Mark Toner

What if blockchain could be used to keep the news media honest?

A growing number of blockchain-based organizations want to combat the so-called “fake news” they see as a byproduct of a much bigger — and longstanding — issue sparked by the “attention economy” of the World Wide Web that has led to the commodification, falsification and, at times, plagiarism of content to draw eyeballs from search traffic.

“Working in a pipeline, [publishers] try to catch attention with fake titles and indecent content, steal and use other people’s articles to gain traffic and profits,” write Primas.io’s founders in the company’s white paper. “These bad behaviors, which have been driving out good ones, have seriously squeezed the living space for producers of quality content and wreaked great havoc on society.”

It’s the ability to bake incentives into the ecosystem, typically by rewarding or removing tokens or reputation, that can keep people honest.

“Bad behavior” describes not only the reasons why fake news is created, but also how it spreads. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be shared on Twitter than real ones. But the real issue uncovered by researchers is that it’s people, not bots, that are doing the damage.  

“Behavioral interventions become even more important in our fight to stop the spread of false news,” study coauthor and MIT professor Sinan Aral said in a university article. “Whereas if it were just bots, we would need a technological solution.”

A number of blockchain developers are confident that technological solutions actually can help address the behavioral issues that jeopardize the integrity of news content. Some solutions go a step further, leveraging the decentralization that blockchain technology promises to create ecosystems that give more power to publishers and independent journalists, not search engines and social media sites.

Incentives for Truth

With its claims of being an immutable source of truth, the blockchain is a logical place to address the veracity of news items. But it’s the ability to bake incentives into the ecosystem, typically by rewarding or removing tokens or reputation, that can keep people honest. It’s the same premise driving blockchain-based prediction markets, where the money people stake to make a prediction makes it more likely they’re interested in being right.

Many blockchain-based news ecosystems use tokens to give authors incentives to publish accurate news and reviewers to verify it. Conversely, both risk losing tokens or reputation if they publish fake news or try to game the system by validating it. Trive, for example, uses language about the “Nash equilibrium” and game theory to describe a vast ecosystem of fact checkers who will be rewarded through its token. They will be afraid of losing their reputation if they let untruths slip by.

“It is anticipated many Trive users will make their living doing nothing other than functioning at a high reputation level within the Trive ecosystem,” the company website states. “Finally, an application that has no other motivation for monetization than discovering truth, dispelling falsehood, and indexing it to the blockchain for the world to see.”

Decentralized Decisions

Centralized social media networks and search engines, critics say, have spurred fake news by rewarding users’ desire to have their own beliefs validated. That’s why others in the space are focusing on building decentralized tools that put more power in the hands of publishers.

Primas, for example, plans to develop a blockchain-based metadata protocol called Decentralized Trusted Content Protocol, or DTCP, that it hopes will “become the standard of content metadata utilized by the whole content industry.” Participants would pay the network’s token to publish each article, in return receiving a tamper-proof record of when and by whom it was published which would be stored on the blockchain. Along with assuring the validity of the source of a piece of news, this process also could help address plagiarism and piracy, the company says.

The blockchain-powered Civil publishing platform uses its own token-staking mechanism to ensure that publishers on its platform are essentially vetted by existing partners. With an eye on independent journalists, Publiq goes one step further, borrowing from the concept of blockchain-powered distributed storage to provide independent journalists with a decentralized, tamper-proof place to publish their content by rewarding users who give up some of their free storage space. Publiq plans to use artificial intelligence to target advertising by topic, and, importantly, to link to articles with “alternative opinions… in order to maximize the chances for readers to form their own opinions,” the company says in its white paper.

These platforms and providers are ultimately betting big on the wisdom of crowds—the idea that crowdsourcing the truth can, in effect, beat authoritative centralized references. Consider AdBlocker Plus developer eyeo. Its TrustedNews web browser plug-in currently uses existing fact-checking sites such as Politifact.com and snopes.com to display checkmarks or caution signs based on the veracity of the sites a user visits. Over time, however, the plan is to migrate the system to the MetaCert protocol on the blockchain to ensure the process is decentralized and validated by the people who use it.

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