Striving for the Impossible: Reasonable Crypto Debate

Crypto in the U.S. is more polarized and politicized than ever.

Ironically, that’s a sign that the issues around this technology have become less of a fringe concern for ordinary Americans. With Florida governor Ron DeSantis signaling his fidelity to Bitcoin in his presidential candidacy launch and President Biden accusing Republicans of protecting “crypto traders” during debt ceiling negotiations, crypto is garnering attention and, for that, is rewarded with the same divisive treatment as other mainstream topics. What should be a detached, technical discussion on the pros and cons of policy options is now laden with emotion and exaggeration, the upshot being that real public understanding of the technology’s promise and perils seems even less attainable.

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As we know from the wider political arena, social media is a major contributor to this problem. Provocateurs from both the right and the left peddle fear-mongering exaggerations about their opponents and simplistic bromide solutions. It’s a proven way to build the real currency of power of our time: online attention.

The result is a society that’s incapable, not only of compromise, but of even allowing space for an informed examination of the facts. It’s not that discussion is consumed by outright lies and disinformation – though there’s plenty of that – it’s that every debate seems unable to progress beyond a superficial state. A complex reality cannot be encapsulated in 140 characters. Yet it’s in the complexity where we’ll 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’re reading this column, you’re likely a crypto believer. So, you might be inclined to point blame at politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and at 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’s understandable. (I’m 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’re from the Bitcoin advocacy community or from critics who claim it’s 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 Democrat position, while advocacy is owned by Republicans. Little good can come of this division.

As I mentioned, blame for this lies on both sides. So, as a thoughtful, well-intended member of the crypto community, what can you do to help?

Well, for one, take a look at the forthcoming Consensus @ Consensus report, which CoinDesk will publish next month. It will be the product of a deliberate effort to bring competing voices together during our Consensus event in Austin last month, to discuss and debate eleven core issues for the industry and try to find a way forward.

More generally, we can all take stock of how we behave on social media and elsewhere.

Some rules of thumb: Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be dismissive of your critics’ concerns. And, most of all, don’t be a troll.

Prime example of the latter: the spoof video that Riot Platforms released in response to a New York Times piece on bitcoin mining’s environmental impact, which fed into a Biden Administration proposal to tax the industry. The clip, which showed an official in safety gear walking Riot’s Texas facility with a CO2 emissions reader to declare that Bitcoin mining released no carbon emissions, was satire. It was a way-too-smug-for-its-own-good way of saying we shouldn’t be judging choices for energy use, but rather examining the carbon output at the source of that energy – in other words, put your attention on whether a region’s grid uses either renewables or fossil fuels, not on how its electricity is being used.

The joke went over people’s heads; critics saw the character as an archetype of the “bitcoin bro” stereotype who ignorantly believes a mining operation has zero carbon footprint. Billions of people have extremely valid, urgent concerns about climate change and Bitcoin’s massive energy consumption is by no means an irrelevant issue. Did the Riot team believe that, rather than riling up such people, this Borat-like exercise would enlighten them?

In Washington, too, advocates should try to avoid baiting industry critics. They should criticize and articulate firm views, but do so in a way that gives their opponents room to find compromise. A letter from crypto supporters House Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) taking SEC Chairman Gensler to task for not approving applications for Bitcoin exchange-traded funds was seen by one Washington insider as being a “red rag to a bull.” Why stir up Elizabeth Warren’s “anti-crypto army?

If you count yourself among the moderate majority that’s open to compromise, resist the temptation to support the extremists whose overly loud voices rise above the din to be heard on each side of a polarized, social media attention-seeking rabble. Even when they’re pushing out those on-point soundbites, don’t hit the “like” button.

In summary, don’t be a troll and don’t feed the trolls.

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