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El Salvador’s bitcoin fixation is just like a Reddit meme-stock craze

A sign reads: "Exclusive Bitcoin register" in a Starbucks store where the cryptocurrency is accepted as a payment method, in El Salvador
Jose Cabezas/Reuters
“Can I get fries with my bitcoin?”
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

Looking into the Future of Capitalism


Days into its experiment with bitcoin as legal tender, the government of El Salvador might as well sign up to become a member of the Reddit forum WallStreetBets. In its fixation with the cryptocurrency, in the language it uses, and in the kind of meme-stock momentum it wants to spark online, El Salvador is taking its cues directly from meme-stock traders.

For months now, Redditors have been picking stocks—GameStop, or AMC, or BlackBerry—and publicly talking up their merits, trying to boost their value by churning up enthusiasm online. The vocabulary and strategies of these traders and other influencers has become familiar: emojis, social media nudges, and avowals of staunch optimism for their choices.

On his Twitter feed, Nayib Bukele, the entrepreneur-turned-president of El Salvador, even dropped short, trumpeting announcements in the vein of Elon Musk. “Gamestonk!!” Musk had tweeted in January, as if to goad his followers into buying the GameStop stock he was excited about. Bukele’s tweet on Sep. 7—”Buying the dip,” followed by a winking emoji—was a precise echo, using the very words that WallStreetBets members invoke so frequently. Bukele has 2.8 million followers. Like Musk or other influencers, he possesses, in theory, an ability to move the market—an ability to get people to buy bitcoin and drive up its value just after his government purchased 150 new coins.

El Salvador has “diamond hands” for bitcoin

Like meme-stock devotees, Bukele has shown a YOLO mindset, acting quickly and unhesitatingly in pursuit of his chosen asset. He first proposed approving bitcoin as legal tender in early June; a law to that effect was passed three days later by his country’s legislature. When the price of bitcoin crashed soon after bitcoin’s debut in El Salvador on Sep. 7, Bukele’s government doubled down and purchased more coins.  It was as if the government had “diamond hands,” the WallStreetBets slang that implies holding on to a meme stock with an unshakeable grip.

Sure enough, in meme-stock-y fashion, El Salvador attracted like-minded crypto-enthusiasts. In one Reddit group of 3.3 million bitcoin advocates, a campaign started up to get members to each buy $30 worth of bitcoin—a way to reward El Salvador for its boldness by pushing up the price of the currency. The $30 amount matched the quantum of equivalent coin that El Salvador promised to put into every citizen’s digital wallet. The government named the wallet “Chivo”—a local term meaning “cool,” yet another sentiment more like to be found on WallStreetBets than in the playbooks of sovereign wealth funds and other, more orthodox avenues through which countries invest their money.

El Salvador shouldn’t behave like a Reddit trader

In one crucial way, though, El Salvador is different from WallStreetBets. When glitches plagued the rollout of bitcoin, protests broke out in the country—not surprisingly, since Bukele has purchased millions of dollars of bitcoin not with his own money but with taxpayer funds.

Reddit investors stand to hurt themselves more than anyone else, so they don’t need to be accountable about how they spend their money. That isn’t the case with El Salvador. A national government is not a trader on WallStreetBets—a sentence that no one would have envisioned writing before 2021, the year of the meme stock.

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