Ana Romero-Vicente, Researcher at EU DisinfoLab
- The study tackles a dozen disinformation websites to explore a fairly under-researched phenomenon on the rise in wake of the pandemic: requesting donations from readers in the form of cryptocurrencies.
- While it is virtually impossible to know the amounts collected by these sites through bank transfers or via PayPal, our analysis managed to track the sums of money raised in Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, Litecoin, Dash, and Cardano.
- The “crypto-donations” raised range from a few euros to thousands and hundreds of thousands of euros, and up to two million euros in one exceptional case. The present investigation merely wishes to identify a new possible way to monetise disinformation. Our goal is not to question the cryptocurrency system per se, but to highlight a potential trend for future monitoring.
There are hundreds of websites dedicated to producing and spreading false and misleading content. The establishment, maintenance, and survival of these disinformative websites is usually based on automated advertising or financial support from their readers. Personal contributions can be requested through classic bank transfers or via PayPal and membership platforms such as Patreon. Donation requests through cryptocurrencies are increasingly common and successful ways to raise money.
We identified and analysed more than a dozen junk sites (i.e., websites that regularly publish disinformative and clickbait content) from various countries asking for donations in the form of digital currencies. While there is no record of the funds these sites have been collecting through regular bank transfers or PayPal, EU DisinfoLab has listed the donations they have received in cryptocurrencies in recent years.
From the following analysis, one could be tempted to jump on the idea that crypto-funding represents an alternative method for malicious actors to harvest money. However, as the sample is limited and randomly selected, our goal is simply to explore a relatively new phenomenon and examine its potential to become a mainstream method for monetising disinformation.
To narrow the scope of the investigation, we have focused on transactions made with 6 types of cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin (BTC), Bitcoin Cash (BCH), Ethereum (ETH), Cardano (ADA), Litecoin (LTC), and Dash.
The information reported in this study provides the total amount of cryptocurrencies received by the junk sites through their current crypto addresses. Almost all the donations were received in the last two years, with a few exceptions. During the elaboration of this report, the crypto values of each transaction have been directly aggregated, with no currency conversions during the process. This was done to mitigate the high volatility inherent to cryptocurrencies. Finally, the total amount has been converted to Euros, using the corresponding exchange rate as of April 4, 2022, in order to better illustrate the purchasing power of those donations.
The misuse and abuse of an asset
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency to emerge in 2009, but as of 2022 there are nearly over 10,000 different cryptocurrencies. Governed by blockchain technology, the security, immediacy, and anonymity of the transactions are only some of their advantages. This is precisely what allows cryptocurrencies to be used for basically a variety of transactions, including funding disinformation. Regardless of the legality, junk websites do not hold up to ethical or journalistic standards. Motivations to disinform are many, ranging from political to purely financial goals, exploiting sensitive periods like elections or international crises to sow distrust, unleash disorder, confuse, or manipulate readers.
Notwithstanding limited website traffic, the strong point of junk sites is usually storytelling, with content that can become highly viral on social networks. Their power lies in the fact that readers believe these publications to the point of contributing monetarily to support ‘the cause’. Despite the variety of purposes and niches, what these outlets have in common is a conspiracy stance, the promise to provide users with the alternative information mainstream media holds back.
Choosing cryptocurrencies to monetise disinformation
We have identified 17 junk outlets from several European countries and the US requesting donations via cryptocurrencies, which highlights the transnational nature of this phenomenon. These are: El Investigador; The Mirror Project; Mente Alternativa; SOTT – Signs of the Times; Report24; KaiserTV; KenFM/Apolut; Michael Mannheimer; MMnews; OVALmedia; The Exposé; Evolve Politics; Database Italia; Salto Quantico; Byoblu; Médicos Por La Verdad and also the anti-vaccine organisation Children’s Health Defense.
Possible motivations for the selected disinformative websites to make use of this type of transaction are:
- Confidentiality and anonymity
For instance, Spanish junk site ElInvestigador.org is an extremely active spreader of pandemic denialist messages and anti-vax narratives, being the one to subtitle and broadcast The Big Reset conspiracy documentary in Spain.
Its donation page reads: “As we decided to keep our anonymity, we only accept cryptocurrencies at the moment.”
Figure 1. ElInvestigador.org donation page
Since 2021, this Spanish site has collected donations worth 0.14 BTC and 0.06490196 ETH. The current value of these cryptocurrencies’ total amount is 6,058€.
2. Anti-system mindset
As cryptocurrencies are popularly perceived as alternative currencies, asking for donations through them reinforces the fringe and non-conformist image that junk sites wish to convey. The unconventional and even trendy appeal of cryptocurrency reinforces the in-group identity of followers, fighting the system that includes mainstream information.
The disinformer Angel Primal wrote an article, where he claims that “we are moving towards a cashless society” and that the majority of payments are being processed by a small group of payment system providers who have the right to deny their services to companies they see fit. “Valuing the decentralised crypto alternative is vital. The lack of alternatives to financial oligopolies would mean accepting to be enslaved by the system”, he explains in the publication.
3. Fighting perceived censorship
Some junk sites claim to have been forced into cryptocurrency financing when third-party payment services have stopped collaborating with them due to violations of terms and conditions. This feeds into the belief that they are not only being de-platformed from social media but also prevented from accessing mainstream forms of financing that can ensure their survival.
The Mirror Project, based in the UK and known for its videos and publications against Covid-19 vaccines and health measures, states that donating cryptocurrency is “literally the only way left, we’ve been shut down by PayPal, Square, Stripe, and Patreon.” The page stopped working mid-April, during the preparation of this study.
Figure 2. The Mirror Project donation page.
The outlet started collecting cryptocurrencies in January 2021 and by the time of our writing, this junk site had collected donations worth 0.03677949 BTC; 0.638338795 ETH; 10.00 ADA. The current value of these cryptocurrencies is 3,562 Euros.
Another junk site, KenFM, which now redirects users to the Apolut page after getting in trouble with German authorities, announced last year that “public campaigns against us are increasing and showing effect. The most recent consequence is that crowdfunding service Patreon closed our account”. The outlet was established by Ken Jebsen, known for his anti-Semitic messages and conspiracy theories about 9/11.
In the abovementioned article, KenFM asks for readers’ contributions through various methods, one of which is a cryptocurrency address. This German junk media started collecting cryptocurrencies three years ago and has collected donations worth 5.1047 BTC, with an equivalent value of 213,431 Euros.
Figure 3. Screenshot of a KenFM/Apolut publication
The case studies at a glance
The tables below show an overview of the cryptocurrencies collected by the selected junk sites and the amounts converted to Euros, as explained in the methodology. We then provide a brief description of the disinformative activities carried out by the sites.
|Sott – Signs of the times||0.0322||0.4591||12.7713||–||–||–|
|Médicos Por La Verdad||0.2080||–||0.0457||5,044.1368||–||–|
|The Mirror Project||0.0368||–||0.6383||10.0000||–||–|
|Total per cryptocurrency||9.6957||164.3472||15.7373||107,229.5560||319.1208||16,243.5830|
|Website||BTC (€)||BCH (€)||ETH (€)||ADA (€)||DASH (€)||LTC (€)||Total (€)|
|Sott – Signs of the times||1,346€||156€||40,295€||–||–||–||41,797€|
|Médicos Por La Verdad||8,693€||–||144€||5,549€||–||–||14,385€|
|The Mirror Project||1,538€||–||2,013€||11€||–||–||3,562€|
Italian fact-checkers blacklisted the outlet due to its conspiracy theories (e.g. the New World Order, chemtrails, aliens, etc.) and for spreading medical and anti-science disinformation.
Currently, the website informs that it is undergoing renovations and adds that: “if you want to support the creation of the new and updated version of the Salto Quantico, you can make a free donation.” Users are redirected to the donation page of disinformer Daniele Penna, which allows donations via PayPal, credit or debit cards, and up to 21 cryptocurrencies.
Behind the group is a Berlin video production service provider that has repeatedly spread conspiracy theories, according to Tagesspiegel reports. Among other things, OVALmedia accused the federal government of “pure vaccination propaganda” and streamed the sessions held by the “Corona-Ausschuss” (Corona Committee), a Covid-19 denialist group founded by Reiner Fuellmich and Viviane Fischer. In view of the 2021 elections, the outlet (whose content is available in 5 languages) made a film for “Die Basis”, the party created by the Querdenker movement, with which Fuellmich ran for chancellor.
As per its bio, the media is an “Independent unbiased alternative news site providing independent journalism”, which offers ad hoc content in 12 different languages. SOTT is considered a powerful conspiracy and pseudoscientific website belonging to the U.S. religious movement Quantum Future Group, founded by American conspiracy theorist Laura Knight-Jadczyk.
The website disinforms on health issues with unreliable sources and focuses mainly on conspiracy theories on the JFK assassination, 9/11, and aliens. Moreover, it spread false information about the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the pandemic, while also taking an open stance against fact-checking.
Figure 4. Screenshot of the Sott website
They ask their readers for funding in various ways: PayPal, Stripe, AmazonSmile or by selling T-shirts on Revolt with slogans like “Fact-checkers – Thought police”. In addition, they also ask for donations in cryptocurrencies in 7 types of assets.
The outlet is managed by Gunnar Kaiser, known for his criticism of Covid-19 containment measures, and indulging in conspiracy theories such as The Great Reset. As a climate change denier, Kaiser is linked to the EIKE platform, which rejects the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans. In June 2021, YouTube expelled Kaiser from its partner program without notice, thereby cutting off KaiserTV’s primary source of revenue.
Médicos por la verdad (translated as “Doctors for the truth”)
It is an international organization that was born in Germany, was strengthened in Spain and expanded throughout Latin America. This Spanish-language website spread falsehoods ranging from promoting false cures, calling not to wear masks, and even denying the pandemic.
This Italian junk site founded by Claudio Messora has been often fact-checked and blacklisted by local verifiers for its clickbait, biased, and deceiving content. It has been banned by platforms such as YouTube or Google AdSense to limit its monetisation and dissemination.
The pandemic has exacerbated ByoBlu’s paranoid tone, although “already in 2017, this website was conspiring on an alleged obscurantist manoeuvre orchestrated by Hillary Clinton, by the European Parliament, by Laura Boldrini and Angela Merkel”.
The channel makes an extensive request for help from its visitors by appealing for a “citizen’s TV”. The outlet is currently asking people for financial support, also in cryptocurrencies, in order to send a reporter to Ukraine to cover the war, so “to tell what other news programs cannot or will not describe”.
The founder of this German junk site is conspiracy believer Michael Mross, a German author, journalist, moderator, and documentary filmmaker.
This Austrian junk site has regularly spread false information about Covid-19 measures, vaccines, and masks. Correctiv debunked Report24’s claims that German school brochure recommended the use of electroshock against heterosexuals.
This German junk site that promotes hate speech and xenophobic content was founded by professor and self-claimed journalist Karl-Michael Merkle, known for his Islamophobe stances.
For the sake of completeness, we mention that a few other junk outlets that requested donations through cryptocurrencies did not receive any money to our knowledge (Mente alternativa or Evolve Politics), or collected very marginal amounts (Database Italia). Other disinformation outlets such as the anti-vaccine organisation Children’s Health Defence or The Exposé are not traceable because they use the platform Coinbase Commerce System.
- This study wishes to stimulate the debate on crypto-funding to support disinformation.
- Our findings suggest that crypto-funding is becoming an alternative way for malicious actors to get funds, at least partially.
- Most of the operations were carried out in the last two years; the outbreak of the pandemic has become the primary disinformation trigger for these junk sites.
- Although the limited number of cases presented does not allow us to draw general conclusions about whether cryptocurrencies are a viable way to finance disinformation, we do believe that this topic calls for attention.
- As international events create more and more polarisation, this alternative method to finance “alternative information” is likely to increase.
 Some of the cryptocurrencies are in fact tokens making use of existing blockchain.