The story of how Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old founder of the crypto exchange FTX, misused billions of dollars while charming the media and becoming a darling of Washington, hasn’t upended just the crypto ecosystem. It has also served as a watershed moment for the business-news landscape, making a group of internet influencers go-to sources for people hungering for news of FTX and SBF, as Bankman-Fried is known.
Online creators, including software engineer and crypto skeptic Molly White and Stephen Findeisen, a content creator who goes by the pseudonym Coffeezilla, have emerged as powerful independent news sources, cataloguing and exposing some of the biggest instances of alleged fraud in the crypto industry.
Substack publications including Dirty Bubble Media and Doomberg have beaten out mainstream outlets by calling attention to alleged wrongdoing and adding analysis. Anonymous Twitter accounts such as @AutismCapital post nonstop updates, some of them inaccurate, on the meltdown. The entrepreneur Mario Nawfal has become famous for his highly publicized Twitter spaces discussing FTX.
A YouTuber named Ben Armstrong, who goes by the name BitBoy Crypto and has referred to himself as “the Alex Jones of Crypto,” even flew to the Bahamas in an attempt to track down Bankman-Fried in person and speak to him.
All this coverage of the FTX implosion is the most prominent example of how “citizen journalism” is battling legacy publishers for online attention, catapulting a fresh class of independent journalists into the mainstream while also giving rise to a group of social media influencers who optimize for attention rather than accuracy.
For years, drama channels and tea accounts — so called because the word “tea” is slang for juicy information — have been first to break news related to pop culture and influencers. Business news is late to undergo this trend.
The term “citizen journalism” first rose to prominence in the late ’90s, during the early days of blogging, when the internet promised to give everyone a voice, and usage of the phrase peaked in July 2004. But recently, billionaires and members of the Silicon Valley elite, and their fans, have sought to revive it and position so-called citizen journalism as an alternative to traditional media.
The FTX story, “feels like a turning point for citizen journalism,” Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong said last month. “The end of corporate journalism is now in sight,” investor Balaji Srinivasan tweeted on December 18th. “... Citizen journalism will win.”
Many of these men have a well documented hostility toward legacy media, which often reports critically on them. Srinivasan, for instance, once suggested doxing a “vulnerable” reporter in an email to a far-right blogger. But the shift toward an online creator-driven media world is a broad, technological shift, not a singularly ideological one.
In the entertainment world, a big celebrity scandal or influencer breakup might be enough to skyrocket a channel to fame. For the finance world, FTX has proved to be that kind of story.
“The FTX financial scandal is taking drama and commentary in this new direction,” said Angèle Christin, an assistant professor at Stanford University who studies drama channels and influencer culture. “Drama channels are seen as a very feminized area. They’re associated with things that a lot of men don’t want to be associated with — beauty, makeup artists, celebrity — not doing serious objective data gathering. So you see them trying to distinguish themselves from the world of drama channels by calling themselves citizen journalists. It raises really important questions about power on social media.”
Many drama channels and tea pages have evolved into full-fledged media operations that out-earn and outperform some traditional media brands. DramaAlert, for instance, a YouTube channel founded by Daniel Keem, is often called “the TMZ of YouTube.” It has a cadre of staffers and has amassed more than 1.2 billion views on YouTube. The Shade Room, a popular digital media brand that grew from an Instagram gossip and news page, is now a multiplatform media powerhouse.
While most drama channels and tea pages operate on YouTube and Instagram, in the business world, Substack and Twitter are the preferred platforms.
In influencer-driven media, community is key. Several crypto tea pages covering the FTX saga operate Discord servers for their followers. As Bankman-Fried took the stage at the New York Times Dealbook conference last month, followers of @AutismCapital dissected the interview in the account’s Discord server. “Rich people laugh at people losing life savings to fraud,” one member posted after the audience laughed at something Bankman-Fried said onstage.
@AutismCapital is the perfect example of a tea page. The account calls itself “Citizen journalism for Crypto” and posts the type of info and commentary you’re not likely to see in traditional news, sometimes because it’s simply not true. @AutismCapital has deleted tweets that turned out not to be factual.
The account sometimes asks followers to verify information it publishes. “PLEASE CONFIRM: A user claims that they spotted Caroline Ellison at Ground Support Coffee on West Broad in SoHo Manhattan at 8:15 AM. This would mean she is not in Hong Kong and is in NY not in custody,” @AutismCapital tweeted on Dec. 4. Ellison was the CEO of Bankman-Fried’s investment business, Alameda Research, and a former Bankman-Fried girlfriend. She pleaded guilty to fraud last month and offered a tearful apology in court.
Before covering the FTX implosion almost exclusively, @AutismCapital cast doubt on sexual assault allegations against Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, complained about “woke culture,” and posted frequently about the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.
Would you like to see Autism Capital continue growing on this path and evolve to a new media company — becoming a sort of based bloomberg?— Autism Capital 🧩 (@AutismCapital) November 17, 2022
More substantive content has come from other creators operating on platforms like Substack and YouTube.
Take Doomberg, a successful Substack publication and Twitter account that chronicles economic and policy news, focused especially on energy and crypto. Its mascot is a cartoon green chicken, in line with their tagline: “If chicken little got a Bloomberg terminal.” The founder conducts interviews as this green chicken.
Doomberg has become a go-to newsletter for more than 100,000 paying subscribers, despite being fully pseudonymous. “We’ve found when large accounts deanonymize, the brand mystique dissipates,” he explained on a Zoom call with The Post.
“The traditional media is slower than distributed citizen reporting,” said the founder and head writer of Doomberg, who spoke on the condition that he be referred to only as “Doomberg” to protect his brand. “Crypto is characterized as a hostility to the system, so to the extent that a news outlet is considered part of the system, it’s going to have a high degree of distrust.”
Independent outlets like his, however, can publish at a speed a traditional publisher can’t rival. “If you think about editorial rigidity, there’s necessarily a trade-off with speed,” he said. “Our objective is to have as much of a filter as we need only to publish things we know are true, but fast enough that we can get a story out.”
James Block, a physician who began using Substack in January, has also emerged as a powerful voice covering the crypto space.
His Substack publication, Dirty Bubble Media, uses an evil-looking pink and red bubble as his mascot. Like many in the crypto world, he does not use his real name online. Very quickly, Block established himself as a smart reporter. He was first to call attention to problems with Celsius, a cryptocurrency lending company that went bankrupt over the summer. He was also the first to declare Alameda Research, a cryptocurrency trading firm affiliated with FTX, insolvent.
“I’ve developed an audience because I publish things that are accurate, and I’ve been right about everything I’ve written about,” Block said. “There are a number of people who are producing excellent work these days that are not part of the mainstream media; the issue is sorting through the garbage.”
Block doesn’t monetize his Substack and says he writes articles for fun and as a public service. “I get to meet all sorts of random people and learn about interesting things,” he said. “I don’t have any goals with this, I’m just doing what I find interesting.”
Findeisen, a full-time content creator who goes by the pseudonym Coffeezilla, is one of the foremost independent journalists covering the crypto industry and online fraud. He was profiled by the New Yorker in May for his work uncovering crypto scams, and his investigative journalism into the crypto space has earned him more than 1.54 million subscribers on YouTube.
Findeisen said he finds the wedge that people try to drive between traditional media and so-called citizen journalists tiring. In reality, he said, “the line is more and more blurred. You have mainstream journalists who have Substacks and new-media people doing stories for the New York Times.”
It makes sense, Findeisen said, that these shifts would come to a head around the FTX story. “I think crypto’s dislike of mainstream media is directly tied to their dislike of all establishment,” he said. “Most people in crypto have felt cheated by the mainstream financial institutions. They were the ones watching the banks get the big bailouts in 2008, and Jim Cramer saying Bear Stearns is okay. They got foreclosed on. They watched their 401(k)s go down.”
There’s a feeling among crypto enthusiasts that “if you’re powerful enough and rich enough, the corporate media will never look at you badly,” Findeisen said. “There’s been an underestimation of how much distrust there is in legacy institutions that give the appearance of fairness but actually have a deep bias toward corporatism and power.”
Mike Dudas, an investor at crypto venture-capital firm 6MV, worries about those filling the gap. For every Findeisen, there are dozens of anonymous tea accounts that will publish anything that gets them attention. “We’ve seen a rise of folks who have tried to fill the gap left by the traditional media, and more often than not, it’s not a net positive,” Dudas said. “You have a lot of impostors and pseudo experts. They flock toward areas of complexity where people don’t understand things, and they fill that void with loud misinformation.”
“Citizen journalism is susceptible to echo chambers,” Nawfal said, “because if they create drama, they get attention. If they find a fact that goes against what most people believe, many won’t mention it because everyone will disagree with them.”
Many influencers who have garnered mass attention from covering the FTX news are trying to be responsible. Tiffany Fong, a YouTuber and content creator who has been covering the crypto collapse on Twitter, networks regularly with journalists at mainstream outlets, in some cases feeding them scoops she’s not prepared to report herself. “I had no intention of being an influencer or doing anything journalistic, but when Celsius shut down withdrawals, I had no one to vent to about it,” she said. When she received audio from an internal all-hands meeting, she decided to take a two-pronged approach. “I was like, okay, I’ll leak it to the New York Times, and I’ll post the audio to my YouTube channel,” she said.
“I think it’s really cool that anyone can become a reporter at this point,” she said. “People do now look to me for updates on news. It is really cool that anyone can build a platform and become trustworthy and have the power of being a journalist.”
While this new cadre of independent “citizen journalists” might not be working in a traditional newsroom, Fong said they do collaborate and help each other on stories.
“We’re all working together,” she said. “I chatted with Coffezilla and [Dirty Bubble Media]. We’re able to work together and fight for a common cause of getting information out there. It doesn’t feel competitive. We all just want the truth out there.”