Future Tense

Did the “Bitcoin CEO” Just Commit Suicide? Not So Fast.

First Meta bitcoin exchange

The homepage of the First Meta virtual-currency exchange.

Screenshot / firstmetaexchange.com

The news leapt out at me from my Twitter stream: “Bitcoin CEO Found Dead of Possible Suicide in Singapore.”

The headline is all too easy to believe, and to assimilate into the story of bitcoin as an experiment gone tragically awry. Last week, the implosion of leading bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox left investors in the crypto-currency feeling robbed, disillusioned, and angry. Now, it seemed, one of the people responsible was falling on his or her sword.

Not so fast, please. This story is not nearly as clear-cut as the media are making it seem.

First of all, bitcoin doesn’t have a CEO. It’s a crypto-currency, not a company. The young woman in question was actually the head of the Singapore-based startup First Meta. According to its website, First Meta was founded in 2007, and its claim to fame was creating the first virtual credit card for the then-popular online game Second Life. Today it functions as one of many online marketplaces for bitcoin and a slew of other virtual currencies.

It is true that the young woman, 28-year-old Autumn Radtke, is dead. But officials are still investigating the cause of death. As far as I can tell, the “suicide” headlines on sites such as the New York Post, the Daily Mail, and Fox News are based on anonymously sourced reports in “local media.” The only such report I’ve been able to track down so far was on the blog Tech in Asia on Feb. 27, which said “sources have suggested that [Radtke] committed suicide.” A note at the top of that blog post indicates that it has been updated to emphasize that “investigations are ongoing.”

It’s possible Radtke committed suicide, but it seems rash—and unfair to her and her family and friends—for major news outlets to jump to that conclusion on the basis of anonymous rumors. And even if she did commit suicide, how do we know it had anything to do with bitcoin’s troubles? We don’t. And for the record, suicide is rarely the result of any single cause.

What we do know is that an apparently bright and much-loved young woman in the Singapore startup community is dead, and police are investigating. But that doesn’t make for sensational tweets or compelling headlines in national news outlets or online magazines like BuzzFeed. To get people to click on the story, you need to imply that Radtke killed herself because of the Bitcoin crash.

How do I know that? Because the Wall Street Journal ran a blog post a week ago that stuck to the facts—and almost no one noticed. The post by Newley Purnell, headlined “American CEO of Singapore Startup First Meta Dies,” fell like a tree in a forest with no one around. It was only when the New York Post, the Daily Mail, and others cast their scruples aside and ran with the suicide link that the story captured global attention.