Honorable readers, we’re pleased to have your attention and time for this unprecedented battle, opposing the innovative blockchain technology and the old-fashioned fake news. While the latter has more power than ever, altering our content and being problematic within the media industry and journalism, the former is an emerging force against the loss of people’s trust, allowing them to certify data and information. What are the chances of winning? What obstacles to overcome? Let further introduce these two rivals before getting to the heart of the matter: the fight.
#1 Fake News: a bit of historical background
Far from being a new phenomenon, fake news has existed for centuries. It has been around since the invention of print, about 500 years ago. At this time, “real” news was hard to verify as there was “no concept of journalistic ethics or objectivity”. Designed to be sensationalist and inflame passions, history shows that fake news has often caused violence. But perhaps even more troubling “is how terrifyingly persistent and powerful fake news has proved to be”.
The same way fake news first took off simultaneously with the beginning of wide news circulation, it boomed again recently with social media and technology. Both contribute to raising misinformation’s reach and the rate at which it spreads to a completely new level. Today, fake news is defined as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media”, according to Cambridge Dictionary.This means that they are consumed by millions through television, radio, websites or online media… And could then be used directly as instruments of propaganda, to influence politics and public opinion for instance. A recent study from BMJ Global Health reveals that “over one-quarter of the most viewed YouTube videos [in spoken English] on COVID-19 contained misleading information, reaching millions of viewers worldwide”.
#2 Blockchain: what is blockchain technology and how does it work?
Everybody is talking about blockchain and its revolutionary potential in major fields such as finance, politics, music… and now media and information! But what exactly is a blockchain? We’ve covered this in great detail in this article, but here are the key points for an overall understanding.
A blockchain is a distributed ledger, similar to a database. Rather than being controlled by a central authority (i.e., a bank, firm like Google, intermediate small company or individual) the ledger is dispersed across multiple computers, which can be located all over the world and run by anyone with an Internet connection. Once the data is added to the ledger, it cannot be removed, altered or edited like with a database.
Simply put, blockchain works as a “chain of blocks”. A block is composed of a list of data, and the “chain” is a stack of the blocks of data which continually grows over a specific period of time. If a block is added to the blockchain (i.e., connected to the chain’s history), it becomes exceptionally challenging to alter that data — making blockchains a unique medium for ensuring data authentication as well as storing valuable data.. This is what occurs in Bitcoin – the first blockchain ever created by Satoshi Nakamoto.
Because blockchains are permissionless and decentralized networks that remove the need to trust third parties, they allow peer-to-peer value transactions at scale – whether it’s money, ballot, information – free from the control of external parties. All these points form the core attributes of a public blockchain:
- decentralized: there are no third party involved
- distributed: the ledger is spread across the whole network, which makes tempering difficult
- immutable: once a data is added to the ledger, it cannot be removed or altered
Leveraging on these strengths and specific attributes, blockchain-based solutions and services in the media industry have the potential to change the way information is produced and shared, while contributing to tackle disinformation over the longer term. Here is how blockchain could help fight against fake news.
Fight: how blockchain technology might battle fake news?
The issue with misinformation is from both sides of the information chain: the creation side – including news agencies who provide news to the editors, publishers and/or writers, journalists and other modifiers or editors – and the reception side mainly composed by common readers. Because the misinformation can occur throughout the process, it makes it easier for malicious parties to purposely create it. And even harder for common people and sometimes professional journalism to identify fake news (if you want to test and improve your detection skills, go here). Therefore, it is extremely important for all stakeholders to have a reliable way of verifying the information and its source at any times. This is exactly what blockchain technology allows, in line with the famous crypto motto « don’t trust verify« .
The challenges of a decentralized creation process
On the creation side, everybody is a content creator today. It means that people can freely write and share content without strictly fact-checking, unlike news organisations. Purposely or not, it might easily lead to wide sharing of false information. Besides, the technology used to deliberately create disinformation – like the use of artificial intelligence to build looking-like news stories – is improving fast and becoming more accessible to anyone, including malicious parties. This is the case for internet bots for example, the “computer programmes (…) often used to spread false news on social media” and push them into trending topics. Radware – a cybersecurity company – shows that in February 2020, “27.7% of traffic on media sites was bad bot involved in automated activity, including scraping”, suggesting that it was due to “bots exploiting coronavirus fears, commenting under posts with fake personal Covid-19 stories”. Technology is used also to create convincing fake audio and video, mostly known as deepfakes. First, a technique using AI software to superimpose digital images or videos onto another, while maintaining the appearance of unedited content, deepfakes are increasingly considered a source of concern because they are often used by malicious parties to create fake news and influence people.
How blockchain can empower a new trustworthy AND decentralized process
Organizations and governments are starting to use blockchain-powered news to authenticate content, photos and video. Leveraging on the technological capacity to create an immutable and shared record of content, ideally viewable and verifiable to all readers. According to Gartner Top Strategic Predictions for 2020 and Beyond released in October 2019, “by 2023, up to 30% of world news and video content will be authenticated as real by blockchain, countering deep fake technology« . . In 2019, The New York Times (NYT) launched The News Provenance Project, an initiative which aims to leverage on blockchain technology to fight against fake news. They “worked with the IBM Garage to build a proof of concept [that allows] to store contextual information about news photos.”. The blockchain would “maintain a transparent and immutable record of a photo’s origins: when, where and by whom it was taken, who published it and how it has been used across a network of news organizations.”
In a more theoretical way, blockchain-based news platforms and applications could create an entire new information system. Using such blockchain-powered apps, news agencies could create their profiles and upload necessary company ID documents such as name, license, work permit etc. Once signed up, they could register the content on the blockchain and then distribute it to the other stakeholders (writers, journalists, bloggers) who could easily check the source. They could then decide to publish it or not. In turn, registered editors could enrich the content. All modifications would be then recorded on the blockchain, making it possible for the final reader to track the different modifications as well as the complete sources. It would grant them more power to assess if the published or viral news deserve their trust or not.
However, addressing the news creation side, by providing sources tracking and information authentication, is not enough to fight fake news. Indeed, solving a social issue often requires more than technology, as mentioned in this Computer Word’s article. Alongside blockchain, this requires readers to be aware of the issue and willing to face it. However, “consumers aren’t [always] interested in using critical thinking to determine whether news is real or not – as long as it fits a narrative they like.”
Fake news trap v.s. blockchain peer-to-peer network and individual responsibility
On the reception side, from a reader perspective, several elements could affect people’s discernment regarding what they’re reading. First, the overall context of a growing decline in trust of the media and government seems to be a favorable background to fake news spreading. People tend to trust less the official institutions and more their peers. Besides, social media platform’s design tends to aggregate the content into a single “news” feed – mixing news from friends and family with identical-looking web stories – which could create confusion between the factual and subjective updates. A misinterpretation is even more likely to happen knowing that global attention spans are narrowing, according to a study, especially due to an abundance of information.
Besides, in terms of reception, behavioral sciences show how the human brain tends to rely upon immediate emotions when making quick, automatic decisions.That is exactly what fake news is appealing to: emotions and cognitive biases. For instance, fake news tends to leverage people’s confirmation bias, i.e. the natural tendency to give more credit to what fits with our existing beliefs. On top of this, by using internet bots to create fake commitment, fake news also creates “false social consensus”. In 2016, a BuzzFeed News analysis found that “the top 20 fake news stories about the 2016 U.S. presidential election received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 election stories from 19 major media outlets” such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post and others. Conclusions from a study conducted by Adam Waytz, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, mentioned that the fake news phenomenon shows that “whatever the source of the news might be, the combined effects of motivated reasoning [or confirmation bias], naïve realism, and social consensus prevent people from reaching objective conclusions.” By preying on stereotypes or bias, fake news is meant to play with emotions, rather than favoring logic.
These are the reasons why only individual responsibility could scale a blockchain-based information system able to dramatically reduce fake news influence. “Encouragingly, there is evidence that when you alert people to their biases, they tend to succumb to them less” mentioned Kellogg School article, which implies to empower people to be responsible for their readings and sharings. Besides, if a blockchain peer-to-peer network could allow readers to validate or invalidate content and contribute to improve news quality and integrity, it does put responsibility on them. While The New York Times’ News Provenance Project started to tackle the issue, it began with images and videos because it is easier for the software to examine pixels than words. But multimedia content represents a relative small part of fake news compared to articles. At the end, it’s up to every reader to favor certified content and only share checked website, source and/or author. According to Avivah Litan, a Gartner vice president of research, “a decentralized social network platform could still feed you distorted sensational news, but presumably only if that’s what you choose to read. With blockchain provenance you could also be assured for the source for that news. In the end, it will be your purposeful choice to read fake news from bad actors”.
Final Score – Defeating fake news is up to you.
In sum, blockchain technology has the potential to provide you with transparency of the news, especially regarding its redaction process, traceability of the sources and contributors and immutability of the written information and contextual data, while ensuring decentralization of information. Freedom of speech and diversity of views are extremely important and with blockchain-powered news you can still be in full control over your preferences and decisions. The blockchain technology has the potential to provide you with a reliable and solid structure for strengthening the quality of information while keeping you at the core of the system. It empowers you to avoid falling back into a hyper-centralized system where only major media have a monopoly on the truth. It then depends on you to stay informed and aware of what you’re reading. As the well-known Peter Parker principle says: « With great power comes great responsibility ». And it’s precisely your responsibility to “don’t trust, verify” what you read, share and promote, as well as invest in.