Millionaire influencer BitBoy’s fall has lessons – ‘perfect example of why crypto needs regulation’

   2024-02-06 02:02

New Delhi: His YouTube followers, his Lamborghini, his family and his business. Cryptocurrency influencer Ben Armstrong, better known as “BitBoy”, has had a rough few months.

The crypto world is no stranger to scams and fake news. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on how BitBoy’s empire came crashing down around him. In August 2023, he was ousted from his company HIT Network, following which he was accused of extortion, theft, sexual harassment and workplace violence, all underscored by an extramarital affair he was allegedly having with his business partner.

But the world of crypto influencers is even murkier than the crypto market, characterised by loopholes that policymakers are struggling to grapple with.

In India, financial influencers — or ‘finfluencers’ — must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), and must have suitable qualifications such as an Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India license, according to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). But this becomes complicated when cryptocurrency itself is not recognised by SEBI, therefore begging the question of whether crypto influencers are giving sound financial advice in India. 

“Crypto is like the wild, wild west. Anything goes,” said Sharan Nair, co-founder of BrownRice Capital, an India-based crypto wealth platform. Nair is also part of the founding teams of PYOR, Unocoin & CoinSwitch.

“Crypto is not regulated in India, which makes it harder to regulate crypto influencers in India. And in India, the influencers of crypto are a mirror image of the customers in crypto,” he added.

Nair points to the fact that there’s very little awareness and education about crypto in India, which leads to influencers often providing irresponsible or borderline illegal advice. The quality of crypto users in India is also tainted by the fact that most people are simply looking for quick ways to get rich.

Asked for comment, ASCI CEO and Secretary General Manisha Kapoor told ThePrint via email Monday: “In response to the surge in advertising for virtual digital assets, ASCI has developed comprehensive guidelines to safeguard consumer interests. As per ASCI’s guidelines for advertising and promotion of virtual digital assets and services, financial influencers especially when discussing cryptocurrencies, must prominently disclose the risks, adhering to guidelines such as stating, ‘Crypto products and NFTs are unregulated and can be highly risky, with no regulatory recourse for any loss from such transactions’.”

“Furthermore, terms like ‘currency’, ‘securities’, ‘custodian’, and ‘depositories’ should not be used in VDA advertisements to prevent associations with regulated products. Advertisements must not contain promises or guarantees of future profit increases. In this high-risk category, celebrities endorsing VDA products must conduct due diligence to avoid misleading claims, ensuring a responsible and transparent advertising environment in the dynamic realm of virtual digital assets. Globally, this is an emerging technology and products in the virtual digital asset industry have seen significant volatility. We believe with these guidelines, advertisements would be fairer and more transparent,” added Kapoor.

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BitBoy’s fall from grace

The story of BitBoy is typical of many other notorious stars of the crypto world: a quick rise to fame, followed by an even quicker fall. 

BitBoy has been active since 2018, and built up a following of 1.5 million on YouTube by 2023. But his business associates accused him of letting his fame get to his head — he used to be a regular guy, until he became part of the crypto world. He likes to wear a bright-green Gucci tracksuit, and bragged about his success in his YouTube videos. But his personal success and his crypto expertise doesn’t really stack up — he’s also encouraged his viewers and followers to make all kinds of bad investments, and has been criticised for promoting coins that have gone on to crash.

One columnist for Coin Desk called him “all that is cringe about crypto.” 

At the market’s peak, he had about $40 million worth of crypto. But the assets technically belonged to the company he owned. It’s how he lost his silver Lamborghini in September 2023, which seems to be a trigger point for his meltdown. He had to sign over his car to one of his investors, who sold it to recoup funds. BitBoy had a meltdown in court over the incident. 

He’s been exposed in public multiple times — his extramarital affair with another crypto influencer, Cassandra Wolfe (also known as the Duchess of DeFi) was also announced on a livestream. 

In October 2023, his wife filed for divorce. 

In December 2023, BitBoy tried to make a comeback, and even announced his participation in an upcoming “influencer fight club” — a crypto-themed boxing event — in February 2024. Finally, just last week, he announced that he was ending his daily crypto live show. “We’ve got lawyers coming at me from every angle,” he said in an emotional video announcing his departure from YouTube. 

What sets BitBoy apart is that he’s an influencer and content creator, and not a market player like other embattled crypto names like Sam Bankman-Fried, also known as SBF, who also experienced a meteoric fall from grace in 2023. 

Good vs bad influencers 

In India, the space for crypto influencers is even more undefined. 

Finfluencers in India provide everything from financial advice to educating their viewers about the stock market. And according to ASCI guidelines, must disclose their affiliations and certifications.

But since crypto is highly decentralised, everyone is a self-appointed expert and can technically say whatever they want — which is why many industry players are waiting for public policy to catch up and introduce legislation that can regulate the crypto market. 

“Crypto by genesis is highly decentralised and not regulated. And now, as states around the world try to do it, their priority is consumer protection — and to ensure that this technology is not a threat to the state,” said crypto influencer Kashif Raza. 

Raza points to the various kinds of content creators talking about crypto on social media. There are those who provide good, responsible advice, as well as those who simply created educational content on the subject. There are also those who encourage “pump and dump” schemes — which involves hyping up a cryptocurrency coin or the price of a stock and then selling it at an inflated value — and “shillers”, who artificially inflate the price of a coin by encouraging others to buy. 

“BitBoy is the perfect example of why this industry needs some kind of guideline for consumer protection,” said Raza, adding that he was a shiller — only a few of his calls did well because he was involved in pump and dump schemes.  

“When information is decentralised, how do you regulate it? The problem is not the influencer, they’ll exist anyway,” said Raza. “The problem is the lack of a regulator.”

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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