Unpacking Facebook’s Bitcoin ban

Facebook. Bitcoin. Fake News. It's a buzz word bonanza. Switched On Media's Yash Murthy digs into what's really going on with Facebook's Bitcoin ban, and if it points to the social media giant's cryptocurrency aspirations.

“Facebook in Bitcoin Fake News crackdown”.

Straight to the clickbait poolroom I thought.

Or perhaps the boys at Betoota have skewered the media again.

But no. Turns out the story actually has a bit of meat to it. And no, I’m not here to talk about the relative merits of cryptocurrency, the quality or legitimacy of their ad content or anything of that ilk. A simple scan of your LinkedIn feed will more than cover you on that front.

Theories of a Facebook-backed cryptocurrency abound 

No, what’s actually interesting here is the mechanism Facebook’s utilised, and what this means in an era where 84% of all global digital media flows through the open arms of Messrs Zuckerberg and Pichai.

To recap for those who missed the story, Facebook product management director Rob Leathern announced that they’d implemented a new policy, banning “ads that promote financial products and services that are frequently associated with misleading or deceptive promotional practices, such as binary options, initial coin offerings and cryptocurrency”.

So rather than use their existing policies and system to manually remove and block shonky practitioners, Facebook has unilaterally banned all operators in this space, effective immediately, in a policy they themselves have described as “intentionally broad”.

It’s certainly the most buzz-worthy security initiative to come since the ‘fake news’ phenomenon hit the platform. And whilst a commitment to veracity and security can only be applauded, this policy change represents what can appears to be an arbitrary moral judgement on Facebook’s behalf – whatever your feelings on the cryptocurrency wild-west.

To illustrate what I mean by arbitrary, let’s take gambling for example: Google has firm policies restricting sophisticated targeting of potential gambling customers. Facebook on the other hand? It’s common practice to use a punter’s actual gambling behaviour to sharpen Facebook ad targeting and increase betting volumes.

Now I’m all for having a punt on Senorita Sparky on race 9 at Dapto, but is a heavily targeted ad letting me know about it any better or worse than promoting speculation on cryptocurrency? It feels lineball at best, and for me, leaves them open to questions about motives.

Whilst theories of a Facebook-backed cryptocurrency abound – which would truly call into question the moralising of the policy change – the impact of Facebook’s announcement is real and quantifiable, with Bitcoin’s price falling by more than 10% as news broke.

Nefarious plot? Or simply the product of a rapid response to a long-avoided problem? Likely the latter, but it does get you thinking.

But hey, enough Orwellian/Black Mirror-esque prophesying I hear you (perhaps rightfully) say. What’s the actual impact?

Reading the release and policy, it appears that in time, once a better system is in place to moderate, that there will be a path back onto platform for more scrupulous operators. Yet given their moderation system basically involves an outsourced labour force given little time and even less money. Who knows really?

Till then, no doubt the powers that be at the other half of the duopoly will be rubbing their hands with glee – investment will no doubt be channelled back into search, YouTube and display.

For Facebook, it’s obviously foregoing a lot of cash in the short term but perhaps it’s the price they’re willing to pay given the PR around their perceived role in undermining democracy. I mean, fuelling things like an underground child sex ring being run by Hillary Clinton out of a Washington DC pizza shop will make anyone a bit skittish for a period.

Perhaps a Bitcoin clamp down is the newsworthy enough headline to make your new legitimacy push seem, well, legitimate.

NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, SoM currently have clients in the gambling, cryptocurrency and binary options industries. 

Yash Murthy is social media and creative director at Switched On Media (SoM)


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