London gets a Bitcoin exchange and the post-Silk Road black market wobbles on

One of the drug marketplaces set up to replace Silk Road closed, with its owner stealing users' money.

Two contrasting stories about the state of Bitcoin today. The first concerns the ongoing black market for drugs, which is undergoing a lot of churn post-Silk Road. New exchanges are popping up, vendors are dispersing onto them, and customers - or, at least, those brave enough to think that law enforcement agencies aren’t also on top of all this - are trying to figure out who to trust.

It’s all about trust on these sites. I’ve written before about how Silk Road’s success was in part down to its active culture of customer reviews, alerting people to bad quality merchandise and pointing people towards trustworthy vendors. That kind of culture takes a long time to build up, as those searching for a Silk Road replacement are discovering.

This morning, one of those sites - Black Flag - went down, with its owner apparently absconding with its users’ money. Calling themselves “Metta Dread Pirate Roberts” (Dread Pirate Roberts was the name Silk Road’s owner used, allegedly the now-in-custody Ross Ullbricht), they posted the following message on the site’s forum:

Well mates, I am saddened to say goodbye. When I created P: BF [Project: Black Flag], my intent was pure and I wanted to help the community. Several days ago I begin implementing code changes to freeze funds and dump them to myself. I was unable to cope with the stress and constant demand, so I panicked. I am sorry for my actions, but with the funds I gathered from the site, I will be able to keep myself from being homeless for the next several months. I will always remember those that made this possible.

The servers will shortly be turned off. Please make migrate to the new Silk Road forums.

Keyboard DPK and Ganja are not me. They did not know this happened, and were kept in the dark just like everyone else. Please do not hold my actions against them.

I have let a lot of people down, including myself. I put hundreds of hours into this site and forum, and never wanted to see it end up this way.
As of now, I will no longer be using the name MettaDPR, nor will I be signing into the forums or site. The forum servers will be going down in week or so; the market will be going down within the next few days.

Abandon ship.

-MettaDPR

We have no idea how many bitcoins MettaDPR has taken with them - the site wasn’t up for long, and is nowhere near one of the bigger Silk Road alternatives - but it shows the difficulties facing the drug black market community. Someone could set up a site for a while, wait for people to trust their money to it, and then skip town.

You can’t regulate against that because, y’know, the drugs thing. The impossibility of retreiving stolen bitcoins is built into the system, so the only thing you can do is try and stop thefts in the first place. And that leads us to the second bit of interesting Bitcoin news today, which is that London is (finally) getting what looks to be a serious, well-backed exchange - Coinfloor.

Considering its position as a world financial centre it is surprising that it took so long for something like Coinfloor to emerge, but then UK government’s lack of urgency in working out if it wants to regulate Bitcoin trading has kind of forced its hand. As Coindesk reports:

Coinfloor, which is backed for an undisclosed sum by VC firm Passion Capital, is the first firm to trade bitcoins for GBP on an order book for at least a year. There are scant other exchanges in the UK trading bitcoins for GBP. Bittylicious offers the chance to buy bitcoins for sterling, for example, although this appears to be a more rudimentary site, and doesn’t have the charting facilities offered by Coinfloor. London-based Intersango ran an order book and allowed GBP trades, although that site inherited hacked and now-defunct virtual currency exchange Bitcoinica. It was sued by customers, and is no longer taking registrations.

Getting backing like that means it feels it doesn’t have to wait for the Financial Services Authority to sort out what its policy towards Bitcoin will be. Talks have happened, but nothing concrete has emerged.

However, Coinfloor represents the other side of the Bitcoin world to the Black Flag closure - its increasing legitimacy, both as a payment method and as a commodity. Despite a still-volatile price - over the last couple of weeks there was an unexpected surge and ebb that is believed to have been caused by a Chinese exchange - the wobbles in the underground Bitcoin market are increasingly separated from the above-ground one, lending it legitimacy it needs to survive.

The post by Black Flag's owner announcing the closure. (Screenshot: @josephfcox)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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