Report Exposes “Pay-for-Play” YouTube, ICO, and Newspaper Reviews

Justine Pope

A recent special report by Reuters exposes the “pay for play” nature of many cryptocurrency reviews.

In the examination, Reuters found that many cryptocurrency ratings experts, social media personalities, and research houses are offering paid promotion for cryptocurrencies and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) without disclosing the sponsorship to their audience.

"Huge Market Opportunity"

The report starts by explaining how an ICO called Hacken promoted themselves. After raising $3M in their fundraising, Hacken hired YouTuber Christopher Greene. Greene runs the YouTube channel “Alternative Media Television,” which currently has over 532,000 subscribers. Greene posted a 25-minute review of Hacken on his YouTube channel, which received over 92,000 views. In the review, Greene calls Hacken a “huge market opportunity” with “potential 1,000x returns.”

Despite these bold claims, it wasn’t disclosed in the video that Greene was paid $7,500 for the review. His disclaimer (found on his website) explains that the channel “may receive compensation for products and services,” but there was no clear clarification in the video. After Greene’s review, the token climbed to a high of $1.56, but subsequently crashed down to $0.50.

ICO Bench

The next example they examined was ICO Bench. ICO Bench is a website that reviews ICOs, giving them rankings in the form of stars (from one to five). It’s reported that as of November 14, ICOBench accepts reviews from 361 experts, which are then reviewed by 34 employees for the company.

ICO bench itself makes revenue through advertising, which allows cryptoassets to be featured at the top of their website with the “Premium” tag. Reuters however, reports that ICOBench might not be as transparent as they claim:

Seven ICObench experts told Reuters they have been approached by cryptocurrency companies or their public relations agents and offered money in exchange for a rating, although none said they accepted any such offers.

In addition, it seems that ICOBench rankings might have been be pay-for-play, after reporters found Telegram users selling ICOBench reviews.

Markus Hartmann, co-founder of Alethena, admits that after being approached on messaging app Telegram, he paid $800 for two ICObench reviews, which gave his product five stars. It was also found that various websites and services offer fake users and messages for Telegram groups, which could lead investors to believe a project is more popular than it actually is.

ICOBench CEO Maxim Sharatsky told Reuters that they do not sell ratings, and that in the case of the two paid reviews, all of the two writers' were after investigation removed from the site and "stripped of their expert status."

Forbes

The final example in the investigtion was prominent business publication Forbes. Reuters found that:

a cryptocurrency data company showed Reuters an email it had received from an individual offering an article on business website Forbes.com for $2,500.

Forbes told Reuters in an email statement that "its editorial guidelines explicitly forbid contributors from receiving payments in exchange for stories."

Gray Area

This report shows the problem with sponsored posts, which is that they’re a grey area. Influencer marketing (where companies pay people to post their product on social media) is used extensively in a variety of industries, but promoting financial products might have legal implications. This marketing is especially confusing in the cryptocurrency space, where it’s not completely clear how cryptocurrencies will be regulated.

It seems the SEC however, might look unfavourably upon such influencer marketing.

As discussed in their July 2017 report, the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) states that “virtual coins or tokens may be securities and subject to the federal securities laws.” Further, the SEC’s later report on ICOs states that: “any celebrity or other individual who promotes a virtual token or coin that is a security must disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion.” This means influencers might be liable for actions from the SEC.

No matter what legal jurisdiction cryptocurrencies fall under, commentators agree that paid advertising could be damaging the cryptocurrency space - influencing investors to make poor financial decisions. Larry Cermak, head of analysis at cryptocurrency research and news website The Block, explained to Reuters:

The main reason why so many inexperienced individuals invest in bad crypto projects is because they listen to advice from a so-called expert...They believe they can take this advice at face value even though it is often fraudulent, intentionally misleading or conflicted.