Molly White is becoming the crypto world’s biggest critic

Molly White is becoming the crypto world’s biggest critic

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In a strange, animated YouTube video, Cryptoland paints itself as the ultimate utopia, featuring luxurious villas, a casino and a private club, all located on a pristine island in Fiji. Built by and for cryptocurrency enthusiasts, it was looking for investors.

To Molly White, the project wasn’t just cringeworthy bluster, it was promotional material for yet another potential scam — one that was targeting the money of real people. Digging into Cryptoland’s organizing documents, she found a business plan full of contradictions and other red flags, like an address in the Seychelles islands, a tax haven which has hosted previous high-profile crypto scams.

White unpacked the project in a dashed-off Twitter thread, which went viral, kicking off a wave of criticism and ridicule and spawning copycat videos that boast millions of views. Now, Cryptoland’s website appears inactive, and supporters have abandoned it. Requests for comment to its founders were not answered.

A 28-year-old software engineer who writes Wikipedia articles for fun, White is an odd figure to make the crypto industry cower. On her website, “Web3 is Going Just Great,” White documents case after case of crypto malfeasance: investments that turn out to be scams, poorly-run projects that collapse under mismanagement and hacks that drain supporters’ money.

As much of the financial and tech elite has rallied around crypto, White has led a small but scrappy group of skeptics pushing the other way whose warnings have seemed vindicated by the cratering in recent weeks of cryptocurrency prices.

“Most of my disdain is reserved for the big players who are marketing this to a mainstream audience as though it’s an investment, often promising to be a ticket out of a really tough financial spot for people who don’t have many options,” White said. “It’s very predatory.”

To White and her fellow critics, crypto company founders and the venture capitalists backing them are presiding over a massive, unregulated attempt to rid regular people of their money by exaggerating the potential of crypto technology. Years spent online, researching esoteric Internet cultures have made White a rare figure who can maneuver the technically complex, meme-filled world of crypto, translating it into digestible prose.

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White works from her home in Massachusetts, which she shares with two cats and a 70-pound pandemic puppy. She sports a youthful uniform of jeans, sweaters and Converse sneakers and communicates with her fellow crypto skeptics through Zoom and Twitter direct messages. She’s declined several offers to speak at in-person conferences, citing the time commitment.

As more people begin to question cryptomania, White’s prominence has grown: Journalists call her to gut-check stories, and she has lectured for students at Stanford University and provided advice to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on potential crypto legislation.

“In the world of cryptocurrency, many things are not what they seem,” said Ben McKenzie, a TV actor and former star in “The O.C.” who began writing about cryptocurrency during the pandemic and has become another one of the industry’s best-known critics. “Molly shines a light through darkness and presents it for the world to see.”

White’s targets say her brand of criticism is too cynical, cherry-picking dramatic examples of failure to mischaracterize an entire industry that is mostly full of good people and good ideas. She in turn has been experiencing an uncomfortable form of vindication.

“I wasn’t the only crypto skeptic who expected some of these projects to fall apart, but it doesn’t make it fun to watch,” she said.

The cryptocurrency world and its boosters are forging on. Mega-investors such as venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which struck big years ago with early investments in Facebook, Skype and Airbnb, have put billions of dollars into the space. The debate over who crypto serves and who will ultimately win is far from over. White’s voice is rising, but the money and power plowing into crypto is, too.

Molly White grew up on the Internet. As a preteen, she began writing and editing Wikipedia pages, first for bands she liked, and then to document unsung women scientists. During the Trump presidency, her interests shifted to right-wing Internet movements and domestic extremism: She edited articles on the brutal online attacks on women gamers and journalists, which came to be known as “GamerGate,” and the “boogaloo” militia movement. In the past 15 years, White’s racked up more than 100,000 edits and served on the organization’s arbitration committee, the high court that settles disputes on the site.

So when the term Web3, a catchall for organizations and companies built around cryptocurrency technology, began cropping up on social media in 2021, White started to write a Wikipedia article on it.

The task proved harder than she had imagined. “I kept seeing the word everywhere but no one was saying what it meant,” White said, referring to Web3. Billionaire venture capital firms were pouring money into crypto companies, blockchain start-ups were buying Super Bowl ads and tech luminaries such as Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey were hyping up various cryptocurrencies.

But White’s research kept bringing her back to one conclusion: Web3 was filled with a litany of scams, failures and frauds meant to separate regular people from their money.

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The experience inspired her to double down on her blog and social media posts, which she spends several hours a day on, even while she had a full-time software engineer job. (White quit in mid-May but plans to go back to full-time work soon.)

She posts to the site constantly, often writing several short dispatches a day. They’re written in a deadpan, straightforward style, with a few snarky flourishes: hashtags that categorize each post include “#badidea,” “#hmm” and “#yikes.” The site’s header features an image of the Earth erupting in flames with a crying “Bored Ape” — a hugely popular cartoon avatar for crypto fans — looking on. The bottom-right corner adds up the money lost in the scams and hacks she’s documented. By mid-May, it was nearing $10 billion.

White said she’s been skeptical of the industry for years, but hadn’t paid too much attention because most of those losing their money to hacks and scams were tech-savvy and wealthy. That’s changed.

“People are putting in money that they can’t afford to lose,” White said. “They thought this might be their ticket out of poverty or they can finally stop working that minimum wage job and then all their savings are gone.”

That reality has only deepened as the total value of cryptocurrencies tracked by crypto data company CoinGecko fell to around $1.3 trillion, from its high in November of nearly $3 trillion. Crypto forums on Reddit are awash in stories of people losing their life savings after investing in high-profile crypto coins and projects.

Many of the posts on White’s website focus on projects that target middle-class investors looking for a way to trade their way into a new level of financial freedom. In longer posts, she untangles the devilishly complicated structures that prop up most crypto companies and initiatives, such as Axie Infinity, a business that allowed people, many in the Philippines, to make money by playing a crypto-based video game.

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News articles had been written extolling the company as a way for people to quit their jobs and make money. Then the company was hacked, and thousands of people cumulatively lost around $620 million. “We’re seeing more and more incidents like this one, where it’s not just someone losing some extra cash that they decided to take a risk on, but people losing the money that they need to live,” White wrote at the time.

Other crypto skeptics have produced deep, insightful critiques of the field. Moxie Marlinspike, founder of the messaging app Signal, wrote a 4,000-word essay in January laying out his concerns with Web3. A two-hour and 18-minute video from YouTuber Dan Olson about the issues with crypto-based art went viral and has scored over 7 million views.

But White’s “snackable” daily posts about the crypto “clown car parade” has made a skeptical critique of the industry accessible to those who don’t have the time or attention span for a deep-dive, said Andrew Lih, a Wikipedia administrator and writer of “The Wikipedia Revolution.”

He has known White since she was a teenage Wikipedia contributor. “That’s what’s so great about her. She is like, ‘I’m not going to club you over the head with it. Just you read this conveyor belt of ridiculousness and draw your own conclusions.’ And I think that’s been the strength of her blog,” Lih said.

From fringe to front page

Until the pandemic, cryptocurrency was a relatively fringe technology, with bitcoin gaining popularity in the early 2010s as a way to buy illegal drugs on online black markets, such as Silk Road. Cryptocurrency’s core innovation, the blockchain, a record of transactions that can run without a centralized authority, such as a bank or government, has been hailed by libertarians, opposition groups in authoritarian countries and open Internet advocates as a way to potentially remove oppressive middlemen from human relations.

It isn’t fringe anymore. Prices for cryptocurrencies skyrocketed during lockdowns, turning early investors into millionaires overnight and spurring a wave of interest from people who were worried about missing out on a tantalizing new tool for generating wealth. The stock-trading tool Robinhood and crypto firms such as Coinbase alike built apps that made buying and selling cryptocurrency as easy as swiping on Tinder. Crypto companies launched massive marketing blitzes, spending millions on Super Bowl ads and paying for celebrity endorsements from Matt Damon, Kim Kardashian and Tom Brady. Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, a special kind of crypto technology that connotes ownership of a digital image, video or song, broadened the industry’s appeal by bringing in artists, marketers and musicians. A digital artist named Beeple sold one for $69 million.

Almost 90 percent of Americans have heard about cryptocurrency and 16 percent say they have invested in or used one, according to a November 2021 Pew Research study.

White and her fellow skeptics say the traditional media has mishandled the story, treating bitcoin as an exciting innovation while underplaying the idea it could be a giant pyramid scheme. Crypto-focused publications tend to have ties to the industry, while financial news organizations treat it like an asset class. “The crypto industry has benefited from the siloing of journalism,” McKenzie said. “You have to step back much broader and get outside the industry to get some perspective on what might be going on inside it.”

Today, the battle lines over crypto are clear. Proponents see it as a world-changing technology that could have as big of an impact on society as the printing press or trans-Atlantic travel. Critics say these utopian dreams obscure a much darker reality.

Despite her growing following, White is still an outlier among the wealthy, more powerful investors and entrepreneurs who have gone all-in on crypto. She often hears from people who are angry, accusing her of spreading “FUD,” or fear, uncertainty and doubt. She’s been called names and told “have fun staying poor.”

White takes it all in stride. “No one likes to read bad things about themselves, but I think I’ve also been around on the Internet long enough to see that that’s just what people do. People are nasty online,” she said.

And though she doesn’t pull punches when going after venture capitalists and powerful people pushing crypto investments, she said it doesn’t help to bully regular people who are enthusiastic about the technology’s potential or have lost money on it.

“Some people get a lot of joy in seeing average people who’ve bought in to crypto losing money,” she said. “I can understand the impulse given the crypto-shilling and toxicity from a lot of people in the space, but I think a lot of people were also convinced to buy in based on false promises.”