Future Tense

The Anti-Semitism Lurking in Dark Corners of the Cryptocurrency Community

The core beliefs driving bitcoin can be twisted into something much darker.

A pile of gold coins emblazoned with the letter B for bitcoin.
A visual representation of the digital cryptocurrency bitcoin.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

On May 29, a tediously “mysterious” video appeared in the bowels of YouTube. It featured a man wearing dark glasses, a thick beard, and a low-brimmed cap. He is seated in front of a shabby-chic fireplace, on which rests a half-drained wine glass. He speaks in a thick, vaguely Eastern European accent, digitally manipulated into an almost incomprehensible growl as he delivers what he describes as a “confession.”

Four years ago [they] contacted me and offered me work as a financial adviser to the top manager and evangelist in a project which was ridden[?] by the largest family of businessmen … I was paid a lot of money for my silence, but I can’t remain silent … Humble people will be deprived of their freedom. All will belong to them …

Four letters—I-M-M-O is the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. The single world currency.

This apparent turncoat’s warning (which has since been removed from YouTube) followed rumors about something called IMMO that seem to have first appeared on May 18 on a small cryptocurrency news site called Zycrypto. Zycrypto summarized mainstream reports that the banks Goldman Sachs and ING were strengthening their ties to cryptocurrency businesses. But it added the claim that both ING and Goldman Sachs are “owned by the Rothschild Group.” The problem with this claim is obvious: “The Rothschild Group” is a common name for Rothschild & Co., a European investment firm with a roughly $2.8 billion (2.45 billion euro) total market value. Goldman Sachs has a nearly $90 billion market cap, while ING is worth about $52 billion.

Zycrypto’s other claim was equally preposterous. Citing only information “leaked on social networks, including closed Telegram channels,” the post claimed that “the Rothschild Group” was launching its own cryptocurrency project called IMMO. (I’m not linking to these articles or videos, or naming more of them than necessary, to reduce the risk of amplifying their distortions.)

In a statement to Slate, Rothschild & Co. denied any involvement with a cryptocurrency called IMMO and said it had no plans to launch any cryptocurrency at all. Nonetheless, other fringe-y news sites were happy to repeat the false claims and even elaborate on them. One, seemingly apropos of nothing, linked them to the recent announcement that George Soros’ family fund might invest in cryptocurrency. On May 23, another site went much further, freely speculating that the mysterious new IMMO cryptocurrency would be linked to “the price of gold or other limited natural resources” and used to “maintain control over the market of cryptocurrency.” It would also be “legally recognized in one of the sovereign countries controlled by the Rothschilds,” who “have been preserving and multiplying their capital many times over for two hundred years.”

Claims about the Rothschild family’s vast and secret wealth and their hidden control over entire nations are pillars of modern anti-Semitism. The Rothschilds’ supposed world dominance was the subject of one of the propaganda films Joseph Goebbels deployed to pave the way for the Holocaust. The fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion elaborated on the “Jewish banking conspiracy,” but that document was actually created by czarist secret police in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Despite being debunked over and over again, these ideas have remained terrifyingly influential. Emmanuel Macron’s connections to Rothschild & Co. were weaponized in France’s 2017 election by far-right avatar Marine Le Pen, in what many read as an anti-Semitic dog whistle. George Soros, the liberal Jewish hedge fund magnate, has been the unlucky American inheritor of much of this madness, explaining his mention in connection with IMMO.

The dark fantasies swirling around IMMO seem to have been an effort to suture these toxic fictions onto the anti-authoritarian idealism behind bitcoin.

Bitcoin was launched in early 2009, in the throes of the global financial crisis, by a computer science genius still known only by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto specifically positioned bitcoin as an alternative to the then-disgraced legacy financial institutions, and skepticism of banks is literally embedded into the system: A newspaper headline about a 2009 English bank bailout is permanently inscribed in bitcoin’s first batch of transactions, or “genesis block.”

Of course, skepticism of high finance is not inherently anti-Semitic, and most cryptocurrency advocates have shown no sign of picking up what IMMO is putting down. Vitalik Buterin, creator of Ethereum and perhaps the most revered figure in the industry, tried to tamp down Rothschild hysteria, writing on Reddit that “they are just people born into various old-money-type high society positions, and the theories that they are anything beyond that are fairly baseless.”

But deep skepticism of banks makes some cryptocurrency supporters susceptible to the idea that a Jewish banking dynasty might launch a cryptocurrency intended to hijack the sector. That’s particularly true, it seems, of a small but influential subset of small-fry cryptocurrency day traders. These mostly young, mostly male speculators chase big gains trading highly speculative, penny stock–like “altcoins” inspired by bitcoin. These altcoins’ prices can fluctuate wildly based on rumor, speculation, and sentiment, and traders try to stay ahead of these moves by exchanging tips and leads on social media and in private chat rooms. At least among English-speaking traders, a major clearinghouse for those tips is the anonymous message board 4chan, in a subforum called /biz/ (which, despite its general-sounding name, is dedicated almost entirely to cryptocurrency).

You may know 4chan as a breeding ground for toxic online trolling, and particularly for the extremist alt-right strain that exploded into public consciousness in 2016. Just as memes spawned on 4chan spread to more mainstream sites like Facebook, consensus opinions of small blockchain projects—which are “shitcoins” destined to fail, and which will “moon” to higher value—often take shape on /biz/ before trickling out to Reddit and Twitter. These discussions are infused with the blithely hateful lingua franca of 4chan as a whole. Pepe avatars are omnipresent, and the entire thesaurus of vile racial slurs are thrown around with abandon.

But it is Jews who come in for the most constant, focused, and elaborate derision. In a thread in response to the IMMO rumors, there was some skepticism of the specifics, but a broad consensus that Jews “own fucking everything” and “have siphoned money from the entire globe for 200 years with their global banking scheme.” In other threads, /biz/ denizens declared that “our government is controlled by these SJW kikes” and “rich kikes love nothing more than spending other people’s money.”

There’s evidence that someone consciously tailored the IMMO conspiracy theory to appeal to these dismal prejudices. In addition to our heavily accented YouTube “informant,” a writer named James Mayer penned a series of Medium posts warning about IMMO, one including a doctored photo of Buterin holding a sign reading “Stop IMMO.” But “Mayer’s” English is sloppy at best, there is no other sign of him online, and his profile picture appears to have been pulled from a Russian social media archive of images from an online suit retailer. In the Zycrypto post that seems to have set things off, one stray link leads to a site in Russian. That could provide a clue to the origins of the article, which is attributed to an anonymous “Guest Author.” (Zycrypto did not respond to questions regarding the article’s origins and the site’s editorial process.)

The spread of a groundless conspiracy theory on untrustworthy news sites is driven by a familiar motive. Such sites are hungry for eyeballs because they can make potentially serious money by selling ads for other (often dubious) cryptocurrency investments or services. But what about the deeper motives behind the IMMO rumors? One possible explanation was suggested by a perceptive commenter known as davis196 on the Bitcointalk forum: “Perhaps the IMMO developers are lying about this to make their project look more legit and trustworthy. That will bring a lot of unexperienced investors into this new platform.” In other words, IMMO might have been conceived as a novel kind of crypto “exit scam.” In most such schemes, which have been rampant in recent years, a team publishes ambitious plans for a cryptocurrency—often in the form of a “whitepaper”—then sells digital tokens, supposedly to fund its development, before disappearing with investor funds.

The IMMO rumors could be a cynical evolution of the whitepaper scam model. Rumors connecting IMMO to the Rothschilds could actually motivate gullible anti-Semites to buy in, on the premise that a “secret” project of a vast Jewish banking conspiracy was sure to grow in value. Another anonymous forum poster arrived at that logic effortlessly, arguing that if the conspiracy is true, “then buy … this asset, if it will buy a lot of people, it can grow well.” IMMO would be immune to explicit denials of Rothschild & Co’s involvement, which could even leave fact-averse adherents more convinced that they were buying a stake in a project aimed at world domination. In other words, IMMO may be a real conspiracy—just not one involving the Rothschilds.

Whoever is pushing the narrative does seem to have run out of steam. Though “James Mayer” published another IMMO post to Medium in July, it has gotten very little traction, and the ominous “news” posts about the Rothschilds have petered out on the fringe sites. That’s hugely to the credit of the cryptocurrency and blockchain community as a whole.

But for the /biz/ crowd, the underlying buzz of paranoid hatred hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s a particularly ripe moment for stoking anti-Semitic resentment in the cryptocurrency world, because so many who thought crypto was a chance for redemption have instead wound up fleeced. The end of 2017 saw feverish media hype as the value of cryptocurrencies skyrocketed, and glowing profiles of newly minted bitcoin millionaires drew legions of hopeful new speculators to the sector. But the market dropped dramatically in January and hasn’t recovered, wiping out speculators who bought in at the top of the bubble.

On /biz/, that has led many users to a place of frustration and despair. Perhaps the darkest message I found asked: “What’s the best way to off myself /biz? I cuck work in construction in a shit hole of a city and though I study my ass off in crypto when I have time, I just keep losing money in it not matter how solid the projects. I want to escape this fucked up life I currently have.”

Threatening suicide on 4chan is itself often a kind of sport, but the sense of real hopelessness runs deep. Many posters ask for help finding a job so they can move out of their parents’ house. There seems to be little connection between these young men and the healthy economy outside their front doors, much less the “lambos” jokingly flaunted by some of the crypto world’s top dogs.

Their despair, like bitcoin’s anti-banking worldview, is grounded in real issues, including rising inequality and stagnant wages. And it’s shared with many young white Americans, particularly the less educated. But /biz/ provides a disturbing window on what happens next, letting you watch practically in real time as economic hopelessness finds simple, convenient, and utterly mistaken targets. And such bitterness may actually be amplified by the media hype around those who have gotten wildly rich on their crypto investments—one /biz/ user described what seemed like his pretty decent IT job as “wageslaving for some corporate jew.”

That sort of vitriol might have once been dismissed as the vile but essentially harmless gibbering of a clutch of lost boys. But in 2018, anti-Semitism is roaring back, and on /biz/ as elsewhere, it’s closely linked with other kinds of hate. For instance, the board is full of references to “incel” culture, a strain of thought that demonizes women for refusing sex, and to MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way, an anti-feminist movement that calls on straight men to free themselves from the supposedly oppressive bonds of relationships with women. Incel discourse has, like anti-Semitic rhetoric before it, been closely tied to horrific crimes in the real world.

Let’s be clear: The anonymous hatred on /biz/ doesn’t implicate the broader cryptocurrency community or blockchain industry, most of which is dedicated to transparency, open access, privacy, and other values that stand to benefit marginalized communities of all kinds. But bitcoin’s anti-banking rhetoric can be easily misconstrued or abused, and its division into haves and have-nots is fueling a wave of rage as dreams of easy money die. Hate speech, even if it remains speech, profoundly threatens the potential impact of cryptocurrency’s most idealistic innovations. Constant slurs thrown around a forum that also offers important information act as a significant barrier to people of color or women: One frequent /biz/ visitor, who is not white and monitors the board as part of his job in blockchain marketing, told me that reading it was a routinely traumatic experience. This festering well of hate could explain some of the lack of diversity in the broader, fast-growing blockchain industry.

The same goes for IMMO. Whether the conspiracy theory is a marketing campaign, a scam, or just clickbait, its creators and propagators are feeding the worst impulses of crypto’s id and betraying whatever idealism bitcoin can still lay claim to. There are many well-documented culprits for the inequality and exploitation that have made American society increasingly brutish and hopeless for some. Blaming a Jewish conspiracy is the ultimate sucker’s bet.