Where ignorance fears to tread.
19 November 2017 14:19 (South Africa)
Opinionista Wessel van Rensburg

Bitcoin: Journalistic standards and the outing of Satoshi Nakamoto

  • Wessel van Rensburg
    Wessel-van-Rensburg.jpg
    Wessel van Rensburg

    Wessel van Rensburg is a media voyeur and tech fetishist. He lives in Hackney, London, where he runs a social & digital media lab. Trained as a lawyer at Tukkies, Wessel was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Investigation Unit.

The outing - or not - of Dorian Nakamoto as the founder of the Bitcoin crypto currency has, yet again, got people asking tough questions about journalism. Net visionary, Marc Andreessen, has gone so far as to tweet that the entire saga is proof of why journalists command less respect than ever before.

To a rising tide of criticism that an individual’s privacy was grossly violated, journalists have clung to the public interest defence in revealing the apparent identity of Satoshi Nakamoto. Not all, though. The ever-thoughtful Anil Dash averred that after doing the laudable work of journalism and judging from the facts at hand, the story should not have been published.

The evidence, he said, simply did not make a compelling enough case. Others like Felix Salmon preferred a half-way option: Newsweek  - on available evidence  -  that Dorian Nakamoto denied he was Satoshi Nakamoto - should not have published as a certainty Nakomoto’s identity, but rather put the story out as a theory and let the public decide.

But is publishing the identity of the founder of Bitcoin in the public interest? Bitcoin certainly is a remarkable technology and it, and its derivatives, have no doubt already shaped the world we live in. Couple this with the ideology of crypto-anarchism Bitcoin was conceived in  -  a belief system that inspires many of its zealots - and you have a potent brew.

As such, Bitcoin is a social-technical phenomenon and a powerful force. The creative genius behind it, his motivations and his outlook on life, is not only of passing curiosity value, but is fundamentally in the public interest.

The issue, however - whether the Newsweek article should have been published - is not settled even if publishing the story is in the public interest. The question should still be dependent on another question: Whether this indeed was, or at least is, likely to be Santoshi?

Dash claims quite rightly that the journalist was right to investigate, as how else would he or she have known either way?

But, implies Dash, the editor erred when presented with the inconclusive evidence and made the decision to go ahead and publish. To my mind he, rather than Felix Salmon, is correct. There were too many serious doubts to publish, full stop. Even publishing with a disclaimer would not have been just.

But I would disagree with Dash that the journalist could absolve him- or herself from the decision to pull the publishing trigger. In today’s media landscape, a journalist can be anyone. Or as Jay Rosen says, everybody can “commit journalistic acts”. Now, more than ever, a journalist does not need Newsweek  -  or even a publisher - to publish. Conversely, not all of us who commit acts of journalism have editors.

The link between journalistic acts and institutions like Newsweek are increasingly tenuous. Are we saying that journalists who are lucky enough to have editors have less of a responsibility than those who do not?

Or, to put it another way, does being a part of a journalistic institution absolve people committing journalism from decisions of whether to publish or not? If this were true, then we’d have the strange situation where professional journalists were held to a lower standard than amateur bloggers. And that would be quite the opposite of what society demands in other fields. DM

  • Wessel van Rensburg
    Wessel-van-Rensburg.jpg
    Wessel van Rensburg

    Wessel van Rensburg is a media voyeur and tech fetishist. He lives in Hackney, London, where he runs a social & digital media lab. Trained as a lawyer at Tukkies, Wessel was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Investigation Unit.

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