The trap was simple: With a fake email account and a fictitious business, Butterfield sent the following email to every bitcoin news outlet he could find.
I’m working on a new Bitcoin exchange that will be launching soon and we are looking to get some coverage. I was curious if we could pay and have your site feature us in an article?
Butterfield had expected that only a quarter of those he emailed would accept his offer.
He was shocked by his results: Almost every “news” outlet he emailed was willing to accept cash for coverage. Some were willing to take money outright, while others offered to provide a post indicating “sponsored” status for a fee. Only three of the 14 sites Butterfield contacted — Coin Fire, Crypto Crimson and CoinDesk — completely declined his offer for ethical reasons.
What does it cost to get positive coverage on Butterfield’s list of “super super super bad players”? At least two sites quoted him a $250 fee for front-page coverage.
Not surprisingly, the story prompted a huge response on bitcoin-focused forums, with many users saying this confirmed some long-standing suspicions about the veracity of anything found in the bitcoin-industry press. Although troubling, the pay-to-play trend has become commonplace on many online-focused niche sites, as many of the writers and editors have no ethical commitment to journalistic practices. Even the mainstream has adopted this idea to an extent, as sponsored coverage of the kind Butterfield calls “questionable” is a standard revenue engine for websites on the Gawker/Kinja network, FARK and Cracked.com. BitcoinX, incidentally, was not contacted for Butterfield’s report.