Inauthentic accounts boosted purported cryptocurrency’s online reputation amid regulatory scrutiny
As the cryptocurrency Ponzi scheme OneCoin faced increasing regulatory scrutiny for fraudulent marketing tactics, suspicious accounts launched an astroturfing campaign on TrustPilot and Quora to boost its online reputation.
The supposed cryptocoin made headlines in late 2019 for all the wrong reasons. Its enigmatic founder, “Cryptoqueen” Ruja Ignatova, mysteriously vanished from the public eye after getting embroiled in multiple legal cases for running the multibillion-dollar pyramid scheme. To lure investors, Ignatova manufactured and systematically promoted the idea that OneCoin was a superior alternative to Bitcoin, perhaps the highest profile actual cryptocurrency. The DFRLab found evidence to suggest that OneCoin may have also used inauthentic tactics to promote trust for its brand online.
OneCoin, a “digital currency”
On its now-defunct website, OneCoin described itself as a “digital currency based on cryptography.”
Since its launch in 2014, much of OneCoin’s marketing compared it to Bitcoin. In her public talks, Ignatova often invoked the philosophy of technological libertarianism undergirding Bitcoin but positioned OneCoin as the superior alternative.
While OneCoin claims to be a private cryptocurrency, it functions according to the principle of pyramid marketing, using existing investors to recruit new investors. For each recruitment, the investor earns a percentage of the “profits.” The scheme eventually unravels once the pool of new investors dries up.
Hijacking TrustPilot reviews
In October 2019, just as OneCoin was hit by a slew of bad press on its fraudulent practices, the company received a spike in five-star ratings on consumer ratings site TrustPilot. Of the 579 reviews for OneCoin on the site, 90 percent were positive. Of the five star ratings, about 400 were published within the span of a single month.
Similarly, breaking down OneCoin’s TrustPilot ratings by month revealed that the website received a fair amount of one-star ratings but that those ratings were buried under a sudden spike in five-star ratings in October 2019.
The DFRLab could not identify whether the reviews came from either automated or inauthentic accounts because of the design of the TrustPilot user interface. The October 2019 spike in five-star ratings, however, indicated an abnormal influx of favorable reviews just as OneCoin’s public relations and legal woes mounted. The possibility remains that the influx for both ratings and reviews was organic, though the timing and extreme bias was highly suspicious.
On question-and-answer forum Quora, the DFRLab found profiles posting favorably about OneCoin that exhibited signs of inauthentic behavior, such as no profile pictures, no biographical information, inconsistent posting times, and an exclusive interest in OneCoin-related discussions.
One of the profiles was “Alicia Gordez,” a self-described “Cryptocurrency Expert and Investor” who exclusively answered questions about OneCoin. No profile picture or other social media accounts on other platforms could be linked to this account, though Quora’s only policy on misrepresentation is a sparse answer regarding sockpuppeting that does not address profile photos or accuracy of profile details. The Alicia Gordez account was active from January to March 2018 and seems to have been most prolific during OneCoin’s booming days.
Another account, “Gabriel Pillaih,” had responded to only two questions, both about OneCoin and had no profile picture and a very low follower count.
Many other accounts presented themselves as subject-matter experts on cryptocurrency and yet only commented on the viability or value of OneCoin. The DFRLab could not confirm the identity of the individuals, as searches on other social media platforms returned no similar or matching results.
As OneCoin’s legal challenges mounted, the company’s pyramid marketing scheme garnered significant attention. Its digital marketing tactics, however, received considerably less scrutiny.
On two sites — TrustPilot and Quora — the DFRLab found evidence of inauthentic activity in reviews and discussions related to OneCoin. While there was no direct evidence tying these inauthentic profiles and reviews to OneCoin employees or evidence of automated activity on either platform, the profiles and favorable reviews nonetheless served to boost trust for the OneCoin brand as it faced a multibillion-dollar scandal.
Kanishk Karan is a Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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