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Why crypto’s PR problems are so pronounced on Wikipedia

by | May 6, 2024 | Public Relations

After a rough 2023, crypto has had something of a rebound in 2024 as Coinbase posted a profit for the first time in two years and Bitcoin reached a record high. Even with these gains, though, the industry remains mired in the trough of disillusionment due to overinflated expectations and lingering bad vibes from the FTX collapse. A Pew survey last year found that 75 percent of Americans who have heard of cryptocurrencies lack confidence in the asset’s safety and reliability. 

Convincing casual investors that it’s safe to go back in the water is thus a considerable PR challenge

Part of the problem—somewhat counterintuitively—is the abundance of cryptocurrency news sites that breathlessly cover the industry. These sites crowd out traditional news outlets in search and social results. That means when someone is searching for “crypto regulation” the first news site they’ll find isn’t Bloomberg or Reuters—it’s something like CryptoPotato or Cointelegraph.

Like other trade or industry-specific publications, these crypto sites provide far more detailed coverage than mainstream outlets. Their audiences are also more targeted, knowledgeable, and generally optimistic about the topic. This creates an echo chamber effect, whereby regular readers of publications like CoinDesk and CryptoSlate have an entirely different perspective of industry developments than do regular readers of, say, the Wall Street Journal—or Wikipedia.

The online encyclopedia that anyone can edit has strict guidelines in place about what sources editors can cite within articles, and most crypto news sites don’t pass muster for reasons discussed ahead. That means factual claims within Wikipedia articles about crypto topics must reflect coverage in more familiar business and tech publications, which tend to reflect a more measured take on the technology. 

Wikipedia is an important source of information on crypto-related topics. The article for Blockchain, for instance, averages nearly 75,000 views per month, and the one for Bitcoin, averages nearly 300,000 views. The site is also a microcosm for crypto’s PR problems, as ongoing attempts to shape the content of these articles reflect a disconnect between industry discourse and mainstream news coverage. 

If you’re a PR or comms professional working in crypto, it’s important to understand how and where general audiences are learning about your industry and your brand specifically. Wikipedia is an important component of that knowledge pipeline, and it’s thus worth exploring the criteria through which editors assess different news sources and make article content decisions. 

Why Wikipedia doesn’t trust crypto news sites

Let’s look at CoinDesk, one of the most prominent crypto media publications due to its syndication deal with Yahoo Finance. CoinDesk has been profiled by other media outlets, including The New York Times, and its reporting team was recognized for its early scoop on FTX’s shaky financials. Yet the impression persists that CoinDesk, like other crypto news sites, is far too closely connected to the industry it’s covering.

This perceived conflict of interest was reinforced by the site’s recent acquisition by Bullish, a cryptocurrency and digital asset exchange. Not long after the deal was completed, Bullish business development head Sara Stratoberdha—someone with no media experience—was appointed CEO, raising concerns about the news team’s editorial independence. CoinDesk also continues to host an annual crypto summit, Consensus, where industry leaders are invited to (per the event landing page) “highlight the biggest successes” from the past year. 

Given this context, it’s no surprise that Wiki editors remain skeptical about the site’s reporting. The current consensus on Wikipedia is that CoinDesk should be avoided as a source “in favor of more mainstream sources” and that editors should carefully assess whether Bullish has an ownership stake in a company covered by the site. 

In a sense, Wikipedia’s view of CoinDesk isn’t that different from its assessment of other industry or trade publications, whether Aviation Week or Farm Journal. These sources can generally be cited in certain circumstances, but editors prefer mainstream news coverage because it not only verifies information but also signals that the news itself is important and thus worth including in an encyclopedia. Trade publications often publish pieces that are effectively lightly updated press releases, and Wikipedia editors are thus wary of laundering this promotional information into articles. 

What media sources do work for Wikipedia?

If you scroll through the cited sources on the Bitcoin Wikipedia article, you’ll find a mix of familiar business and tech publications (Financial Times, The Economist, TechCrunch, Wired, Wall Street Journal), academic journals (Computer Fraud & Security,  MIT Technology Review, IEEE Communications Surveys and Tutorials) and books from prestigious publishers (Springer, O’Reilly, Morgan & Claypool). 

These sources are a representative sample, but that’s essentially the level of publication Wikipedia guidelines insist on for tech and crypto topics. Remember, Wikipedia editors are just that—editors. Their role is to summarize information from high-quality sources, not to perform original research or analysis. For that reason, they take their cues on content decisions from how information is presented in prominent coverage of the topic. 

What this means, in practice, is that if a representative of the Peercoin Foundation is hoping that the Peercoin Wikipedia article can be updated with current figures about the coin’s exchange rate, then those numbers need to be mentioned in press coverage from a TechCrunch or The Information type of publication. Simply putting out a press release and hoping that first CryptoSlate picks it up and then Wikipedia editors cite that coverage isn’t going to work. 

The above advice also applies to more general public relations strategies. From what I’ve seen, comms efforts from crypto-affiliated companies are often focused on “communities” of users and fans and the crypto news sources these brand evangelists follow on social. Engaging with these audiences is certainly important, but it’s also necessary to employ a broader outreach strategy to engage with a more general audience—a catch-all that includes not just casual readers, but policymakers, investors, and journalists.

We often associate echo chambers with political discourse (i.e. the tendency of conservatives to watch Fox News exclusively and for liberals to do the same thing with MSNBC or The Daily Show), but they’re just as pronounced within certain tech circles. Reaching beyond these siloes is a critical component of effective PR and an important first step for changing perceptions about cryptocurrencies. 

Rhiannon Ruff
Rhiannon Ruff is a co-founder of the digital agency Lumino and the author of the new book, Wikipedia & Crisis Communications. For the past decade-plus, Rhi has helped large organizations and Fortune 100 companies navigate the online encyclopedia, and she regularly speaks on the topic in agency seminars, podcasts, and other media appearances.

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