Combatting Fake News With the Blockchain
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There is no shortage of articles slamming Facebook over misusage of personal data. The jury is out regarding social media’s pernicious effect on society. Between filter bubbles that keep people locked into a personally tailored world-view via content recommendation engines, and state-level actors swaying elections, Facebook and its social media brethren have been deservedly dragged through the mud for repeatedly turning a blind eye to these issues.
While it would be easy to write yet another ‘Facebook is bad’ article, I’m not convinced that’s what the world needs right now. What we need are solutions. We need to find a way to fix the massive social media ocean we find ourselves floundering in.
Public blockchains, like Ethereum, are still in their early stages of development. But I believe blockchain technology can help steer the social media frigate away from the iceberg. The culpability of these online platforms can no longer be swept under the rug, and social media companies are already actively building blockchain products.
Mark Zuckerberg recently stated in an interview with Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain that “a use of blockchain that I’m potentially interested in” for Facebook Connect was replacing it with “something that’s fully distributed.” So while social media platforms are already warmed up to the idea of embracing blockchain technology, they are still grappling to figure out exactly how.
On the topic of misinformation, we know that a lot of fake news is designed to get clicks which lead to ad revenue. I am reminded of a friend of mine who once posted an article about a pirate ship that had been ‘found’ at the bottom of the Mississippi River. The pictures showed that it was in a pristine condition, like it was straight out of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. But sadly for my friend, there was no pirate ship. The article was fake pirate news.
Pirate ships are one thing, but when fake news is spun for political manipulation or nefarious purposes, or both, as was the case when high-ranking Myanmar military officials created Facebook accounts that amassed millions of followers and began an insidious smear campaign designed to malign the Rohingya population, leading to what the United Nations said was a “determining role” in a clear-cut case of ethnic cleansing, the stakes get much higher.
Facebook is now being forced to confront the reality that its platform is no longer a picture sharing utopia of likes and social games. It is also a launch vehicle for ethnic cleansing and a tool for tearing at the fabric of our democracy.
Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain refers to arguments made by legal scholar Jack Balkin in his article for the New York Times to say that “companies like Facebook and Twitter are in a similar relationship of knowledge about, and power over, their users — and thus should be considered ‘information fiduciaries.’ ”
If Facebook is a fiduciary of information then at the very least they need a way to verify the authenticity of information and alert readers if the source of an article is “verified” or not.
In practice, one could imagine an alert placed over every piece of news content posted on Facebook. Either it has the green check mark of verified source material from a reputable organization or individual, or it has a red warning label to alert the reader that this is from an unverified source and they should proceed with caution before reading. This type of public service announcement would be similar to how popular browsers alert us if a website we are about to visit is not secure.
This database of the verified source material is where I believe blockchain technology can lend a helping hand. Of course, there would need to be an official government regulatory agency, like the FCC or IFCN, to act as the gatekeeper to vet parties before they are allowed to join this alliance of trusted content providers.
How this could work is that news publications (or individuals that choose to) can register with this alliance or standards committee. Let’s call it “The Virtuous Content for Democracy Group” and it has clear guidelines such as, “fake news is not permissible and will result in the expulsion, or potentially even prosecution, depending on the severity of the offense” etc. (To be clear, organizations like this already exist and Facebook is working with them but there is no blockchain component.)
Content producers could choose whether or not to join this group. However, if they don’t join, then every piece of content they publish on Facebook will have that red warning label above it alerting readers of the potential danger of reading their content. Facebook would obviously need to endorse this new model and build the requisite technology to support it if this were going to work, but they have already shown a willingness to take measures to combat fake news.
Continuing with this example, “The Virtuous Content For Democracy Group”, could provide all of its members with a blockchain address that is registered under their corporate or individual name. Content that is produced by group members would be hashed and uploaded to a global smart contract owned and owned and managed by the VCDG.
Any person or social media platform could easily check articles published on their platform by cross-referencing the VCDG global smart contract. If the article is not registered in the smart contract then up goes the warning label, or perhaps it is removed altogether depending on the severity of the violation. Internal teams within social media platforms will still need to monitor content on their platforms. But this type of organization would at least reduce the monitoring workload.
The benefit of using the blockchain is that a database does not need to be hosted, and the record is immutable and will live forever. Furthermore, while writing to public blockchains like Ethereum costs a little bit of money in gas fees, reading from the blockchain is totally free. Which means access to this repository would be open and unrestricted for all.
The blockchain in this scenario can help to provide transparency and utility for the public good. But we must remember that a blockchain is just a tool. Ultimately human beings are the ones that need to coordinate their efforts in order to achieve societal goals in conjunction with blockchain technology, not the other way around.
Hunter Gebron is the director of strategic initiatives at MetaX, an ad tech company whose solutions for digital ad fraud leverage a combination of blockchain, machine learning, and human expertise.