Jamie Bartlett is a journalist most famous for his recent hit BBC podcast series The Missing Crypto-Queen. It covered the barely believable story of the multi-billion cryptocurrency scam, OneCoin, led by the Oxford-educated grifter-guru Dr. Ruja Ignatova.
He’s been tracking our fraught relationship with technology for many years, through books like People vs Tech. And as technology takes over more and more of the everyday, Bartlett’s asking if the tech revolution is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.
In his new conversation with Rebel Wisdom’s David Fuller, Bartlett makes clear how the internet can systematically create the kind of cult dynamics he saw with OneCoin - not least when people attempt to please the powerful algorithms they don’t fully understand in quasi-religious terms.
“People will desperately try to change their behaviour to please the algorithm, in a similar way to how in mediaeval times that you try to do things like a certain number of prayers and the rosary. You're already changing your behaviour to please some technology that you don't understand. It's not much of a jump before we have sort of offerings and prayers and all sorts of the real trappings of religion.”
This need to believe fuelled the incredible story of OneCoin, which leveraged the mystique of technology to part millions of people from their money.
How did OneCoin go so wrong?
By March 2017, more than $4 billion had been invested in OneCoin, and in dozens of countries the world over - from the USA to Pakistan, Hong Kong to Yemen, and the UK to Brazil. It used an apparently ingenious, albeit highly secretive, mining technology that its founder - Bulgarian-born Ignatova, armed with a doctorate in law - would never publicly-reveal.
Ignatova was a consummate and popular promoter. The brand was built on a growing and self-contained community, many of whose members invested their life savings in OneCoin’s promise of overhauling the global monetary system.
Behind its shiny tech gloss surface, however, reports began emerging of major impropriety. Law enforcement caught on. And after failing to attend an event in Lisbon, Ignatova boarded a flight to Athens and disappeared into darkness - and hasn’t been seen in the four-and-a-half years since. Her brother Konstantin wasn’t so lucky - detained by the FBI - and neither were OneCoin’s investors. Millions have vanished in thin air.
Bartlett documented Ignatova’s strange tale for the BBC’s The Missing Crypto Queen. He believes the story has lessons far beyond the lingering dangers of charismatic conpeople and multi-level marketing. The scam could only have worked so well, he says, in a modern-day digital environment that’s gone, and going, dangerously wrong.
The analogue problem
Indeed, as the likes of Azeem Azhar and Balaji Srinivasan have argued elsewhere, there’s an increasing recognition that our analogue institutions are chronically-mismatched for a fast-moving digital future. Top-down management, centralised institutions, fiat currency: in their sclerotic response to the Financial Crash and COVID-19, the crypto-critics have a point.
“I think a lot of people who'd previously seen bitcoin as the money of drug dealers on the darknet or weird psycho-crypto fanatics suddenly thought, ‘You know what? The idea of politicians running money doesn't sound that good. This idea about mathematics running money kind of makes a bit more sense, because it's [based on] immutable laws”, Bartlett suggests, referencing Bitcoin mining’s basis in the progressive computer solution of increasingly-complex mathematical problems.
The question raised by OneCoin, and its founder Ignatova, though, is how cryptocurrency and tech hype can go toxic. In other words, what underlies the extra, almost-pathological, pull that crypto can hold, and how do grifters get in on it - and get away with it?
Grifters like Ignatova are dime-a-dozen in the crypto space these days. Just consider Logan Paul’s ‘Save The Kids Coin’ - or the absurdity of Brian Rose’s ‘blockchain technology’-assisted ‘Digital Freedom Platform’, which siphoned off thousands of dollars of mismanaged donations.
All in all, the failures of our current socioeconomic system mean people are desperate for answers - not least when their own finances are often so precarious. Ignatova knew that her clientele “[didn’t have] very much money, so they all hope[d] to transform their lives completely - they want[ed] to 10x or 100x their money in a year…. Who wants just 20 percent?”, Bartlett asks.
The toxicity found in cryptocurrency extends to the whole tech sector, too. Ignatova “really understood how to play on people’s ‘fear of missing out’”, or FOMO: when tech sector actors run towards the new, skipping and striding over details that may appear inconvenient. As with the Dot Com Bubble of the early 2000s, FOMO has been there since the commercial internet’s birth - and in riding on that same ‘fear’, which arguably underlies the rapid, unreflecting change feeding imbalances in our system, it seems the excesses of crypto can be part of the problem.
It goes beyond this, though. The projective tendency seen in crypto has lent its language an almost magical quality, especially since its details can be impenetrable and hard to understand.
“If I look the part, if I say the right words, if I say ‘blockchain distributed ledger feature of money bankers inflation’, it will be just enough that people won't have to answer”, Bartlett told Rebel Wisdom. “They will have to ask any more questions about it. So she [Ignatova] really understood how to take those uncertainties and say just enough to be able to convince enough people to invest.”
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We don’t know how Google Maps get us where we need to be, or how Zoom works, or the possible reasons that allow these words to beam into your eyeballs. We just accept it, putting the unexplainable down to an Algorithm commandeered by clever people working in California.
The religious tendency of the cryptocurrency world isn’t unique, either. As argued by Rebel Wisdom in its newsletter on the New Internet Religions, the decline of organised religious systems - and the associated ‘Meaning Crisis’ - hasn’t made religion ‘go away’. We’ve simply redirected the impulse towards the religio into arguably less-developed forms online. Transhumanism, QAnon, Deep Adaptation, Twitter tribalism, even furry culture: we’re scurrying around for an Answer, somewhere, anywhere, and hoping for a Utopia to come.
The comfort of conspiracy
Bartlett has spent years immersed in various different conspiratorial internet cultures, from neo-Nazis to 9/11 Truthers, eating disorder forums to darknet users. Together with Carl Miller, he wrote a paper back in 2011 that predicted the internet would incubate and accelerate extremist and conspiratorial thinking of all types. Back then, he recalls, they were “laughed out” of meetings with government and other decision makers when they tried to raise the alarm.
He had a famous conversation with Alex Jones from InfoWars where he tried to engage him in dialogue: “All I ever said to him was, why don't you apply the same unbelievable standards of truth? You're applying to the official narrative to your own narrative.”
Spending all this time in these communities gave him an appreciation of the human needs that they were meeting.
“What people don't realise is how friendly they are, how nice they are, how they know each other - [while] not the person, but the pseudonym, it's a meaningful relationship. They look out for each other, they ask about each other's kids. You're more than just the ideas. You're part of a community, and that is powerful.”
Conspiracy communities leverage an added power through their mission: to reveal concealed truths and fight for justice. In QAnon, for example, people can transform themselves from conventionally unsuccessful to heroic crimefighters overnight. They empower themselves at a time when heroic narratives are nowhere to be found. When they log on and read the latest Q Drop, they aren’t scanning nonsense on 4Chan - they’re glimpsing Secrets to battle real, bona fide evil. What’s more distasteful than a cabal of Satan-worshipping, America-hating paedophiles? And why aren’t you fighting them, too?
“It makes sense in a world of [overwhelming] information. And when you allow people to then get together virtually to talk about these things, it becomes something way more powerful.”
Yet when people engage in conspiracy, Bartlett notes, any sensible conversation with the cultural mainstream is made impossible. The tendency to make monoliths of both ‘conspiracy’ and the ‘mainstream’ - despite both-encompassing huge degrees of subtlety, benefits and costs - is all-too-easy, and even replicated here. Seeing the disengagement from serious conversations in legacy media, the conspiracy-minded are prone to harvesting their information solely from alternative sources, treating them with nowhere near the scrutiny they’d direct at mainstream narratives.
It hints at the problem of the Uncanny Valley, much-discussed by Rebel Wisdom over the summer: that our bipartite media environment means there’s no middle ground, no shared cultural space, to flesh out the real signal on fraught-topics. Here, human confirmation bias and emotional needs collide with real misincentives created by our content platforms - in particular, audience capture, or the revenue-driven pull towards spreading messages your subscribers will agree with, for fear of being ratioed with dislikes and losing eyeballs.
The open space in the middle ground is growing wider and wider, too, Bartlett says. Our social media enabled fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ means that low hanging fruit are free for plucking by grifters. In this respect among many, the excesses of the grifter prone crypto sector are only symptoms of a much broader, and far more festering, pathology.
“To seek self-knowledge is to embark on a journey which ... will always be incomplete" - courtesy of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem