Inside the World of the Paid Crypto Shills

Ashley Duncan has worked as a business analyst at a software firm and as a realtor, and even did a bit of time in banking, but she’s never come close to loving a job as much as her newest one: She’s a full-time online crypto promoter. “I get to tweet and talk to people for a living. Who gets to do that?” Duncan told Motherboard. 

Duncan, who is 30 and lives in Texas, became active in the energetic cryptocurrency community on Twitter early last year, when she quickly started to grow her follower count through a combination of memes and jokes. She soon figured out she could monetize her following by promoting crypto projects to her growing audience, and by October she was making enough money to quit her full-time job. Today, Duncan says she’s earning more than she’s ever made in her life, pulling in more in two months than she used to make in an entire year by creating NFT projects, performing occasional consulting work, and pumping crypto. 

“It’s crazy,” she said. 

One of the companies Duncan has worked with is Dank Bank, a startup that recently raised $4 million to develop an NFT marketplace dedicated to famous memes and viral moments. Harry Jones, the founder and CEO of Dank Bank, told Motherboard that he’s spent money on crypto promoters like Duncan because “traditional advertising just doesn’t work in crypto,” as the community isn’t “interested in buying things because they saw a paid ad.” Instead, he said, potential customers are looking for advice from online influencers they already trust. 

“That’s why influencers are having this insane moment in Web3, because all of these projects need people to sort of buy authenticity from,” Jones said.

Duncan is just one of hundreds of people recently named on lists of purported paid crypto promoters first leaked to the pseudonymous independent crypto investigator “Zachxbt.”  Motherboard investigated those lists and discovered a great deal about the inner workings of the thriving underworld of the online (and occasionally secretive) crypto promotion market. 

Compared to the carefully-lawyered crypto ads that dominated this year’s Super Bowl, the messy online world of crypto promotion is international in scope but hastily slapped together, filled with earnest boosters and cynical money-grabbers alike, largely wary of outside attention and at times ignorant of, or disregarding, U.S. laws. 

Recording artists have turned to hawking projects for pay; former NGO workers now spend their day coordinating crypto deals; and a growing number of people, pseudonymous or not, have otherwise figured out how to make a career out of pushing out videos, memes, and tweets promoting crypto projects for money.

Motherboard reached out to approximately 200 influencers for this story. Most ignored us, said they weren’t interested, turned us down once they learned that we do not pay sources, or cut off communication when asked specific questions about their work. But roughly a dozen in and around the industry were willing to speak about their burgeoning industry, which has provided them with economic opportunity while also proving prone to scams and deceit. 

Do you work in the world of crypto promotion? Are you someone who’s invested due to what an influencer had to say? We’d love to talk to you. From a non-work device, contact our reporter at maxwell.strachan@vice.com or via Signal at 310-614-3752 for extra security.

The hodgepodge crypto promotion market is far from monolithic. Some participants say they prefer to work directly with crypto projects while others go through intermediaries. Some get paid per post, others take a contract or even a salary. Some are happy to pump crypto for pay full-time while others say they do it to make a little money on the side. 

A not-insignificant percentage of the work seems automated. Numerous promoters responded to our inquiries within seconds, telling us to type “promo” or “rates” to view their price list. What exactly they were offering was confusing, even after they clarified it. One promoter listed a 24-hour Twitter “shill” rate of $100; another listed five promotion packages, ranging from a $39 “permanent post” to a $149 “weekly package” that included four “permanent” posts and eight retweets; another said they charge $160 per tweet to shill “any” NFT project. One influencer offered a “team” campaign that included 10 influencers with a total of 7 million followers for $1,500.

A cottage industry has also sprouted up around coordinating influencer campaigns for crypto projects: Rather than every project having to go out and find people willing to tweet rocket emojis on their behalf, they can go to brokers who are already plugged in to a roster of influencers. One such middleman is the marketing company Dapp Centre. 

A message obtained by Motherboard, which included the lists Zachxbt first leaked, said to contact Dapp Centre’s CEO and founder, Nero Jay, and was signed “Dapp Centre Team.” The accompanying package names and their stated prices matched those recently listed on Dapp Centre’s website. In a tweet after the leak of crypto promoters, Dapp Centre wrote “all you had to do is DM me for my prices man.” 

In the message reviewed by Motherboard, the “Dapp Centre Team” pitched itself as able to build out “LARGE CAMPAIGNS” with a roster of “200+ INFLUENCERS who are ALL READY TO PROMOTE YOUR PROJECT,” saying recent clients included the NFT platform Polka City and the DeFi protocol Bumper.Fi, both of which did not respond to requests for comment. The packages started at $3,000 and went all the way up to $150,000 for the offering titled “LFG!”—meaning “Let’s fucking go!” Other packages were titled “NFT SHILLERS,” “TO THE MOON,” and “TO MARS!” The message also offered Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok campaigns. “You do creative, WE will do the rest,” the message stated. 

The “LFG!” spreadsheet offered an even larger package of two “shill” tweets and one “retweet” from over 200 accounts for $300,000. One tweet each was $150,000, and retweets from every account cost $80,000. Each influencer was listed with a Twitter audit score, nationality, and individual rates going as high as $35,000—the supposed price to get Lindsey Lohan to shill a project, though Lohan’s endorsement was listed as no longer available. Lohan’s team didn’t respond to a request for comment sent via DM. 

All told, the spreadsheets listed hundreds of public-facing crypto influencers and other celebrities, including Instagram models, professional hockey players, a Twitter parody account, a Fortnite esports player, Lohan, and rapper Lil Yachty. According to the lists, the influencers live all around the world, including in the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Senegal, the Philippines, Armenia, Colombia, South Africa, Dubai, Singapore, Indonesia, Ireland, and Russia. 

How many of those people actually have professional relationships with Dapp Centre is hard to say. Some said the prices were not accurate and did not elaborate; some confirmed they have worked with Dapp Centre in the past and said the numbers did seem accurate, if a little high; and still others reached by Motherboard said they did promotion but didn’t know of Dapp Centre. “i don’t know who they are tbh,” one influencer reached by Motherboard responded. And some appeared wholly confused—“i dont do crypto promo tho”—or even angry: “[T]hat’s bullshit if they’re putting smut on my name,” wrote one such person.

Dapp Centre, in a series of tweets soon after the leak, commended Zachxbt for “bringing transparency and accountability to crypto,” adding that there are “a lot of scammers and bad actors out there” and warning of the crypto world’s propensity for scams. 

But since expressing public support for industry transparency, Dapp Centre’s Twitter account has been suspended, for reasons we could not verify, and the company took down its dedicated “influencers” page, where the packages had previously been listed.

Jay did not respond to a number of specific questions Motherboard posed to him over email, writing that he “won’t have time to answer all your questions” while adding that Dapp Centre discloses “all promotional work we are involved in following FTC guidelines.”

Asked about the validity of the spreadsheets, Jay told Motherboard they were “not accurate.” When asked if that meant they were not up to date or not Dapp Centre’s, and whether Dapp Centre had sent the message that included the spreadsheets, Jay did not respond directly, instead writing: “No, there is lot of freelance marketers that send their own lingo and have their own spreadsheets. So I can’t say if all or any of the info in the spreadsheets are accurate.”

A few people listed on the sheets confirmed that they had performed paid work with Dapp Centre in the past. One of them is Kyle Fortch, a Canadian recording artist who was inspired to enter the crypto world last May, after Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy announced in a mock college signing press conference that he had decided to push the crypto project SafeMoon. (Portnoy has since described SafeMoon as his “worst purchase.”) 

“I thought it was hilarious,” said Fortch. He and his friend, a professional hockey player, ​​decided to invest and join the crypto community. 

By summer, when the crypto market was truly booming, demand for influencers like Fortch was “huge,” he said, and soon enough, people were reaching out with opportunities to make money promoting their crypto projects. “No matter where you were on the influencer scale or celebrity scale, there was something for you to do,” said Fortch. 

Unlike many of his peers, Fortch decided to take payment only in the form of flat fees rather than requesting some of the crypto project’s tokens, which he says is common in crypto promotion circles. Indeed, many projects earmark a portion of the pot of tokens for marketing. Taking tokens could prove financially lucrative if the price rockets up, but Fortch deduced it came with reputational risk as well. Should the founders “rug”—crypto-speak for disappearing with investors’ money—and his followers accuse Fortch of promoting a scheme for personal profit, he could say, “No, I didn’t. I wasn’t even a holder” of the token, he told Motherboard. Plus, he likes to know the amount he’s getting paid, regardless of how the project performs. 

Fortch has also experienced the issues with the online promotion market from the other side of the equation. Recently, he was working on a “decentralized crypto fundraising tool,” which he compared to GoFundMe for the “crypto space,” that signed and paid a marketing team to perform duties including “DM Twitter blasts.” Soon after, the marketing team ran off with the money without ever performing any work, he said. Fortch said that he now does significant due diligence before signing on with a company, so he can be confident the project leaders are not going to “use” him “as a promoter for a pump-and-dump” scheme and then disappear. 

“That makes me look bad,” he said. In a world of scammers, Fortch said he appreciates Dapp Centre and considers them “one of the more trustworthy” partners, vetting clients and providing tweet templates. “It’s more so being a partner with Dapp Centre than it is being a partner with the project,” Fortch said. 

Nigerian influencer Udeme William has taken on broader roles in the crypto ecosystem, transforming his promotional work into a multifaceted influencer-coordination career. He has worked as a “middleman” between crypto projects and Dapp Centre in the past, he said, providing scripts, pictures, and information to the company, which then promotes the project on YouTube.

Before William was a crypto promoter, he had worked at a health NGO in Nigeria, where he made only $200-300 every month, he said. Due to rising inflation, the salary sometimes didn’t even cover the bare necessities of food, transport, and housing, and he needed to take out high-interest loans in order to get by. Frustrated, he began to dabble in cryptocurrency and soon became entranced. He started to tell his friends and family members about his new passion for crypto, and he opened a Twitter account to convince others to get in too, where he gained a following. Even the CEO and founder of Binance, Changpeng Zhao, followed him.

But William realized he couldn’t rely on his crypto investments alone to sustain him financially. “Just buying and holding a coin cannot give you the kind of money you need to take care of your daily expenses,” he said. So when he started to receive offers to get paid for his tweets, he jumped at the opportunity. 

Over time, he transitioned into coordinating influencers. He said he takes a salary from the African NFT company AFEN and works on a contractual basis with Nabox, a “Multi-Chain DID Gateway to Web3,” according to the company’s Twitter page. Often, his work involves bringing exposure and potential investors to a project, in part by paying other influencers to “tweet daily” about a given project, as well as push it on other social media platforms. The lump sum he receives from Nabox is used to pay influencers and he keeps the rest, he said.

Bri, a U.S.-based crypto influencer who goes by “Crypto Bri,” appeared on Dapp Centre’s list but did not not remember working with the company. She said the prices she charges were much lower than what was listed, but that wasn’t too surprising to her. Marketing agencies acting as crypto promotion middlemen sometimes reach out for her rates and then find clients who will pay an even higher price in order for them to bank the difference, she said.  

“They typically have a ton of content creators in their network,” Bri said of middlemen generally in the crypto promotion industry. “If a NFT/Crypto client is looking for two weeks of coverage, they go to an agency most of the time. That agency will organize the marketing for the client. In the process, they pay me my usual rate for a tweet, then charge 2x-3x to the client.”

Bri said she believes the arrangement benefits all parties, as crypto projects don’t have to find, contact, and strike an arrangement with individual influencers, and the influencers get a payment they might not have received otherwise. “Ultimately though,” she said, “it’s always much cheaper to go to the content creators personally.”

Jones, the CEO of Dank Bank, doesn’t like to work with middlemen promising blanketed promotional campaigns by influencers, which he sees as “super inauthentic” and ineffective. 

“It’s gotta look genuine. It’s gotta actually be genuine,” he said. He instead prefers to work directly with influencers, sometimes giving them license to do whatever “they think is gonna hit” with their following and sometimes working carefully to “tailor the messaging depending on who the influencer is.” 

Kyle Fortch, the Canadian recording artist, tries hard to toe the difficult line between outward authenticity and adequate financial disclosure. Members of the TikTok generation “really hate shit being forced down” their throats, he said, so many crypto companies ask him to write and talk in his own words so that it sounds “less like it’s a commercial” (others provide templates).

To Fortch, his primary responsibility as a paid influencer is to remind his followers that his promotional posts are opinion-based and “not financial advice” and that they should do their own research—statements he commonly affixes to his paid posts in hashtag form, he said. Considering the industry’s propensity for scams, Fortch said that message is arguably even more critical than disclosing that he has been paid for his post. 

“You have to be diligent and let them know, ‘Hey, I’m not telling you to invest in such and such. I’m just outlining this token’s details basically—like their market cap, yada, yada, yada,’” he said.

Compared with the traditional corporate world, filled as it is with lawyers tasked with ensuring compliance with advertising laws, the piecemeal crypto promotion market more often sees the law as open to interpretation by the individual. That’s been a source of frustration to Duncan, the Texan influencer, who told Motherboard that it’s “unfortunately” very “common” for crypto influencers not to properly disclose they are getting paid for their posts. Duncan herself always tries to clearly disclose when she’s been paid to post online content, and it’s confusing to her why someone would try to hide they were paid. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. 

Falling to disclose a promotion is technically against the law. Influencers who do not state their financial relationship with a company or marketer when shilling a crypto product could be violating the Federal Trade Commission Act, according to Juliana Gruenwald Henderson, a spokesperson focusing on technology issues at the FTC.

“The general principle is that if there’s a connection between an endorser and a marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed,” Gruenwald Henderson wrote over email. Asked if that included shilling cryptocurrencies, she clarified that “the general rule could still apply.”

The disclosure must be displayed “clearly and conspicuously” alongside the promotion, according to the FTC. “That would absolutely apply in this context as well,” said Chris Ford, a San Francisco–based lawyer who has worked on cases involving crypto exchanges and advertising. “There’s no crypto exception to the ordinary FTC rules.”

On the agency’s website, the FTC states that paid Twitter influencers must place a clear disclosure inside the promotional tweet, not rely simply on a disclosure on their profile page. Paid YouTube or TikTok influencers must similarly include a disclosure in the video in which they’re promoting the product, and throughout the video if it goes on for a while, rather than just plopping a note in the accompanying description. 

That is especially true if the crypto company is based in the U.S., but it also goes if Americans could be influenced by the promotion, according to David Klein, a managing partner at Klein Moynihan Turco focused on internet marketing and advertising law. The FTC’s law applies regardless of the size of the company, type of industry, or even the character limit of the social media platform used for promotion, he said.

“If you are promoting a product or service—or, in this case, a cryptocurrency—you have to disclose that it’s a promotional tweet,” Klein said. “Short of doing that, both the influencer who’s posting a tweet and the cryptocurrency company that is compensating the influencer for posting the tweet are both in the regulatory crosshairs of the FTC.” That goes for the entities acting as middlemen as well. “Everyone in the chain is responsible,” he said.  

Whatever the arrangement, the involved parties should sign written agreements to comply with the FTC’s product endorsement guidelines and so-called Dot Com disclosures, according to Klein. “But that’s not even enough. After they sign, [the involved companies] have an obligation to continue to monitor,” Klein said. “Just burying your head in the sand is not enough. The standard is if you know or should know.”

“If you do, you’re on the hook.” 

Klein said influencers and the people paying them could theoretically face FTC fines, penalties, and an injunction that could stop them from promoting products in the future if they’re found guilty of not providing proper disclosures. But whether a federal agency would choose to target individual influencers for an illegal lack of disclosure is less clear. As BuzzFeed recently noted, the FTC has traditionally targeted the companies that pay influencers and limited their interaction with influencers to “threatening” letters, like the ones sent out to Instagram influencers in 2017. If an international influencer is hawking an international crypto project, and an American influencer gets duped, it is, at a minimum, less likely the FTC or SEC would spend time building a case against them. 

Regardless, the rules do not appear clear to some influencers who have stumbled into a following and an income source. While many of the influencers Motherboard spoke with said they work hard to disclose their promotions, a crypto influencer in the United Kingdom admitted that he doesn’t disclose when he is paid for promotional posts unless explicitly asked to do so. (He does try to vet the companies that pay him, he said.)

A Filipino influencer listed in the spreadsheets, who confirmed past work with Dapp Centre, said that when it comes to disclosure, it’s simply “understood that every post” on her page is a paid promotion. And a French influencer who has worked with Dapp Centre said that while she tries to remember to add proper disclosures, she “forget[s] sometimes” and then adds the disclosure in a follow-up tweet. One crypto influencer who was listed in the spreadsheets but said she didn’t know of Dapp Centre said she tries to include the hashtag #AD but makes sure only to include factual information, rather than saying an investment will increase by “100x.”

The FTC isn’t the only federal agency concerned with disclosure. The SEC in fact requires another step. Influencers promoting cryptocurrencies or virtual tokens that could later be deemed a security must disclose not only the fact that they are being paid but also the amount they received. “Any celebrity or other individual who promotes a virtual token or coin that is a security must disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion,” the SEC wrote in 2017. “A failure to disclose this information is a violation of the anti-touting provisions of the federal securities laws.”

The agency has made good on its threats in the past, charging Floyd Mayweather Jr. and DJ Khaled in 2018 after the celebrities failed to disclose payments received while pumping Initial Coin Offerings that the federal agency deemed to be unregistered securities. In 2020, the SEC similarly charged the deceased computer programmer John McAfee with promoting crypto investments on Twitter “without disclosing that he was paid to do so.” 

But the SEC has also gone after much smaller personalities than McAfee and could this time as well, according to Max Dilendorf, a lawyer specializing in digital assets and cryptocurrencies. “Actually, it’s a lot easier to go after small influencers,” Dilendorf said. 

The issue becomes even more legally thorny for influencers who are pushing cryptocurrencies that could later be categorized as unregistered securities, according to Dilendorf. In such cases, “even if you made disclosures, you still cannot do it because you are selling unregistered securities, which is illegal on its own,” Dilendorf told Motherboard. 

While Fortch sometimes includes the hashtag “AD” in his posts, he didn’t see it as required, telling Motherboard that “from a legal standpoint, all you have to basically mention is that you’re not a financial adviser, you’re not giving advice, that it’s basically an opinion,” even if he is paid to post something. 

Klein, the lawyer, disagrees. “That doesn’t have anything to do with disclosing that you’re being compensated to post a post,” Klein said when presented with the argument. Fortch took issue with the lawyer’s interpretation in a direct message over Twitter on Friday. 

“It doesn’t really matter what those ‘experts’ think or how they feel in a legal standpoint,” he wrote. “All promoters have to do is tell their following or community this is an opinion-based post, not advice. You can also add that this is a paid promotion [sic].” 

But Fortch believes the argument over disclosure gets in the way of a larger issue about just how much potential crypto investors should be listening to crypto promoters like himself.

“They shouldn’t be relying on calls from influencers,” he then added. “That would be silly without doing their own research.”

Early on, like many other influencers in her new industry, Ashley Duncan was often charging her clients for every individual post and retweet. As long as she included a proper disclosure, she didn’t see a problem with that. But her attitude toward charging for every action has changed with time. Paid retweets, in particular, now concern her, and she now mostly turns down such offers, which are common in the industry. 

“It just doesn’t feel right,” she said. “You can’t tell if somebody’s being paid to retweet it or not. And despite it just being a retweet, it still has an impact.” 

Klein said that he didn’t see why the rules around paid retweets would be “any different.” (“But for the compensation, you wouldn’t be retweeting it,” Klein said.) Duncan now will work on a paid retweet only if she’s disclosed the partnership elsewhere, she said. 

As Duncan learned about the industry’s issues with scams, her broader approach to crypto promotion has changed as well. She’s now more careful about who she works with and tries to find long-term fits where she can establish trust with the project. “This is a dream scenario,” she said. “Not everybody gets this opportunity, so it’s not to be taken lightly.” 

Others said the same. William realized he didn’t like getting paid to dash off a one-time tweet about a project, so he now searches for jobs that will last six months to a year. Fortch is focusing on “pumping” one or two projects a month and diversifying his product offering, not simply publishing a tweet but also promoting the project with podcasts and Twitter spaces and helping with behind-the-scenes marketing. He hopes to one day blend his interests and create a “crypto music video.” “I’m trying to expand my value rather than just being a tweet,” Fortch said. 

Jones, the Dank Bank CEO, said he supports the shift, as he considers paying per post “strange” and “disrespectful” to influencers who have become so critical to his industry.

With time, Duncan has found an online community of influencers who trade opinions and otherwise work to make the space more professional and trustworthy. She doesn’t love the term “influencer” herself, though, even though she occasionally refers to herself as one. Too many people, herself included, associate the term with “grifters” and otherwise “shady people” who are “trying to squeeze the money out of their community.” She sees herself more as a part of her community than anything else. 

“I hate the idea that I could influence the market in any way because I don’t feel like any one person should have that power,” Duncan said. “But some people say that I have that power.” 

Edward Ongweso Jr. and Jordan Pearson contributed reporting to this story.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*