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TV review: Panorama: Downfall of the Crypto King, and The TikTok Effect

06 October 2023


Panorama: Downfall of the Crypto King (BBC1, Monday of last week) plotted the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried

Panorama: Downfall of the Crypto King (BBC1, Monday of last week) plotted the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried

DO YOU get much Bitcoin in your collection nowadays? Unexpectedly gripping, Panorama: Downfall of the Crypto King (BBC1, Monday of last week) almost made me understand what crypto currency actually was; and, second, confirmed all my prejudice about not touching it with a bargepole.

It plotted the meteoric rise and ignominious collapse of the man who was the world’s youngest billionaire, Sam Bankman-Fried (Press, 18 November 2022, Radio, 23 June). He managed to lose more money more quickly than anyone in the history of the world: in the first two weeks of November 2022, his company went from being worth $40 billion to being worth nothing. A geeky maths genius, he developed a crypto-currency system that apparently enabled you to make a fortune while doing more or less nothing. Even above his financial acumen, he appealed to the Zeitgeist: he was a vegan who refused the trappings of hyper-wealth and still lived a student-frat life, all beanbags and pizza, in a penthouse commune, together with his equally youthful maths-genius co-directors.

Even better, he insisted that his whole purpose was to make the world a better place, and that he would give away his entire fortune to international charities, thereby building a party guest list that included Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But it dissolved into airy nothing; it seems that, for all crypto currency’s wonders, you have to have somewhere, back along the chain, real, actual money with which you can buy bread at the Co-op.

Stern moralities were finally awakened; the recognised financial journals had refused to listen to investigative alarm bells because they wanted to believe in him: he fulfilled their longings for an amazing way to become stinking rich, ethically justified by his charitable aims. They bought into an act of collective faith, impervious to hard reason until the hollowness actually hit them.

Let no one deceive you that faith is the preserve merely of religion: without God, it’s all over the place. And, meanwhile, this débâcle has actually ruined real people: £1.7 billion of customers’ money is still missing. But is Mr Bankman-Fried a criminal mastermind, or simply a genius-level incompetent? The jury’s still out.

The TikTok Effect (BBC3, 21 September) explored a not unrelated phenomenon. Originally a worldwide way in which to share whacky dance routines, it is now a serious social, even criminal, menace. Its managing algorithms deliberately promote users’ addictions and give preference to extreme content, the more sensational the better, constantly reinforcing prejudices. Really successful “creators” are paid, thereby incentivising supercharged emotion over factual evidence, leading to “frenzies” of threatening behaviour, or worse.

Self-appointed “detectives”, flinging unwarranted accusations of guilt and suspicion, now undermine the proper police investigation of murders and missing persons; recently, the platform has fomented riots in schools, along Oxford Street, and in France. Essentially unregulated, it encourages terrifying levels of personal unaccountability, dissolving all responsibility for the effects of your words and deeds.

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