Misleading information, also known as disinformation, is not a new phenomenon. However, the widespread availability of digital platforms has made it easier to disseminate dangerous conspiracy theories. This has led to the rapid spread of false claims on various topics such as the pandemic, racial protests, California wildfires, and presidential election results. The virality and reach of these claims have been alarming, especially in the last year.
The situation is being worsened by the arrival of deepfakes, which are created by artificial intelligence and are extremely realistic but entirely false audio, image, and video content. This could result in businesses losing tens of millions of dollars, not to mention the intangible yet equally significant societal implications of technology-enabled deceit.
It is promising to know that even though technology has caused an increase in digital disinformation, there is hope that blockchain technology can provide a viable solution. Although it may not be realistic to depend on a single, foolproof solution to resolve these intricate issues, there have been advancements indicating that a blockchain-centred approach has the potential to tackle numerous risks and underlying causes of digital disinformation.
Blockchain technology utilizes a distributed and unchanging ledger to document data that undergoes continuous verification from all participating parties, rendering it highly resistant to any attempts of tampering or alteration. Although blockchain is famously used in managing cryptocurrency transactions like Bitcoin, its decentralized verification and a transparent trail of ownership make it a promising tool for monitoring various types of content and not just financial resources.
One of the major difficulties in combating deepfakes and other types of disinformation is the lack of consistent standards or best practices for identifying, labeling, tracking, and responding to manipulated media on digital platforms. The absence of such standards erodes trust in our digital ecosystem. However, blockchain technology offers a potential solution by providing greater transparency into the lifecycle of content. Blockchain-based solutions can address the challenges posed by these new forms of digital disinformation in three key ways.
1. Verifying Provenance
One way to fight against false information using blockchain is by tracing and certifying sources and key data for online media. By employing blockchain, media outlets can establish a record of all the pictures they have shared, enabling information like captions, locations, permission to take photos, copyright ownership, and other metadata to be verified by anyone. An instance of this is the New York Times, which is currently exploring this method via its News Provenance Project, where blockchain is utilized to monitor key data like sources and edits for news images, granting readers a more comprehensive understanding and transparency on the creation of content.
Truepic, a company that verifies the authenticity of photos and videos, utilizes the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains to notarize content and create a clear record of its origin and storage. Various applications may necessitate distinct types of metadata, but the blockchain inherently provides a means to prove the source of content and detect any alterations made during its digital journey to the final recipient.
Furthermore, while deepfake technology is being developed by researchers and technologists for purposes like educational videos, films, and interactive art, they can employ blockchain to monitor the individuals who access their algorithms and confirm that the people portrayed in training images have given their permission for their images to be used. This is especially critical for open-source projects where these tools are more widely available, increasing the likelihood of misuse.
2. Maintaining Online Identity and Reputation
Traditionally, a content’s credibility and reputation were primarily determined by the publisher. For instance, if you come across an article in the New York Times or the Harvard Business Review, you are more likely to believe its accuracy than if you found it on an unfamiliar website. However, relying solely on an institution’s reputation has some limitations. Nowadays, trust in mainstream American media is at an all-time low, with a recent poll revealing that 69% of U.S. adults have lost their faith in the news media over the past decade. On top of that, in the digital media era, publications are increasingly incentivized to prioritize engagement over clarity due to click-based ad revenue. Even reputable publications are affected, which makes it difficult for readers to distinguish credible journalistic outlets from interest-driven propaganda machines, especially when most people get their news from social media headlines. Thus, it can significantly impede their ability to assess the reliability and trustworthiness of the content they consume.
The application of blockchain technology can provide a solution to the issue. By utilizing a blockchain-based platform, it becomes feasible to validate the identity of a content producer as well as monitor their credibility in terms of accuracy, thereby removing the necessity for a centralized and trusted organization.
An academic paper suggested a decentralized system for content creators and journalists to establish a reputation score independent of their affiliated publications. This system would verify sources, edit history and other aspects of their digital content. Moreover, blockchain technology could be utilized to track the distribution of content, enabling both publishers and readers to identify the origin and movement of disinformation within the digital ecosystem.
There are significant issues to ponder about the legitimacy of a reputation-tracking system. These include determining the parties responsible for setting the standards, rating contributions, and dispute resolution processes, as well as the methods used to accomplish them. Furthermore, a system that aims to track and authenticate personal data must adhere to privacy and security best practices that comply with local and global regulatory standards. However, the decentralized structure of a blockchain-based solution can potentially solve most of these predicaments since it eliminates the need for a single authoritative institution to make crucial decisions.
3. Incentivizing High-Quality Content
In the current media environment, promoting accurate information can be extremely challenging. Creators and distributors are heavily motivated to generate clicks, often resorting to sensationalized content to do so. This drive for clicks has led to instances such as the Macedonian teenagers who earned large amounts of money through pay-per-click ads on disinformation articles shared on right-wing Facebook groups in 2016. Although ad networks like Google have pledged to combat misinformation and disinformation, they are still responsible for regulating themselves and have little incentive to prevent the flow of money.
The utilization of blockchain-based smart contracts presents an opportunity to automate payment for content that satisfies predetermined quality criteria. In journalism, for instance, blockchain startup Civil initiated a compensation scheme based on cryptocurrency to encourage accuracy in reporting, while also penalizing users who failed to adhere to community standards. Although Civil eventually shut down, various new startups like Nwzer and Pressland have emerged in recent times with the objective of supporting independent and citizen journalists by facilitating content distribution and utilizing blockchain technology to authenticate the veracity and credibility of news stories.
The effectiveness of these systems is dependent on the trustworthiness of the group of individuals who establish their rules and regulations. Nonetheless, a properly developed blockchain system can surpass the current overflow of information and encourage individuals to produce and distribute content that satisfies the community’s criteria.
Maintaining the trustworthiness of information that we perceive through our senses is crucial for the smooth functioning of an economy and a democratic society. Although finding solutions to this issue is not simple, there are several actions that leaders can take to prevent the erosion of trust in information.
To begin with, it is crucial for leaders to educate themselves and their teams on the advantages and risks presented by emerging technologies. Following this, they can opt to invest in technology-based solutions, such as blockchain tools alongside conventional methods, to lessen the impact of malicious content or deepfakes that aim to harm their brand, company or personnel. Additionally, while selecting technology and distribution partners, they should only collaborate with organizations that have a proactive and accountable approach towards adhering to critical safety, privacy, and consent standards. Lastly, they can contemplate joining groups like the DeepTrust Alliance, to work together with stakeholders committed to devising policy and technological solutions for these issues.
The utilization of blockchain technology has the potential to significantly contribute to the battle against misinformation. However, it should be noted that it cannot provide a complete solution. In order for a trustworthy future to be built, a combination of education, policy, and technology must be properly implemented by current leaders.