Disinformation is content intentionally misleading people. Misleading people for political or financial gain is not new. As we have seen, it is not difficult to spread dangerous conspiracy theories using digital platforms.
Patently false claims about topics such as the pandemic, racial demonstrations, and California wildfires have been virtualized with astonishing 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. This is not to mention the human impact tech-enabled disinformation has on society in general, which is less quantifiable but still very significant.
Technology has exacerbated the problem but new technologies, specifically blockchain, offer potential solutions to counter the rising threat of digital disinformation. It would be foolish to expect that there will be one solution for all these problems. Recent developments indicate that a blockchain-based approach may be able to address many of the root causes and risks of digital disinformation.
Blockchain holds great potential
Blockchain systems make use of a decentralized, immutable ledger that records information. This makes it almost impossible to alter the information once it has been created. Blockchain is used to transfer cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Blockchain's decentralized validation and a clear chain of custody make it a powerful tool for tracking financial resources as well as content.
It is difficult to fight deep fakes and other forms of disinformation because there are no consistent standards or best practices today for identifying, tracking, 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. There are three main ways that blockchain-based solutions can address these challenges.
Verifying the Provenance
Blockchain can be used in two ways to combat disinformation. The first is tracking and verifying sources. Publishing houses can create a blockchain registry that includes all images published. This allows anyone to verify information like captions, locations, and consent. The New York Times, for example, is looking into this method through the News Provenance Project. This uses blockchain to track metadata like sources and edits for news photographs, giving readers greater context and transparency about when and how it 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. Although different applications may require different types and types of metadata, the blockchain provides a way to verify the origin of the content and to determine how it was altered on its digital journey to consumers.
Researchers and technologists can also use blockchain to track access to their algorithms and verify that individuals in training images have given their consent to the images being used. This is especially important for open-source projects, where the tools are more widely accessible and thus have a higher risk of misuse.
Online identity and reputation
The reputation of content was traditionally attributed to the publisher. If you see an article in the New York Times or Harvard Business Review, you are more likely to believe it is true than if it's on a website that you have never seen. Relying on institutional reputation alone has its 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. Even worse, click-based advertising revenue is driving digital media. This means that even trusted publications are incentivized more to focus on clarity than engagement. 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.
Blockchain can help with this. Blockchain-based systems can verify the identity and track the reputation of content creators, eliminating the need to trust a central 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. The blockchain can also be used to track content distribution, providing both publishers and consumers greater insight into the origins of disinformation and its movement throughout the digital ecosystem.
As with any reputation tracking system, there are important questions that must be answered about who sets the standards, who contributes ratings, and who handles disputes (as also the mechanisms for doing this). To meet local and international regulations, any system that tracks and verifies personal information must also incorporate security and privacy best practices. The decentralized nature and trustworthiness of a blockchain solution may help address some of these concerns.
Incentives for high-quality content
One of the biggest challenges in promoting accurate information in today's media environment is that distributors and creators are incentivized strongly to drive clicks at any cost. Clicks often come from sensationalized material. 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. Although ad networks such as Google promise to do more to combat misinformation and disinformation they still "grade their own homework" and are hardly incentivized not to stop the cash flowing.
Smart contracts, which are built on blockchain, can be used to automate payments for content that has been verified in accordance with 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. Nwzer and Pressland, two of the most recent startups to emerge in recent years, both of which aim to support independent and citizen journalists by eliminating barriers to distribution and using blockchain to verify the accuracy and integrity of news content.
These systems are only as reliable as the community that sets its standards. If designed correctly, a blockchain system could break through the crowded information environment and encourage people to share only content that is compatible with their community's needs.
It's not a magic bullet.
Blockchain has the potential to improve transparency and accuracy, but it is not inherently trustworthy. At its core, blockchain is a recorder mechanism. These communities will decide how content is added to the ledger and how it will be verified. What incentives will they use to maintain and build that trust? We'll go back to square one if users don't trust the majority of contributors verifying and recording the information. Technology will never be able to solve all the problems of trust and remove the human motivations for profit or political gain that are the driving forces behind disinformation.
Even if most users are good-intentioned, it is difficult to assume that everyone will be able to read the vast amount of content being produced each day. How many of the source links included in this article so far have you actually opened, let alone stopped to read in their entirety? It is important to make blockchain-based tools accessible and simple to use. (Imagine a system that reviews restaurant health or Yelp reviews.) But even then, we only have so much we can expect from most users.
This is just one of many tactical issues that remain to be solved when it comes time to implement a blockchain-based media verification system. Blockchains can be slow and store very little information. They also have a lot of privacy and freedom-of-expression concerns. These challenges make it crucial to invest in not only technological solutions but also in complementary policies and education initiatives that aim to reduce the dissemination, creation, and monetization of disinformation.
It will take more than technology to combat disinformation
We've seen many important policy initiatives at the national, state, and local 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 has proposed regulations to govern how AI can be used by firms earlier in the year. Several states have already passed laws to regulate deepfakes, mostly in relation to elections or deepfake pornography, although none have been tested with case law. Any policy-driven effort must balance regulation and privacy. Recent internet blockages and protests over censorship show how authoritarian regimes can use policies that are ostensible to stop disinformation to silence whistleblowers or opposition. These concerns, along with the rapid technological advancements, will mean that practical policy solutions will need to be focused on mitigating harm and regulating malicious behavior.
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. While many major social media platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter have established policies regarding manipulated media, they have not been consistent in creating and enforcing policies about disinformation more generally. They often cite the importance of freedom of speech. While the discussion around content moderation has been mainly focused on social media and internet companies, deepfakes and disinformation are a threat for all industries. Therefore, it is crucial that every organization adopts policies to protect its customers and stakeholders from disinformation.
Effectively implementing technologies and policies to combat these threats requires that you understand the threat. This is not a problem that IT can solve. Individuals, companies, and governments at all levels must invest in media literacy programs that educate them and their teams about digital manipulation technologies and how to prepare.
A functioning economy and democratic society are built on trusting the information we hear, see, and read. There are many things leaders can do to ensure that this trust does not slip away, even though there are no easy solutions.
Leaders must first educate their employees and teams about the risks and opportunities presented by new technologies. They can then invest in technology solutions, including blockchain-based options as well as traditional options, to reduce the risk of disinformation and deepfakes targeting their brand, employees, and company. They can also ensure that they only partner with technology companies and distributors who take a responsible, proactive approach to meet privacy, consent, and safety 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.
Although blockchain has the potential for making a significant impact in fighting misinformation, it cannot solve all problems. The leaders of today can create a future that all can trust by combining education, technology, and policy.