Does Bitcoin Have An Image Problem?

Looking through bitcoin related news, as I frequently do; it seems that stories fall into one of four categories most of the time. There are those that tell of bitcoin’s role in some criminal enterprise, those that detail the latest business seeking to use the idea behind the blockchain for some non-bitcoin related purpose, and those that report the latest attempts of governments and monetary authorities to come to terms with and regulate the digital currency.

Finally, there are a few stories that actually report on bitcoin’s increasing acceptance and influence.

One of the problems that the currency has is that stories in the first category translate much better to the mainstream media than the others. Crime is sensational and the new and unknown is scary, whereas the details of the blockchain and regulation don’t lend themselves to 600 words or less.

That leads to the kind of situation I encountered this weekend. I was at a friend’s house and somehow we got around to the fact that I often write on the subject of bitcoin in these pages. That prompted me to ask the friend’s teenage children who were in the room what they knew about the subject. Both offered some version of bitcoin being a currency that is used on the dark web for drug, gun and other shady deals.

The obvious point, that U.S. dollars are used in far more such deals than bitcoin hadn’t occurred to them. They seemed to think that the currency had been devised for the sole purpose of conducting criminal business, and it occurred to me that if that is the view of two tech savvy teenagers, then bitcoin has a serious image problem.

That is hardly surprising when you consider the coverage that is out there. This week, for example, when a New York man was arrested for “unlawful money transmission,” as detailed in this story, even the generally pro-bitcoin Coindesk gave prominence to the fact that bitcoin were used in the transactions. Details of the charges are not yet known, but the report goes on to say that the charges were part of a larger investigation into money laundering and dealing in controlled substances and stolen goods and, even further in, that the arrested man is a convicted child pornographer. Both of those things seem to me to be more relevant than the fact that bitcoin was the currency of choice for the transaction.

Would the arrest of one more criminal have made the news if payment had been made in cash? I suspect not.

The irony is that this and other such stories that report criminal activity involving bitcoin transactions come about when somebody is caught, and the fact that they were caught shows that conducting such business in digital currency doesn’t particularly help in evading justice. Still, if you search for bitcoin stories you will find that “crime” and “bitcoin” are inextricably linked in the eyes of many journalists.

The public image of bitcoin suffers from stories like the above, but their publication and the perpetuation of the image of bitcoin as somehow shady then makes it difficult for the same news outlets to report on stories such as another that hit the wires this week: Insurance and banking group USAA is expanding a pilot program and integrating bitcoin into its platform for all members. Add that to Microsoft’s clarification this week that it is still accepting bitcoin and it becomes a little harder to accept that digital currency is solely, or at least mainly, used for criminal activity.

Maybe that is why stories in the fourth category, of the gradual acceptance of bitcoin by larger businesses and financial institutions, don’t often make the cut – they just don’t fit the narrative of bitcoin as something vaguely criminal. They are, however, the real stories we should be talking about, and repeating that whenever crime and bitcoin are linked in a story would go a long way towards dispelling the misconceptions surrounding the currency.

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