. “I said don’t do that; that’s a terrible idea,” he recounts as his response in one YouTube video when someone asked him whether they should put the proceeds from the sale of their house in crypto.
Not only does this give Armstrong credibility in a bear market, but it also keeps sales flowing. Armstrong’s credibility-restoring pronouncements of do-not-buy-now almost always wind their way to do-buy-later. “For people who want to put in big chunks, it’s going to be better to wait until next year,” is how that house warning finished in the video.
“The word I use is authentic: I’m the same person on-camera as off-camera,” Armstrong told The Washington Post in a phone interview when asked how he believes he has amassed so many followers. “It happens everywhere, whether it’s a Falcons game or a crypto conference, people will come up to me, not because I’m better than other influencers, but because I’m more approachable.”
If nothing else — and if one forgets about the large sums of money involved — he is clearly having fun. In a world of dry financial advice, BitBoy’s accounts are rife with references, memes and jokes — not many investment advisers hold competitions for the best NFTs issued by a fast-food chain.
As for the bear-market material, he says it’s just another way of telling it like it is: “I’m a hardcore proponent of the bitcoin four-year cycle,” he said, a reference to the idea that the coin’s value plunges quadrennially. “I’m not sure why anyone else wouldn’t be.”
Armstrong describes a dramatic backstory. He was addicted to meth for several years, he said, when one day in 2007 he walked straight into traffic while high and ended up in an altercation with police. After a stay in the hospital, he entered a rehab program for 10 months, eventually getting sober, starting a family and finding work as an addiction counselor.
He used bitcoins to make a purchase almost by happenstance a decade ago, and in 2013 even sold six of them using the WiFi at a local McDonalds, netting $1,700. (They would be worth more than $100,000 today.) It wasn’t until 2017, as the crypto market was cresting, that he became interested in it professionally, eventually deciding in 2018 to start making videos. Originally, the idea was not news but animation. “BitBoy and Hodl” were supposed to be crypto superhero characters. (The latter is crypto slang for staying with an investment long term.)
This 2018 period coincided with what’s known as the crypto winter, a time when many of the assets were suddenly very inexpensive and, he predicted, would go up. Few were buying or even paying attention then. But he was vindicated in 2020 and 2021, when coronavirus shutdowns brought people to crypto in droves and sent values skyrocketing. The enterprise grew, and Armstrong bought studio space near his home in Acworth, about 45 minutes north of downtown Atlanta.
He would soon be promoting a barrage of news videos that attracted what came to be known as the “BitSquad,” the name for his informal group of followers. He also hired sidekick personalities with handles like “Deezy.eth.”
BitBoy is now a full-on media enterprise, he said, with 70 part- and full-time employees and revenue in the millions.
The actual totals traded on Armstrong’s word are hard to quantify. Most people don’t say exactly what made them invest, but the dialogue in his social media threads draw a picture of the activity.
“I lost everything bec of you,” a user named @BoofyBush recently wrote on Twitter.
“You lost everything because of yourself Bru,” replied a user named @PeepsXr. “Take responsibility for your actions.”
“Bitboy helped tho,” responded @ItsBillysan.
Armstrong brags that he’s “made hundreds if not thousands of millionaires.” There are fewer statistics about how many wealthy people are now poor.
“I think it’s easy to say, ‘Why would you listen to some stranger on the internet tell you where to put your money?’” said Nicholas Christakis, a Yale University sociologist and physician who wrote “Connected,” a seminal book on the scientific underpinnings of online influence, when asked why so many have flocked to BitBoy. “But what the research shows is that, particularly when there’s a lot at stake — like all the money online in crypto — online interactions can be as influential as in-person ones.”
He said the idea of large groups communicating within these online bubbles can amplify the effect. “This sense of shared community — ‘We’re all in this together’ — makes people trust more. It’s not that different from the logic of a cult. I mean, don’t we all have a desire to find a guru who can tell us the meaning of life and protect us from bad decisions?”
It’s not surprising perhaps that Armstrong would amass influence in this space in particular. Like stocks, crypto is a system that demands a constant stream of people to buy in if the value is to continue going up. Unlike stocks, though, there is little to fuel those buyers — no earnings, products or market need. That means hypesters are needed, say experts who follow such markets.
“Since you’re not really buying anything of actual value, in my view, you need someone to tell you what it’s worth,” said Peter Schiff, a money manager and prominent crypto skeptic who himself has come under scrutiny. “I think what you have to ask with any influencer is who they’re actually serving — or if they’re just serving themselves.”
The question of culpability is a potent one. If BitBoy’s pronouncements can make investors reach for their laptops, many critics — including a growing number of his followers in the wake of Celsius’s fall — say influencer content can be ill-informed and corrupt, governed by its dispenser’s own interests.
A blockchain investigator known as ZachXBT conducted an undercover sting last year in which he procured a flier with BitBoy’s “rates,” which included $35,000 for a “dedicated review” and $20,000 for a “livestream mention.”
Armstrong admits he took so-called sponsored content for years but, concluding it eroded his credibility, stopped in January and has not taken a penny since. He estimated that his total haul was “maybe close to a million.”
Armstrong also acknowledges that his company owns much of what he recommends, which at least gives him a financial stake in its success. But he said that he personally doesn’t own crypto, that his chief financial officer handles all crypto transactions for the firm, that he discloses much of it in the show and that, in any event, the potential for conflict is limited.
“It’s impossible for us to have an effect on these large [market] caps,” he said. (He thinks a transparent “portfolio tracker” would be a good idea for anyone who broadcasts on YouTube.)
Like other influencers, Armstrong said he’s simply providing information and users can do with it what they will, an opinion shared by other crypto advocates.
“I look at it as caveat emptor,” said Alanna Roazzi-Laforet, the co-founder of Decrypt Studios, a blockchain-oriented content organization. “You shouldn’t do any of this blindly. You do your own homework — who is pumping the token, how much is in their wallet, whatever you need to do. It’s not like anything is hidden from you.”
But others say investigating the blockchain is far from easy and constantly changing anyway. Long threads on Reddit in recent months have listed projects that Armstrong touted that proved to be scams.
“Bitboy has been involved in 7 Crypto scams in the past all of the projects he worked on either got Exit Scammed or Rug pulled,” said a user with the handle naji102, referring to the investigation that uncovered a number of BitBoy-promoted projects that allegedly turned out to be scams. “He has deleted all the videos of scam projects he shilled to his community. I have no idea how this person has over 1 Million subscribers,” the user wrote.
Armstrong admits he deletes videos. “Of course I’m going to do that. I don’t want people to find them now and think they should go out and buy it.”
Asked about the investigation, Armstrong pointed to a Twitter thread responding to details on each of the projects. “I answered every single question — I’ve never been involved in a scam,” he said in the interview. But he also sent out a thread later in which he acknowledged that he should have scrutinized some of the projects more closely. He’s learned from his mistakes, he said.
“If you can’t see that we are tighter, more well-rounded, more responsible channel two years later then it’s simply because you don’t want to see it Zach,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to his critic.
Online experts say influencers such as Armstrong pose a problem, one that deserves a solution.
“This is the really interesting area where crypto and social media intersect,” said Jason Goldman, an early Twitter executive and chief digital officer at the White House during the Obama administration. “You’ve always had people who sell snake oil. But they had to go door to door, and now with social media they can sit at home and be amplified to every corner of the world.”
He said social platforms should — and eventually probably will — do more to curb crypto influencers. “You can say you have a right to say what you want, but that doesn’t mean companies have to give a megaphone to every multilevel marketer and gambling tout around,” Goldman said. Although influencers point to investment experts in other media who hardly always give sound advice, Goldman drew a distinction.
“Sure, [CNBC’s] Jim Cramer doesn’t have a great record versus the S&P 500, but there’s a whole apparatus on cable news that the advice stays within the bounds. We need to develop that here.”
Armstrong said he follows the stock-market practice of not buying or selling a coin within 72 hours after he mentions it on his show. He also said his larger role should be considered.
“No matter how many haters there are — and I know I have a lot — I also have helped so many people financially. Which is why I do this — to help people.”
As for Celsius — which before its bankruptcy froze billions of dollars deposited by half a million people — Armstrong said he was hurting, too. “They were hiding so much, it was just hard to know. We lost $3 million. We were as fooled as everyone else.”
When pressed that part of why he’s gained such a following is precisely because he’s supposed to know more than anyone else, Armstrong grew momentarily rueful.
“I guess we didn’t ask the right questions,” he said.