Geopolitics

Controlling Information, From Montana To Manchester

Reporters ask questions in Washington D.C. in May.
Reporters ask questions in Washington D.C. in May.
Jillian Deutsch

—Analysis—

The simmering tensions between reporters and politicians in the U.S. have moved beyond the White House press room — and beyond just words.

Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was in the state of Montana on Wednesday to cover the hotly contested special election to fill a vacant Congressional seat. When Jacobs asked a question to Republican candidate Greg Gianforte about health care, Gianforte didn't answer. And when Jacobs repeated the question? According to the reporter and others on hand, Gianforte proceeded to body slam Jacobs to the ground.

Despite the candidate's denial, the account was corroborated by a Fox News crew and Jacobs' recorded audio in which a sudden tussle can be heard followed by Gianforte saying "I am sick and tired of you guys." Well, a functioning free press can be quite exhausting indeed. It is also fundamental to the Constitution Gianforte would have to swear to uphold if elected in today's ballot. He may also be arrested in the meantime.

Of course, reporters should be able to do their jobs free of physical harm; but the actions of a free press are not always so black-and-white. As the investigation was underway after Monday night's deadly Manchester attack, UK officials withheld certain information from the public like the identification of the attacker, images of the bombs and information about the victims. As the BBC reported, this allows detectives to investigate without anyone being tipped off.

But that information fell into the laps of New York Times reporters, via U.S. intelligence officers who had gotten it from the Five Eyes information sharing network between the two nations, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The UK isn't taking the incident lightly. As of Thursday morning, information sharing on the Manchester attack is suspended. The issue will also make for a tense conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May in Brussels.

The incident is the latest to feed ongoing debates about how media respond in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and how much information should be revealed to the public. What good was done by publishing photos of the bombs on the Internet? Who was helped by having the name of the attacker splashed across laptop screens? Is the rush to publication just serving the interests of the attackers?

Of course, these days, what information should be shared is no longer just an issue for news organizations. In recent years, Facebook has ramped up efforts to erase terrorist propaganda on its site, but according to the Guardian, its methods are not full-proof. Photos used in pro-terrorist groups can still flourish on the social network as long as they were posted with a neutral or condemning message, the daily reports.

It is difficult terrain to navigate. Who gets to decide which information is beneficial for the public and when it's too much? And how effective are those methods in the age of the Internet when sharing information is as easy as clicking a button?

Such questions are not likely to go away anytime soon. With nations like the UK raising its threat level, France extending its state of emergency, protests against government corruption in Brazil and investigations into government collusion in the U.S., the role of media and the proliferation of information will continue to be a global struggle that plays out differently case-by-case, country-to-country, keyboard-after-keyboard. A good starting point would be that when a reporter asks a questions you don't like, never answer with a body slam.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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