Journalism is facing unprecedented assaults from attempts at censorship and the proliferation of fake news around the world. To push back against these threats, blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) applications are being developed to help authenticate media content, preserve records and maintain journalism integrity.
From Rappler CEO Maria Ressa’s persecution and conviction in the Philippines for cyber libel, to the arrests of reporters and media tycoons in Hong Kong, to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange potentially being extradited to the U.S. where he could face over 100 years in prison, media watchers say the outlook for press freedom is bleak.
“Journalistic institutions working independently without interference from state actors or foreign actors is in peril in some countries, more so than in others,” Bernat Ivancsics, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told Forkast.News.
“What we see in extreme cases, like in the Philippines, in Hong Kong, mainland China, currently in Belarus and Eastern Europe, Brazil, etc. — that type of phenomenon is creeping into Western and developed nations,” Ivancsics said.
The Trump administration’s decision to prosecute Assange in 2019 for allegedly violating the Espionage Act also set the tone for the deteriorating state of freedom of the press around the world. The charge comes as a result of Wikileaks’ publication of classified U.S. military documents known as “collateral murder” showing two Reuters journalists and Iraqis killed by gunfire from an American helicopter in 2007. The U.S. Justice Department has pledged to appeal a British judge’s recent rejection of their request for Assange’s extradition to the U.S.
“Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations,” said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU’s) Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project in a statement. “Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”
BREAKING: For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges under the Espionage Act against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is a direct assault on the First Amendment. https://t.co/RJxjFPfkHe— ACLU (@ACLU) May 23, 2019
Ivancsics agreed that Assange’s prosecution would very likely set a dangerous precedent in journalism. “There is a silence, especially in British and American press, on what the Assange decision would entail is kind of worrisome,” he said. “I certainly do not see the amount of discourse or just anxiety that it should invoke in current journalists.”
With attacks on the press from a variety of directions — from both state actors and the private sector — what role can blockchain play to ensure a better playing field for journalism? Forkast.News explores ways in which blockchain has been experimented with by media companies and how the technology could be used by journalists and readers in the future.
Blockchain in journalism
A number of journalism organizations are now experimenting with blockchain.
The New York Times’ News Provenance Project was one, which created a proof-of-concept of how images could be authenticated and recorded as authentic on blockchain to prevent the spread of doctored images.
The project simulated a social media platform where users would be able to quickly check if a photo on the site was modified by providing a transparent record of any changes and usages of images on the site.
See related article: Journalist Maria Ressa’s ordeal shines light on social media’s dark side
According to Ivancsics, who worked on the New York Times project, the real threat in journalism is the prevalence of images and memes that are cheaply made and easily shared on social media that distort the truth of events in the news.
“It’s just a sheer obfuscation of what’s going on and what is true, what is not true, what the mainstream media is hiding,” he said. “Those sorts of questions are going to be the ones that are really going to just mess with people’s minds and perceptions around political and cultural issues.”
The Times concluded that the prototype did help make informed judgements about the authenticity of photos on social media, but more work is needed to make it easily accessible to users.
“In order for a blockchain solution to become a reality, news organizations with varying financial and technical resources need to be able to participate,” said the Times’ report on the project. “Finding ways to lower the barriers to entry is an essential component of any future explorations.”
1/5 Today, the News Provenance Project is sharing insights from the UX research it has done to find out if surfacing metadata on news photos would help people to better discern credible images from misinformation. An overview of what we learned https://t.co/08SFMyoiSe— NYTimes R&D (@NYTimesRD) January 22, 2020
Another project was Civil, which was an attempt to change financing in journalism through the use of cryptocurrency tokens, but which shut down operations in 2020 due to similar issues with accessibility.
“Civil had the potential to revolutionize how journalism is funded, created, and distributed in a secure, verifiable, quality manner,” said Jonathan Askin, a professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, said in an interview with Forkast.News.
However, Civil’s use of blockchain technology was not smooth enough, widely adopted, or well enough understood to enable journalists and readers to use the platform to its full potential. One guide from the Nieman Journalism Lab outlined the 44-step process needed to buy Civil tokens, highlighting the complexities of becoming a participant.
“We will learn from these early experiments and create more viable blockchain-based content funding, creation, and distribution platforms, largely free from the oversight of the media moguls,” Askin said.
More work remains to be done to achieve those goals, particularly for the use of blockchain’s features as a decentralized, immutable store of information as a tool against censorship.
“Blockchain usage for information security in terms of information dissemination and decentralized information dissemination hasn’t really been explored,” Ivancsics said. “At least in the U.S. and certain Western European countries, I don’t really see the incentive right now to explore this type of blockchain usage.”
While the economic or political incentives may not be in place to explore the usage of blockchain or DLT chiefly as a way to deter censorship, the technology’s application in journalism is still valid according to experts.
“The immutability, and decentralized, redundant verifiability of blockchain-enabled networks and processes makes it well suited to prevent censorship,” Askin said. “No central, biased arbiters are positioned to mutate content without verification by the network.”
“The fact that we can now trace the provenance and flow of data, content, and information from creation to mutation through perpetual distribution makes it much easier for viewers to access and verify the authenticity and likely ‘truth’ of the content,” added Askin, who is also the founder and director of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic, which focuses on tech-related media and policy issues.
The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is an example of a company using a combination of distributed ledgers, blockchain and cryptocurrency to store data and content such as articles securely in a decentralized fashion.
IPFS project lead Molly Mackinlay told Forkast.News that the company assists media with content addressing, meaning that users are able to view exact copies of articles independently of where they are hosted or published. This allows users to canonically reference and self-host a specific snapshot of an article, even if it’s later modified or deleted by the original provider.
“Being able to fetch content by what it is means that anyone can host the data you’re looking for — decreasing the dependence on single, central news sources — which might be censored if a group is trying to restrict access to information,” Mackinlay said.
IPFS has been used to help document data that might be politically at-risk for later analysis and accountability. For example, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative used IPFS to document climate change data during the 2016 U.S. election to ensure it was preserved despite USAID funding cuts.
“This helps decouple data creation from data preservation, even if one party wants the data to be removed or destroyed, other organizations who find it valuable can preserve it, link to it, and keep using it,” Mackinlay said.
However, neither IPFS nor its decentralized storage network affiliate Filecoin incentivize spreading information to parties that aren’t trying to find it, and users pay to maintain content on their networks.
Matters.news is one Chinese-language media company that is cryptocurrency driven and hosts content on IPFS nodes, and platforms such as STEEM, LikeCoin, DTube and Hive also fit in similar categories related to cryptocurrency and decentralized content creation.
Blockchain against fake news
The use of blockchain and distributed ledgers to maintain a transparent and public record of media may be the most immediate use of the technology, particularly as rumors and actual fake news proliferate on social media, and the impact of Covid-19 continues to shape global geopolitics and economics.
“How do you prove or disprove if something is the authentic material or know it is not being censored?” Jim Nasr, CEO of blockchain application developer Acoer, told Forkast.News.
Blockchain technology applied in ways similar to the News Provenance Project or Adobe’s Content Authenticity Initiative may provide the answer. “We can timestamp [content], we can have non-intrusive ways to show the authentic content and its attribution to whoever created it, versus any of the alternatives,” Nasr said.
Forkast.News is collaborating with Acoer to leverage NewsHash’s authenticity tracking service. Readers can scan the QR code below to verify on Hedera Hashgraph’s DLT whether this article or video is authentic.
Acoer has developed a pilot system for journalism that aims to do just that — a news tracker that logs and stamps article hashes into the Hedera Hashgraph distributed ledger DLT to combat fake news. Users curious to check if an article is authentic could scan a QR code on the Newshash.io site to ensure the article and its contents are valid.
Chicago-based social enterprise Hala Systems is another example of a company using Hedera Hashgraph to provide journalists and civilians with an immutable digital record of events occurring in war-torn Syria, where disinformation campaigns have distorted public perceptions. Information gathered on the platform can be used to verify the authenticity of events that transpire as well as provide an early warning system to prevent civilian casualties from incoming air strikes.
A combination of decentralized content hosting and blockchain-enabled authentication could be a solution to the issue of fake news and censorship.
“Certainly the infrastructure of a blockchain can help with that, particularly if you have not just a proof of it, but the content itself decentralized and distributed over many nodes,” Nasr said.
Another potential application may involve using natural language processing algorithms to gauge the veracity of the content in articles and to stamp and store that information through DLT or blockchain in a way that readers can easily check the accuracy of statements.
A combination of these technologies could provide a reliability score for readers to help readers judge whether articles are trustworthy. This proposed system would require a consortium of vetted journalists working together over time to use the rating system, over time creating a large record of content and authors as well as their confidence scores through a network effect.
“From a consumer perspective, if Jim is reading [a journalist’s] article with a 79% trust or confidence score, that intimates the algorithm basically looking at different sources, this triangulation in real time and saying there’s a high degree of confidence that this is legit,” Nasr said.
The same system could also be applied to find out if an article was censored, or to what degree one article is omitting information relevant to the reader compared to other articles.
While blockchain as applied to journalism is still in its experimental phase, experts agree that it does have the potential to assist the flow of information and to mitigate the spread of disinformation.
“I like to think that blockchain will become a great democratizing tool to allow worthy ideas to reach broader audiences and advance global public discourse on ideas that affect all of society and the planet,” Askin said.
“When the technology and user interfaces become more user-friendly and idiot proof, we’ll see broader adoption of blockchain-based journalism.”
Forkast.News is collaborating with Acoer to leverage NewsHash’s authenticity tracking service. Readers can scan a QR code to verify on Hedera Hashgraph’s DLT whether this article or video is authentic. Read here to find out more.