Protected: Inside the DeFi Mafia

The explosion of Decentralised Finance (as the cryptocurrency sector now brands itself), is often attributed to blockchain technology. But the developments which truly deserve acclaim lie in modern Public Relations.

When an old Brussels colleague called with an offer to join his business I packed for the East, where his offices burgeoned across the third storey of an entire city block.

The centrepiece of our operations was a stamp book the size of a Gutenburg Bible which contained nothing but colourful slips of paper, each with a telephone number, folded around a SIM card. Row on row of political science graduates sat like Greek galley slaves, unwrapping the cards, inserting them into telephones and maxing-out each number’s 24-hour potential for registering social media accounts, and folding them back for next time. The accounts were then given something of an individual personality by secretaries who had elevated instagramming to the level of a profession, before being connected to the company’s computer nexus. For big clients, we could pull together with similar operations to command tens of thousands of online mouthpieces to speak with one voice as required. This pretence of mass engagement was sufficient to trip computer (and human) algorithms, sending the brand, policy or fad du jour mainstream. Once real people were flocking, we’d hire a few billboards, celebrity influencers or ‘experts’ to set the tone of the party.

This is an incredibly effective method of shifting the weight of public consensus, especially in culturally divided societies where people turn to the mainstream to check their own normalcy. 

Most of our targets were within the anglophone world. Most of our clients were not. However, with no upcoming elections here or anywhere else, my friend desperately needed to supplement his usual sources of funding.

The concept of pumping or dumping a brand is familiar: the previous month, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo had replaced his Diet Coke with a bottle of water on camera and the Coca Cola company’s value plummeted $4bn. We avoided product brands for fear our streamlined operations would be frustrated by consumer protection laws. Extra-jurisdictional sales of nothing, on the other hand, were so naturally suited to our technique that I find it impossible to say whether we were driving DeFi or they us.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs had exploded during the lockdowns. The sector was now said to be  worth about $100bn. What kept us ahead in the game (and possibly out of gaol), was that the embattled government were so determined to keep reins on the boom that they granted us a free hand in lieu of regulation. The friendly ministry where we drank coffee was that which handled prosecutions, not finance. Our agreements were tacit and, having plausible deniability, compounded an atmosphere of paranoia back in the office. Questions were best not asked about whether something was legal or not, or whether we had some kind of exemption and who was privy to that exemption, or why X was allowed to know but not Y, and which conscientious secretaries had to be out of the room before you could discuss Z. Nevertheless, the mere suggestion that my friend was afforded ministerial forbearance seemed to attract a certain species of client and, as the weeks wore on, I began to wonder if any — even one — of the DeFi ventures we dealt with was straight.

My favourite character was Vlad.  Vlad was a thickset, tattooed, lathe operator who had bullied a city council to nominate him their crypto-guru (civic authority remains the most valuable coin of the DeFi realm, after hard cash). A bachelor who wore a wedding ring to gain the confidence of business associates and the women he seduced, Vlad came to us representing a nameless client in Singapore whose racket was particularly close to my own heart: smuggling fortunes out of Communist China. 

Formerly, CCP cadres would fly to Macau to lose a suitcase of renminbi in a casino, then fly to Las Vegas to win it back in dollars through an associated casino (this ratline briefly contributed to a Chinese property boom in the Nevada desert). Bitcoin somewhat democratised the process by cutting out the need for casinos as the middle-man. When the CCP started cracking down on Bitcoin, online casinos exploded, all of them offering their own tokens which could be bought and soldby mobile phone from within Mainland China.

Vlad would appear with a duffel bag of cash wages he collected from a middle-man in Dubai, and our office would work tirelessly on building up one such online platform — identical in form to a dozen others. The same droning pidgin mission statements and usage instructions cropped up successively as each site vied against the next for the prominence of its own token. When our own lazy reuse of an existing form accidentally left the name of a rival peppered throughout the blurb, the howler sat on the webpage for a week without anyone noticing. It occurred to me that, although we were  notionally in competition with the others, we could well be working for the same top level client. Somewhere on the other side of the planet, other Machiavellian forces might also be promoting DeFi as a path to freedom while carefully holding all the undesirables in one pen. Who was our nameless benefactor? What if (to assume our own formula), they were in cahoots with the CCP? How might that compromise Vlad — or us — in the public sphere? 

A man of more cunning than intelligence (‘Who can I pay to get my nephew into Eton?’ ‘Can you get me an invitation to the Vienna Opernball?’), I’m convinced that Vlad was clueless about our business’ underlying purpose and was enthused by online gambling for its own sake. Perhaps my own experiences in China had made me paranoid? People who get themselves into this kind of situation often have a great capacity to project their well founded anxiety onto outlandish theories. Vlad’s great preoccupation was that Mossad were spying on him with a view to usurping his clients. All I can be certain of is that, through our scheme, an anonymous Far Eastern money source found representation, through Vlad and us, in European civic circles which were able to negotiate compromises with their own national values.

Half our senior staff comprised the wastrel children of Nomenklatura. Were they a human shield? We would occasionally discuss the inner workings of the business in hushed voices on vertiginous balconies while plain-clothed police prowled the pavement below (the only run-in I had with the spooks was when I mistook them for my uber. Shouting across the language barrier, I urged them to the address of a client while they tried to eject me from their car). But it was seldom worth raising taboo questions in the office. To quote Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’ Anyway, my doubts about our ethos were hardly assuaged even when we did manage to cash out legally.

Lesser blockchain tokens typically exist in a near vacuum; you can only sell them if you have attracted enough hard-currency customers to buy them. The challenge, then, is to kick-start a false economy denominated in that token to attract subscribers who provide the ‘liquidity’ needed for the client to cash out.

This can be achieved by the ostentatious sale of something that is obviously worthless for as much money as possible. 

It is sometimes posited that the CIA targeted Abstract Expressionism with funding in order to displace Socialist Realism in the international markets. Whether this is true or not, the Modern Art world certainly comes equipped with all the speculators, academic punditry and PR that a fake economy needs to distort valuations.

Tracy Emin’s “Unmade Bed” was purchased for £150,000 by Saatchi and Saatchi and later resold for £2.5m at Christies. But even this proto-NFT was nothing compared to “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”; a montage of online photos listed on the Etherium blockchain and bought — again at Christies — for $69.3m. Few seem to question whether issuer (‘artist’ is too strong a word), buyer and exchange are in cahoots where the ‘art’ has contact with regulated money. This creates the illusion of a hugely lucrative cash market centred — for our purposes — on a platform with a small subscription fee.

At least, such was the thinking of one of our larger clients who had persuaded a social media star to sell an NFT for several hundred thousand US dollars on their platform. I won’t identify her or the NFT she sold but it shone, in its laconic ignobility, as a beacon of the platform’s ability to parse off values in order of magnitude lower even than Saatchi and Saatchi and Christies of London.

On the back of this contrived sale, we promised (and delivered), an international media storm. What we had created was a honey trap designed to ensnare not men but other girls who wanted to make themselves into a honey trap – a brilliant commercial strategy when you consider the validation of celebrity sought by young instagrammers. But I realised that something was missing from our credibility in in the client’s boardroom: the question of who had bought this NFT in the first place?

Did our client expect us to assume that some eccentric private collector had just blown a fortune on an NFT gimmick out of sheer artistic ennui? As the author of our press releases, my pride was sufficiently hurt for me to break the fourth wall.

‘We can give the newspapers a bit of the buyer’s backstory without mentioning any of you by name, of course.’ The CEO and chief accountant exchanged glances. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve been refining this scam for years in London, Paris and Dubai,’ I lied. ‘It’s an old trick but it still works – with the right PR of course.’ I gesticulated back to my friend. ‘We won’t mention our company’s name either – not least because we don’t have one.’

Laugher spread in mounting waves befitting of SPECTRE’s lair. 

Over the following weeks, Champagne flowed as thousands of daft teenage girls paid a few dollars each to buy some of the platform’s tokens and, hopeful of similarly lucrative sales, started to list their own NFTs while our hashtags were still trending.

But I was growing tired of the fake philosophies and false-flag advertising that we churned out. So far as I could see, nothing that we did could have any lasting positive impact or legacy. Yes we were creating jobs but, every day, I thanked God that my friend and I had avoided being publicly associated with our projects.

This wasn’t who we were. We hated cronyism and credentialism. We met as teenagers, both fleeing to politics in avoidance of second-best universities. A decade later, here we were paying academic art connoisseurs to vindicate scams with their philosophical ramblings as we created, under state protection, the illusion of democratising financial hierarchies. What was more, once we’d paid everyone’s wages, accounted for the launch parties, cocaine and hush money, we were hardly even turning a profit for ourselves. 

I was summoning the courage to say that I’d quit this nonsense without a wage when my eye fell on a news piece announcing that the former UK chancellor Gideon (‘George’) Osborne had launched his own blockchain. Something in me flipped. 

Even in petty crime there exists a hierarchy of honour. I wouldn’t have minded if Osborne’s hustle had displayed half our own nerve and ingenuity but entering the ring with nothing but the gravitas of a former UK political office in an attempt to lord it over the blatant — though not unexpected — pornocracies of East Europe, was just obscene.

Heading back to the rows of desks, overflowing ashtrays, blinking lights and desperate crooks, I finally felt buoyed by the people who were clinging to this niche. For as long as DeFi has a pulse, this is where its beating heart of zero belongs. DeFi’s road is long from here to London, Frankfurt and Wall Street. Many people must give way, be shaped or moved in the bandwagon’s journey back to tangible, regulated, values.

A few weeks later, I took my wage in wads of physically dirty banknotes which, in a flurry of passport checks, carbon paper and official forms, I managed to exchange for about two-thirds of their value in Euros. 

After flights, hotels, caviar and Claret I had just about broken even, which I reckon is more than can be said for most people who dabble in crypto. 

I wish readers the very best in bucking the trend.