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When it comes to crypto, everyone loves to talk about “community.”

Every cryptocurrency has one, we’re led to believe, but often as not the community is just a Telegram channel peppered with demands of “@admin wen airdrop.”

There is one cryptocurrency, however, for which the word is anything but a cliche. I’m talking of course about XRP, the second largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization, which is closely – if contentiously – associated with the San Francisco-based startup Ripple.

“It has become a second family to me,” TplusZero, one of XRP Twitter’s most active and followed members, told CoinDesk.

Search Twitter for XRP-related content, and you’ll find yourself among thousands of accounts dedicated mostly or entirely to XRP and the ecosystem around it – which, in addition to Ripple, includes startups such as Coil, which aims to help content creators monetize their webpages.

A few big names will quickly become familiar – XRP Trump, Hodor, Tiffany Hayden, Bank XRP. Seemingly nothing happens in the world of XRP without these accounts knowing about it, and if they happen to miss an update, there are dozens of other accounts standing ready to flag it.

There’s a whole constellation of forums, blogs and YouTube channels that feed an XRP-hungry audience, but Twitter is arguably the hub for the XRP community (especially its English-speaking contingent), and several people I spoke to created Twitter accounts for the first time just to participate in the XRP conversation.

XRP Twitter is perpetually abuzz up with discussion about the merits of XRP and the challenges – none of them insuperable, of course – that it faces on the road to mass adoption in cross-border payments (its main use case) and beyond.

Many of these discussions are deeply wonkish, assuming a detailed knowledge of the Ripple product suite, the incumbent cross-border payments infrastructure and the XRP Ledger’s consensus protocols. But this is crypto after all, and much of the banter is rah-rah.

For many in the community, XRP’s eventual “mooning” (crypto jargon for astronomical price gains) is a bygone conclusion – the only question is when. Ripple Me This, a bull among XRP bulls, told CoinDesk: “I describe this as the opportunity of several lifetimes,” adding, “those who recognize the opportunity and position themselves accordingly will be the next 1 percent.” The account has since been suspended.

Many XRPers believe the coin’s rightful place is not just at the top of the cryptocurrency hierarchy, but at the center of the “Internet of Value,” a technological revolution that promises to allow money to move as easily as email:

The community’s favorite hashtags – #0doubt, #xrpthestandard – serve as a kind of shorthand for this narrative of universal hyper-XRP-ization.

‘Shill is strong’

Of course, every crypto “community” worthy of the name has carved out a niche in social media where their geekiness and optimism can thrive. So what makes XRP special – or influential?

To paraphrase another pick for this year’s Most Influential series, Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, the CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange Binance: strength.

In a recent tweet, CZ complimented the community – at least, they took it as a compliment – saying, “the xrp base shill is strong.” In this case, he was referring specifically to the push to make XRP tradeable against every other asset on the exchange.

“Get it out of your system,” CZ urged, “and put all your shills under this one tweet, and let’s see how much we get.” It would be tough to exaggerate the intensity of the shilling – CZ’s word – contained in the 3,400 replies that followed.

Below is a sample that captures the tone of the replies (and showcases the strength of the often-ignored – in the West at least – Japanese XRP contingent):

The community needs no invitation to make the case for XRP, of course, and they will frequently home in on exchanges, brokerages, media outlets and others, urging them to list, cover, respect, promote or simply recognize XRP.

The most recent push? A write-in campaign for a Bank of England Twitter survey.

The XRP Army

Given their ability to mobilize in support of their favorite asset, it should come as no surprise that the XRP community can also mobilize in its defense. And when that happens – when the community feels XRP is being threatened – their geeky charm melts away.

Meet the XRP Army: the community on the FUD-fighting warpath (the image below is from a thread I’ll detail further down).

Short for “fear, uncertainty and doubt,” FUD refers in theory to baseless criticism that’s meant to deter research on or investment in its target. In practice, though, there appears to be near-zero room to question XRP without being cast as a FUDster: all criticism is baseless criticism. Even statements made by Ripple to the media will be attacked as fabrications if they don’t conform to the narrative.

What’s the difference between XRP enthusiasts’ trolling and any other variety of trolling? After all, publicly expressing an opinion on any cryptocurrency will invite similar negativity from that token’s tribal chauvinists.

Again: strength.

The XRP Army distinguishes itself mainly through scale and organization. Question another coin’s merits, and a handful of trolls might come out of the woodwork. But measured by volume, intensity, duration and consistency, the attack will pale in comparison to an XRP Army operation.

First, a foot soldier will spot the offending tweet, article, podcast or video and rally the troops by posting a few hashtags – #XRP, #XRPArmy and the like – and tagging the high command: some combination of XRP Trump, Hayden, Hodor, BankXRP and their peers.

Then, as an XRP enthusiast going by BoiDontFollowMe described it (disapprovingly) to CoinDesk, a flood of accounts will “brigade” the alleged FUD-monger, posting dozens or hundreds of comments.

As a few of these replies attract dozens of likes and retweets and spawn their own threads in turn, the attack forms a torrent of thousands and thousands of angry notifications that lasts for days.

Dispatches from the front

Any number of case studies are available to see the community in action, including the XRP Army operation this article spawned – almost immediately after the reporting for the article began, and before a word of it had been written.

As with pretty much any article, the first thing I did for this piece was to identify a few potential sources. That done, I reached out to them where I thought they might respond: in this case, Twitter direct messages. I wanted to knock out a number of interviews, so I prepared a list of questions. It didn’t go well.

One of the first people I reached out to sounded the alarm, and soon enough XRP Trump had jumped in to denounce my approach: “I’m not participating in that. I don’t like the behind closed door sending messages to some people while ignoring others. So I’m not answering.” (Asked who I was ignoring, he responded, “How would I know?” I didn’t ask him to elaborate on what an interview that isn’t “closed door” looks like.)

Hayden also declined to be interviewed. But in reality, she and XRP Trump did engage, just on their own terms, in public, posing – and answering – their own questions. (The XRP Army is practiced at controlling the narrative.)

Hayden and XRP Trump proceeded to publicly lambast the yet-to-be-written article in a string of posts. And they weren’t alone. The bombardment continued for days, following familiar lines of attack. In no particular order, these were: allegations of incompetence based on previous work …

… of bias …

… of stupidity …

… and of desperation …

Add a bit of professional belittlement …

… insinuations of sinister intent …

… and an implied threat of legal action …

XRP Trump, it should be said, argued against suing CoinDesk and attributed that particular suggestion to a “false flag” attack by a “bitcoiner.” Whether or not that’s the case, Hayden took up the thread to speculate that Ripple may be unable to sue CoinDesk because Digital Currency Group (CoinDesk’s parent company) is a Ripple investor …

How exactly that meshes with DCG’s status as a bitcoin-shilling cabal with an iron grip on crypto “media” is unclear …

… unless, that is, DCG only invested in Ripple to prevent Ripple from fighting DCG’s pro-bitcoin bias – or you know what, never mind …

Top all that off with questions of psychological fitness …

… and some top-shelf, high-proof, barrel-aged vitriol …

… and you’ve got a sense of the XRP Army on the warpath. In this case, the “brigading” lasted well over a week. Here’s what my notifications looked like one morning after not having checked them overnight. “One morning” being the morning of day nine …

The thread was still going after nearly three weeks, but following the iron laws of internet entropy, it had devolved into jokes about small penises at that point.

The A-word

It’s worth mentioning what angered the XRP community in the first place.

The catalyst was that I asked – among other questions, such as “What’s your experience with the XRP community been like?” – whether “some of the more aggressive behaviors some XRP fans engage in are justified.”

Full disclosure: the first person I reached out to – who was also the first to sound the alarm, was sent a different version of the question, which gave examples of “aggressive behaviors”: “Name-calling, piling into people’s mentions, threats (I know that threats are rare)?”

After he refused to answer, I removed that section when reaching out to others. As Hodor’s tweet shows, though, it didn’t make much difference.

It should also be noted – fuller disclosure – that the XRP Community has not forgotten about this story about their Community Night party in May, so they are not inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt.

What’s most bizarre is that, side by side with this barrage of, well, aggression, were questions about why I’d provided no evidence of aggression:

Some participants in the thread, though, were apparently aware that its general tenor was less than friendly …

… and in a private message another XRP supporter, Crypto Dave, did not mince words.

Asked if he thought aggression was justified, he answered in all caps, “YES.” He cited a “media blackout” of XRP and Ripple by the likes of CNBC and Bloomberg, which aim “to suppress the price.”

He also said that the same media outlets, which refuse to mention XRP and Ripple, “call XRP ‘Ripple’ all the time, which it isn’t.”

Another community member offered some kind words: “I feel bad about the massive backlash that has come your way… I am sure you are just trying to do your job.” (“Don’t quote me,” they added.)

And as noted above, another community member, BoiDontFollowMe, said, “if you’re talking about the accounts that brigade and are rude for the sake of being rude, then no, I don’t think that’s justified.”

More than one person I spoke to, however, expressed the view that casting XRP community members as aggressive – even some of them, some of the time – simply has no basis in fact.

“Aggressive XRP members,” XRP Yoda told me, channeling his namesake’s syntactic quirks, “I have not seen any.”

The view from the inside

It’s tempting to see blanket denials of aggression on the part of the XRP Army as, to use the voguish term, gaslighting.

But that might be unfair. From an outsider’s perspective, the XRP Army is a horde that appears on the horizon, wreaks havoc and then departs.

From the insiders’ perspective, though, the same group is a community that – left to its own devices – would peacefully nerd out on the minutiae of the XRP Ledger’s consensus protocol, Ripple’s business development efforts and product suite, Coil’s content monetization product and the like.

TplusZero described individuals in the community as “incredibly intelligent, curious and visionary,” adding “consistently welcoming, humble, idealistic and autodidactic” for good measure. Several other community members offered similarly glowing descriptions.

“I have found the community to be well researched, level headed and open to a good discussion,” a user going by EDadoun said, adding, “I also really appreciate how engaged elements of the community are in terms of advocating for high level use of the technology.”

Beyond being interesting conversationalists, XRP supporters can be incredibly supportive, kind and generous. One Twitter user described going through “some really hard money issues” which made it difficult to get his daughter to spinal surgery in a different state.

The XRP community “helped get her there not even knowing me or her,” he said, and she’s now home recovering.

Another community member recalled a time when an XRP-er went to the hospital “for a serious condition.” Since hospital food “isn’t so good,” another person from the community, RobertLe88, sent food to the hospital, which the patient then shared with his nurses.

The community’s favorite app (barring Twitter), the XRP Tip Bot, has enabled acts of charity both large and small.

The Tip Bot functions as a sort of fourth engagement function on XRP Twitter. Have something to say? Reply. Like something? Heart it. Really like something? Retweet it.

But if you feel overwhelming love or gratitude, you send the person who posted it a small tip in XRP using the Tip Bot, which automatically integrates with Twitter. XRP Trump is particularly lavish with the XRP-denominated love.

Wietse Wind, the independent developer who created the Tip Bot, told CoinDesk that he “really didn’t expect it to take off like this,” since he’d just approached it as “a hobby project.”

One user, going by KingBlue, saw potential for the tool do more than brighten a few XRP tweeters’ days. “My mind immediately turned to charity,” he told CoinDesk in a recent interview, specifically to St. Jude, a non-profit children’s cancer research hospital.

KingBlue began organizing the fundraiser in June. The initial goal was to raise 5,000 XRP but, he said, “we blew through that,” bringing in over 24,000 XRP at the time of writing (worth over $8,300), as well as nearly $3,400 in fiat.

Own these digital assets… for real and forever.

What happened?

So, what accounts for the disconnect between these two sides of the XRP community – the one that buys winter coats for kids and the one that generates deluges of angry spam?

Of course, not all individuals engage in both types of behaviors. But here’s the answer I heard again and again from community members: they are under constant siege. Journalists, entrepreneurs, developers, investors, influencers, lawyers and garden-variety trolls constantly needle the community, leading to the kinds of response we’ve seen above.

The critics have a few favorite talking points: XRP is an unregistered security issued by Ripple; it’s a “banker coin,” a cynical effort by the financial powers that be to co-opt a budding revolution; it’s a worthless “shitcoin”; it’s being dumped on naive retail investors in a “never-ending ICO” (to quote one lawsuit’s complaint); Ripple has full control over the ledger, including the ability to freeze it; Ripple can release the XRP it’s locked in escrow on a whim; the list goes on.

Some of these claims are purely a matter of opinion (“shitcoin”). Others probably have a definitive answer, but either it can’t be known yet (the security question is working its way through the courts) or we hit a wall: he-said-she-said, can’t-prove-a-negative. Some lines of attack do in fact appear to be genuine FUD (XRP’s technical documentation, all forms of emphasis in the original, says: “XRP CANNOT be frozen by any entity or individual”).

“XRP fans have been targeted for many years,” Kieran Kelly, an active member of XRP Twitter, told me. “I think the XRP community just got to a stage where they got fed up with the constant insults.”

Another member of the community urged me to consider the “hundreds of hours” people like Hayden, Hodor and XRP Trump have put into fighting bad information. BoiDontFollowMe said that seeing the “same misinformed talking points parroted across different channels by people who have no interest in educating themselves” causes understandable frustration.

Hayden, in particular, has had to put up with more than others. Anti-XRP trolls often go personal, and when she’s the target, the attacks sometimes veer into sexism – even in-person intimidation.

At the XRP Community Night party in May, she said, “somebody seemed to be there entirely to harass me. That’s *really* scary. Nobody helps, but they hold up scorecards to judge how I handled being attacked.”

No, you’re a bot

As with any group that feels it’s under siege, what most rattles the XRP Community is the idea that they’ve been infiltrated, that the saboteurs walk among them.

For XRP Trump, it was that random account that pitched the idea of suing “FUDDesk,” which I naively – in his estimation – believed was an authentic XRP supporter. “False flags are real,” he wrote. “Just stay long enough to become a target and you’ll know.”

For Kelly, it’s the so-called 589-ers, whom he cast – though he acknowledged he can’t prove it – as bitcoin maximalist infiltrators intent on discrediting the XRP community as a whole.

Here’s why 589-ers might cause XRP enthusiasts some reputational harm: they predict – “preach” might be a better word – that the price of XRP will be $589.00 or higher at the end of 2018. They continue to say so as of Dec. 20, with XRP trading at around $0.37.

Those who question their prophecy are “sheep.”

Kelly argues that the ones spreading 589-ism, beginning with the now-dormant Reddit account bearableguy123, are “sockpuppets” – fake social media accounts, sometimes automated, sometimes operated manually – which their owners use for “astroturfing”: social media manipulation that creates the illusion of broad support for a message and aims, in turn, to catalyze real support.

The idea that astroturfing is rife on XRP Twitter, however, is most associated with Geoff Golberg, an independent researcher who’s been studying the XRP community’s online presence for months.

“It’s coordinated amplification,” Golberg said in a recent interview. “This isn’t organic.”

He cited suspicious patterns of following, liking and retweeting that point to some degree of manipulation. In certain cases, the accounts appear to be automated (“bots”), that is, controlled using a script.

In other cases, he said, the accounts appear to be controlled manually, but even so, “there isn’t an actual, XRP-supporting person behind each pseudonymous XRP Army account. That’s the whole point.”

In short, he said, “these aren’t real accounts.”

While Golberg hasn’t shared evidence that explicitly links the alleged astroturfing efforts to any particular culprit, he made it clear that he doesn’t think it’s limited to or even primarily the work of 589-ers. Far from a bitcoin maximalist attempt at sabotage, he said, it appears to be a coordinated effort to promote XRP as an investment.

It’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of astroturfing in XRP. To illustrate the point, Golberg performed a network analysis of XRP Trump’s followers using the data visualization software Graphistry. In the graph below, each of the account’s followers is represented by a dot:

The dots’ positions are determined by how connected each one is to XRP Trump’s other followers. The analysis relies on an algorithm called Eigenvector centrality (or Eigencentrality), which determines the influence of a node in a network. The algorithm is used, for example, by Google to rank search results.

The large, light blue circle on the upper right-hand side of the graph is XRP Trump. The colorful clouds emanating from that central node represent different “communities” of followers, who are more closely related to each other, relative to the dataset as a whole.

There’s one section, though, that doesn’t look very much like a “community.” The green, red and pink sections are nebulous, with messy, complex interrelations among nodes. By contrast, the light blue blobs in the upper right-hand corner look less, let’s say, organic. Particularly when viewed close-up:

As it turns out, the 8,200 accounts that make up these blobs all have the exact same mathematical relationship to XRP Trump’s following as a whole: an Eigencentrality score of precisely 0.013143. That score also happens to be the lowest in the whole dataset.

“They are all equally disconnected,” Golberg said.

For over 8,000 of XRP Trump’s roughly 21,000 followers (when the data was collected in September) to have an identical relationship to the broader network – down to the sixth decimal place – would be staggeringly unlikely in an organic, human network, where thousands of complex, individual volitions yield thousands of different degrees of influence. Golberg told CoinDesk that it’s “a huge red flag.”

To get a sense of how strange this distribution of Eigencentrality scores is, here’s a chart of the 10 lowest scores, along with the number of accounts corresponding to each (around 1,200 accounts with identical centrality appear outside of the two big blobs, bringing the total to around 9,400):

Clicking through a few of the blobs’ accounts doesn’t inspire confidence that they are just improbably like-minded people.

Take “xrp to riches” (@to_xrp), who follows XRP Trump, Hodor, Ripple, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse and Ripple CTO David Schwartz (along with a couple of other XRP influencers). “xrp to riches” doesn’t say much:

Or “patrick morrison” (@XRPaddy), another real human person who follows all of the accounts mentioned above (and a slightly different set of “other XRP influencers”). “patrick” is every bit as chatty as “xrp to riches”:

Then there’s “x5r5p”, who – again – follows all the big Ripple and XRP names mentioned above, plus a smattering of second-tier accounts, and – again – struggles with shyness:

Golberg – who has examined other crypto communities as well as political campaigns – readily acknowledged that astroturfing is widespread in crypto, but said of the XRP community, “I’ve never seen it to this extent.”

To try and corroborate his findings, CoinDesk used SparkToro’s “fake followers audit” tool, which shows that XRP Trump, Schwartz, Hodor and Garlinghouse all have above-average proportions of fake followers, relative to the sizes of their followings:

Those data points in isolation leave important questions unanswered, though. They don’t indicate who is responsible for the fake followers. I have around 150 fake followers (11 percent of the total), according to SparkToro, but I certainly didn’t purchase them or spin them up myself.

And as Kelly argued, astroturfing can indeed be used as a false flag attack. For example, in a recent U.S. Senate election, supporters of the Democratic candidate attempted to discredit his opponent by using thousands of Russian sockpuppet accounts to follow the Republican (who lost). This attack created the impression that the Republican candidate was colluding with a foreign power, recalling alleged collusion between the Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.

Filippo Menczer, professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University and a contributor to the self-explanatory Botometer project, told CoinDesk that finding the answer to the astroturfing question depends on exactly what you want to know.

If you’re asking “whether the online conversation about the topic of interest (XRP/Ripple) is manipulated via bots,” he said, “you would want a sample of *tweets* (as opposed to accounts) on the topic,” he said. Fake follower counts, in other words, don’t directly answer that question.

There are certainly a number of pseudonymous, XRP-themed accounts that post and retweet at high rates. Take “grega” (@ceramika74), which has found the time – in its 241 days of existence – to retweet 38,838 XRP-related tweets (161 per day) and like 84,717 (352 per day). It has never composed an original tweet.

Few XRP accounts are as prolific as “grega,” but it is an extreme example of a pattern: nameless, faceless, often short-lived XRP monomaniacs who do not gripe about politics or make fun of celebrities or do anything at all but signal-boost bullish messages about XRP. In many cases the signal-boosting is clearly manual; not every sockpuppet is necessarily a bot.

(To be clear, many accounts – including high-volume, XRP-focused, pseudonymous ones like Hodor, KingBlue and XRP Trump – clearly represent a real person’s primary social media presence.)

Mike Kearney, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, told CoinDesk that a search for $XRP did turn up “evidence of automated/coordinated activity,” including “an usually active base of users posting exclusively from the web browser.” It’s “more common to see automated/bot/inauthentic accounts post via non-cell-phone sources,” he explained.

In addition, “these exclusively web-client-posting accounts also just so happen to have created their accounts within the last few months at an unusually high rate,” Kearney said.

Capitulation

Whatever the extent, nature, intent or provenance of XRP Twitter’s alleged astroturfing, many in the XRP community are enraged by Golberg’s allegations.

He said they frequently report him to Twitter and LinkedIn (the latter suspended his profile as a result), as well as threatening to hack him. This is above and beyond the normal trolling XRP Army targets can expect (based on my own experience and that of others I spoke to).

Golberg does not always eschew trolling himself, it should be said. He called Schwartz “full of [poop emoji][poop emoji] and a coward.” Middle fingers, kissy faces and taunts worthy of the XRP Army are go-tos, in DMs as well as public tweets. Hayden and XRP Trump have called him a “psychopath.” He said such claims are “character assassination” meant to discredit his findings.

In one case, however, an XRP investor (who confirmed as much to CoinDesk) took things a step further and publicly called for Golberg to be killed.

The intended target needn’t have worried too much. Nassar deleted his account and apologized to Golberg from a different one in a private message.

Still, incidents such as this one have made Golberg less civil in his engagements with the XRP community, he told CoinDesk.

Speaking to CoinDesk, Nassar said: “I was losing all my savings” the day he sent the “who can kill him” tweet. Few in the XRP community directly address this subject, but the financial pain is no less real for going mostly unmentioned.

Also largely unacknowledged is the role XRP bullishness might have played in tempting new entrants to invest too much. Influencers on XRP Twitter frequently criticize outlandish price predictions (especially ones presented as near-certainties), but during the heady days of early 2018 it was sometimes a different story:

Given the fall in prices, you might expect cracks to show in some XRP community members’ enthusiasm.

One person I spoke to quit XRP Twitter as I was working on this article, though they didn’t cite the price. When I first began reporting this story, BoiDontFollowMe told me that perceived aggression by XRP community members was “generally […] justified.”

A couple of weeks later, however, the same person messaged me from a different account, saying they’d deleted their old one.

“My thinking has evolved,” they said. Referring to the de facto leaders of the XRP army, they added, “it’s clear they’re aggressive, but if anybody disagrees or tries to call them out, they” – that is, the ones doing the calling out – “[are] sheep, or weak, or a rape victim blamer or any other horrible names.”

The account-formerly-known-as-BoiDontFollowMe called this behavior “childish and embarrassing,” particularly as it was coming from “some of the largest and most influential individuals in the community.”

Some members of the community will likely never throw in the towel, but for many, it may prove difficult to keep the faith in the face of monetary losses and – depending on who you ask – negativity.

Compared to its peak at the beginning of the year, XRP’s price is down by more than 90 percent. Of course, plenty of other cryptocurrencies have fallen further. And, it should be noted, many investors are still in the green at current prices, having bought long before XRP’s price went parabolic in 2017.

Even so, “2018 has been a very tough year for people,” Kelly told me. “If you bought in January and you held, you have lost money. Fact of life.”

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Original art by CryptoPop (@cryptopop)

Images by David Floyd for CoinDesk

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