How Blockchain Can Help Combat Disinformation
Disinformation — that is, content that intentionally misleads for political or financial gain — is nothing new. But as we’ve seen over the last year in particular, digital platforms have made it significantly easier to spread dangerous conspiracy theories, as patently false claims on topics as wide-ranging as the pandemic, racial protests, California wildfires, and presidential election results have gone viral with surprising speed and reach.
Adding fuel to the fire is the emergence of deepfakes: highly convincing (yet totally fraudulent) audio, photo, and video content, created by AI, with the potential to cost businesses tens of millions of dollars. And that’s not even considering the less-quantifiable but no less significant human impact of tech-enabled disinformation on society at large.
The good news is, while technology has spurred the problem, new technologies — specifically, blockchain — also offer a potential solution to combat the growing threat of digital disinformation. Of course, it would be naive to expect a single, silver bullet solution to solve these complex challenges. But recent developments suggest that a blockchain-based approach could potentially address many of the risks and root causes of digital disinformation.
Blockchain has enormous potential
Blockchain systems use a decentralized, immutable ledger to record information in a way that’s constantly verified and re-verified by every party that uses it, making it nearly impossible to alter information after it’s been created. One of the most well-known applications of blockchain is to manage the transfer of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. But blockchain’s ability to provide decentralized validation and a clear chain of custody makes it potentially effective as a tool to track not just financial resources, but all sorts of forms of content.
Part of what makes it so hard to combat deepfakes and other types of disinformation is that today, there are no consistent standards or best practices for identifying, labeling, tracking, and responding to manipulated media across digital platforms. By providing greater transparency into the lifecycle of content, blockchain could offer a mechanism to restore trust in our digital ecosystem. Specifically, there are three key ways in which blockchain-based solutions can address the challenges posed by these new forms of digital disinformation:
The first way in which blockchain can be used to combat disinformation is by tracking and verifying sources and other critical information for online media. Publications can use blockchain to create a registry of all the images they’ve published, making information such as captions, locations, consent to be photographed, copyright ownership, and other metadata verifiable by anyone. For example, the New York Times is exploring this approach through their News Provenance Project, which uses blockchain to track metadata such as sources and edits for news photos, providing readers with greater context and transparency into when and how content was created.
Similarly, photo and video authentication company Truepic notarizes content on the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains to establish a chain of custody from capture to storage. Different applications will, of course, have different requirements and types of relevant metadata, but in general, blockchain offers a mechanism to verify where content is coming from and how it may have been manipulated on its digital journey to the end consumer.
In addition, as researchers and technologists develop deepfake technology for non-malicious applications such as educational videos, films, and interactive artwork, they can use blockchain to track who accesses their algorithms and verify that the individuals depicted in training images have consented to have their images used. This is particularly important for open source projects where these tools are much more generally accessible, making the risks of misuse substantially higher.
Maintaining Online Identity and Reputation
Traditionally, the publisher was the primary source of a piece of content’s reputation. You’re more likely to believe an article is accurate if you find it in the New York Times (or the Harvard Business Review) than on a website you’ve never heard of. However, reliance on institution-based reputation alone comes with some significant limitations. Trust in mainstream American media is lower than ever, with a recent poll finding that 69% of U.S. adults say their trust in the news media has decreased in the past decade. To make matters worse, in a digital media landscape driven by click-based ad revenue, even reputable publications are increasingly incentivized to prioritize engagement over clarity. When readers are largely getting their news from social media headlines, it can seriously impede their ability to distinguish credible journalistic outlets from interest-driven propaganda machines.
That’s where blockchain can help. A blockchain-based system can both verify the identity of a content creator and track their reputation for accuracy, essentially eliminating the need for a trusted, centralized institution.
For example, one recent paper outlined a proposal for a system in which content creators and journalists could cultivate a reputation score outside of the specific outlets for which they write, adopting a decentralized approach to the verification of sources, edit history, and other elements of their digital content. Additionally, blockchain can be used to track the distribution of content, giving both consumers and publishers greater visibility into where disinformation comes from and how it moves throughout the digital ecosystem.
Of course, as with any reputation tracking system, there are important questions to consider about who sets the standards, who contributes to the ratings, and who manages disputes (as well as the mechanisms for doing so). Moreover, any system designed to track and verify personal information will need to incorporate privacy and security best practices to meet both local and international regulatory requirements. That said, the decentralized nature of a blockchain solution can likely help to address many of these concerns, since it eliminates the need for a single, trusted institution to make these critical decisions.
Incentivizing High-Quality Content
Finally, one of the most challenging aspects of promoting accurate information in the current media landscape is that creators and distributors are strongly incentivized to drive clicks at all costs, and clicks most often come from sensationalized content. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Macedonian teenagers who pocketed tens of thousands of dollars from pay-per-click ads on disinformation articles shared on right-wing Facebook groups in 2016. While ad networks like Google have promised to do more to fight misinformation and disinformation, they are still “grading their own homework” — and they’re hardly incentivized to stop the cash from flowing.
However, smart contracts built on blockchain offer a mechanism to automate payment for content that’s verified according to predefined quality standards. For example, blockchain startup Civil launched in 2017 to incentivize accuracy in journalism by financially compensating users with cryptocurrency for publishing accurate information, and charging fees if they failed to meet community standards. While the company ultimately folded, a number of new startups such as Nwzer and Pressland have emerged in recent years that aim to support citizen and independent journalists by removing barriers to distribution and leveraging blockchain to verify the accuracy and integrity of news content.
Of course, these systems will only ever be as reliable as the community of stakeholders that defines their standards. But if designed well, a blockchain system can break through today’s crowded information ecosystem and incentivize people to only create and share content that meets the community’s requirements.
But it’s not a silver bullet.
While blockchain clearly has a lot of potential to enable greater accuracy and transparency, there is nothing inherently trustworthy about the technology itself — at its core, blockchain is simply a recording mechanism. It is up to the communities that use these platforms to establish how content will be added to the ledger, how it will be verified, and what incentives will be put in place to build and maintain that trust. If users do not trust the majority of the contributors recording and verifying the information, we’ll be back at square one. No technology will ever fully solve the underlying challenges of establishing trust between people, nor eliminate the underlying human motivations for profit and political gain that drive disinformation in the first place.
In addition, even if we assume that the majority of users are well-intentioned, assuming that they will have the time and capacity to verify the huge amount of content that is produced every day is another matter altogether. How many of the source links included in this article so far have you actually opened, let alone stopped to read in their entirety? Making blockchain-based tools as accessible and easy-to-use as possible will help (imagine a content review system similar to restaurant health grades or Yelp reviews) — but even so, there is only so much we can reasonably expect from most users.
And that’s just one of many tactical considerations that are yet to be resolved when it comes to actually implementing a blockchain-based media verification system. Blockchains are notoriously slow, can store limited amounts of information, and come with a slew of environmental, privacy, and freedom of expression concerns. Given these challenges, it is essential to invest not just in technological solutions, but also in complementary policy and education initiatives focused on mitigating the creation, dissemination, and monetization of disinformation.
Tackling Disinformation Will Take More than Technology Alone
On the policy front, we’ve already seen a number of important initiatives at the local, state, and national levels. In 2019, the DEEP FAKES Accountability Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, proposing the use of blockchain to verify sources, watermarks, content creator identity, and other relevant information. The EU proposed a number of regulations governing how firms can use AI earlier this year, and several states already have laws regulating the use of deepfakes, largely in relation to elections and deepfake pornography (although none to date have seen case law to test their effectiveness). Of course, any policy-driven efforts must balance regulation with privacy and freedom of expression — recent internet blockages and outcries over censorship are just the latest illustrations of how an authoritarian regime may use policies ostensibly meant to prevent disinformation to instead silence whistleblowers and opposition. Given these concerns as well as the rapid pace of technological development, practical policy solutions will have to focus on regulating malicious behavior and mitigating harm rather than creating blanket technology regulations.
At the same time, as more and more information is distributed through private social networks and channels rather than government-controlled entities, the private sector will increasingly find itself in the role of information arbiter and regulator. Many major social media companies such as Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter have already established limited policies related to manipulated media, but they have been far less consistent in developing and enforcing policies around disinformation more broadly, often citing the importance of free speech. In addition, while the conversation around content moderation has largely focused on internet and social media companies, disinformation and deepfakes are a threat to every industry, and so it is essential for every organization to adopt policies that protect themselves, their customers, and their stakeholders from digital disinformation.
Ultimately, effectively implementing policies and technologies to counter these new threats starts with fully understanding the threats themselves. This isn’t a problem we can just relegate to IT. Governments, corporations, and individuals at every level and in every function must invest in media literacy programs to educate themselves and their teams on how digital manipulation technologies work and how to effectively prepare for them.
The ability to trust the information we see, hear, and read is the foundation of a functioning economy and a democratic society. And while there are no easy answers, there are a number of things leaders can do to keep that trust from being eroded.
First, leaders must educate themselves and their teams about both the threats and opportunities posed by emerging technologies. Next, they can invest in technology solutions — including blockchain-based tools as well as more traditional options — to mitigate the impact of disinformation or deepfakes targeting their company, brand, or employees. In addition, when choosing technology and distribution partners, they can ensure they only work with organizations that take a proactive, responsible approach to meeting critical safety, privacy, and consent standards. And finally, they can consider joining consortia such as our organization, DeepTrust Alliance, to collaborate with stakeholders united around building policy and technology solutions to these problems.
Blockchain has the potential to make a big difference in the fight against disinformation — but it can’t solve everything. With the right mix of education, policy, and technology, the leaders of today will be poised to build a future in which all of us can trust.
This content was originally published here.