The rise of the influencer class has been nothing short of meteoric across nearly every social media platform and has found particular favor among the new, media-savvy, wealthy elite. Unfortunately, the new wealthy elite appears to be exactly the same as the old wealthy elite, as illustrated by its increased willingness to litigate against critics.
The influencer class in crypto
While there are hundreds of new influencers in the cryptocurrency industry, few have slimed their way into the mainstream consciousness like Ben Armstrong (or BitBoy Crypto on most social media) and Ran Neuner.
The two combined have millions of YouTube subscribers, over a million Twitter followers, and about half a million Instagram followers, meaning they leave a pretty large footprint when it comes to investments they suggest, lampoon, or otherwise give advice about. This massive following also provides them the capital and time they need to come after anyone who decides to investigate their respective histories.
Ben’s story is one of redemption: an admitted meth addict turned minister and rehabilitation center executive finds a home in DeFi, giving cryptocurrency trading advice starting in 2018. He hasn’t looked back since.
When asked by the Washington Post about his ascension to “crypto influencer” status (this is the actual job title he lists on LinkedIn) — with over a million subscribers on YouTube and nearly 2.7 million followers on TikTok before his account was permanently banned in February of 2022 — Ben casually remarked that he “is authentic… the same person on-camera as off-camera.”
But after bringing (and subsequently dropping) a lawsuit against well-known YouTuber Atozy for speaking ill of his videos (where he often makes recommendations but is careful to end and begin every video with the blanket disclaimer of “not financial advice”) the authentic persona seems to be fading away.
Ran Neuner is an influencer, an entrepreneur, a CEO, a founder, and an investor — though you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody outside of cryptocurrency Twitter who knows it. Now an independent media personality, Ran, who has long called Johannesburg, South Africa, home, was once featured on a CNBC Africa segment called Crypto Trader, but currently distributes content under his YouTube channel Crypto Banter.
Ran got his start in marketing. In fact, he claims to have founded and operated the “largest marketing firm” on the African continent for years until selling “The Creative Counsel” to Publicis Groupe for millions.
At this point, Ran delved into cryptocurrencies — according to him by reaching out to “friends like Brock Pierce” and others — and started his fund called “OnChain Capital.” That’s when the dramatic growth began.
Ran’s YouTube and Twitter presence is indeed quite large: he has ~580,000 subscribers and ~630,000 followers, respectively. This is to suggest that there are plenty of people listening to his trading advice and accepting that he is, perhaps, an expert in the field of cryptocurrency.
But as Ran’s fame and wealth have grown, so has the scrutiny of his trading activities and public endorsements for projects. Recently, as rumors of pumping and dumping and paid endorsements have surfaced relating to his funds and personal wallets, Ran has been sending out cease and desist letters along with veiled threats of doxxing (a term used to describe unmasking anonymous individuals online) to critics and whistleblowers on Twitter.
Problem meets solution
While many crypto advocates and influencers like to speak about how decentralized cryptocurrencies are disrupting every industry and preventing government overreach, many of these same individuals will readily turn to the government to silence critics.
Indeed, Armstrong has supposedly sent out cease and desist orders and lawsuit threats to numerous people — the exact number we can’t confirm, but during a live stream he claimed, “I’ve had another lawsuit, it was behind closed doors, and it worked out great.” This suggests that Ben:
1. Regularly uses strategic lawsuits to silence anyone speaking ill of his work.
2. Has successfully used this tactic repeatedly to have videos and podcasts deleted that were causing issues for his channel and persona.
Meanwhile, Ran sent out what would be a funny letter if not for the fact that it directly threatened legal action against FatManTerra, an anonymous figure on Twitter who’s been religiously following the Luna/Terra debacle. The letter opens, “Attention Fat Man.”
And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that Ran has threatened to name the face behind the Twitter account ZachXBT — the most prolific and important sleuth in the crypto industry. The reason? Zach has shown proof of Ran purchasing, giving airtime to, and then almost instantly selling stakes in numerous cryptocurrency projects — a concept that’s called pumping and dumping under any other guise.
“They invest in the worst projects, sh**ty VCs, and get a huge (equity) allocation,” Zach said, referring to the likes of Ran, BitBoy, and others. “After a year and a half of chasing (these influencers) I’m feeling frustrated, but what can you do? They’re misleading their audiences and I hope it catches up to them from a legal standpoint.”
Unfortunately, Zach and other critics and sleuths can’t just hope for repercussions for the influencers. When asked about the consistent tweets suggesting that Ran will unmask him Zach simply said, “Yeah, it feels like a threat,” (our emphasis).
Not long after this, Zach openly discussed the issues surrounding being an anonymous lone wolf cryptocurrency sleuth, with problems ranging from hostility and legal threats to workload and entitled victims:
How critics can fight back
It’s paramount that critics and sleuths, whether they’re anonymous, pseudo-anonymous, or not anonymous at all, understand their rights. Depending on where you live, you can and should be protected in any number of ways.
First, it’s important to know one’s rights before speaking out. Unfortunately, jurisdiction plays an important role when it comes to one’s ability to be prosecuted for libel or slander. For instance, England has far less forgiving definitions of libel and slander than the United States, but even in the US, which state you reside in plays a significant factor in the ability of a crypto influencer to bring lawsuits.
If you do reside in the US, many states, such as California and Texas, provide very strong anti-SLAPP (anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) protections, ensuring that if someone does file a lawsuit against a critic for protected speech the plaintiff will, likely, have to pay for legal fees (and possibly more).
Secondly, if someone has either sent you a cease and desist or threat of a lawsuit that you feel is unjust, immediately seek out the help of a lawyer. They will, hopefully, be able to either give you a proper estimate on what it would look like to fight or guide you to another lawyer that can provide assistance.
Lastly, if you decide to make a public criticism or voice a concern, are then served with a lawsuit, and decide you want to fight it, it could be a good idea to speak up. “If this would have been public, I wouldn’t have done it,” said Ben Armstrong in a YouTube video announcing that he was dropping his lawsuit against Atozy. The backlash from publicizing a lawsuit seen by everyone as an attempt to silence a critic helped quash the threat before it could take off.
Know thy enemy
Since many fintech and cryptocurrency influencers are keen to categorize criticism or even just insults as brazen attacks on their brand, it’s necessary to understand what to expect when loudly exposing a serious financial malfeasance or questioning assurances. The influencers do not accept the criticisms or exposés as lessons to learn from or suggestions to be constructive, they merely see them as risks that need to be mitigated, and often the easiest method is to silence individuals with litigation intimidation tactics.
There is no surefire way to protect against influencers filing flagrant lawsuits against valid criticisms, but the best offense is a good defense — know the inherent risks involved and be prepared for the worst.
Our team has reached out to Ran and Ben with questions and will update this piece if we hear back.