I Want the Truth: Could Blockchain Stop Online News Distortion?
"The shitpost is mightier than the thinkpiece."
That's a quote a friend says he saw in the news once, though I can't find it. He swears he didn't make it up. But it's not out there on the Internet it seems, and if it is, it's lost in the millions of tweets, texts and tumblrs.
That's the way the truth is these days, lost in the pages upon pages upon pages...
It's concerning, this degradation of truth that has come as content has migrated from newsprint to digital platforms. Just because something seems (or sounds) true doesn't mean it is. Like the quote, fact-based content seems to be getting harder to find, and increasingly based on belief.
It may not be a surprise then that Facebook and Google are now facing mounting criticism for fake news that appears on their platforms. (Google now says it will ban fake news websites from using its advertising service, and Facebook updated its policy language saying that it will not display ads in sites running fake news).
But, it might be time to face a reality – the issue may be with the nature of the platforms that carry the news and the profit systems they work under, not the information itself.
Now, blockchain companies are trying to shake up content creation, and these projects interest someone like me – a journalist that's worried about the state of the profession in the digital age.
The emergence of new social media and content platforms coincides with a growing disillusionment with systems that control user data and push exploitive content. And it's not just a complaint from the media pen, but a threat to knowledge in the US and around the world.
Is the same consideration for the truth being demanded today of the legacy social media giants being put into these new blockchain-based content platforms?
UX over truth
The short answer is the issue doesn't seem to be top of mind.
According to Ryan X Charles, founder of Yours (a micropayments system built on top of a social media platform), its mission is about "getting content creators paid on the Internet".
That's all fine and well if those content creators are posting well-written, factually-correct content. But if they're not, are we not recreating the same problems? Why should I, or anyone else, pay them?
"I wouldn’t say we're focused first and foremost on truth," Charles said.
He's working under the principles of market economics, allowing users to pick the rules like Reddit moderators (Charles is a former cryptocurrency engineer at the social media company).
"Some communities on the platform will not be very good," he said. "But the ones that pick the right rules with the right amounts of money to the right people will succeed over others."
That doesn’t seem to be the case as highlighted above in media.
Sure, the idea is that social media users who create good content should get paid for their posts, but there are already mechanisms for this. Nearly naked women have had success selling photos on premium SnapChat accounts using SnapCash, while highly trafficked Twitter accounts partner with affiliate networks to share ad revenue.
But Yours isn’t the only blockchain platform that seems to be trying to democratize money-making on social media.
On Steemit, a blockchain social media platform that has been criticized for its construction, blockchain entrepreneurs are making $1,500 in digital currency for writing short posts that probably took them no longer than 15 minutes.
In comparison to the measly amount journalists get paid for researching topics (including the blockchain) for weeks, months, if not years, this system seems to incentivize quick, unsophisticated content over investigative reporting.
Steemit also suffers from a sustainability problem that's been much-discussed.
For example, several cryptocurrency enthusiasts believe Steemit's executive team holds a majority of the platform's tokens even today, and it uses the big payouts as a kind of marketing incentive to get more people onto the platform. And the more people that sign up, the higher the price per token goes, making the executives richer, especially since most users will cash out as soon as they can, selling the tokens on an exchange to most likely the same executives that tipped them in the first place.
For all this, the company’s mission aligns more closely with the interests of journalists. In May, CEO and founder Ned Scott said the Reddit-like platform looks to "reward positivity and accuracy over garbage content like some of the things you see on Facebook".
But then, the disproportionate power gets in the way.
"If you don't please the whales you won't get ahead," said Charles from Yours. This is why Yours isn't creating a new currency for its platform, to mitigate power grabs and ponzi-scheme skepticism, he said.
But Yours and other platforms like it might suffer the same by targeting cryptocurrency enthusiasts first. The cryptocurrency industry is filled with vehement supporters who have at times shuttered any type of criticism.
On Reddit, r/bitcoin has been heavily censored during the block size debate and just perusing through the comments on CoinDesk that don’t align with the hype provides a good example of echo chamber onslaughts.
There, content about the need for regulation for projects holding people’s money might get downvoted into oblivion. These echo chambers almost disincentivize critical thought, although they make significant amounts of money for people that play along.
Identity is key
But two veteran journalists, Anthony Duignan-Cabrera and Jeff Koyen (who have both signed up for Yours) think blockchain could play a part in providing an identity layer that acts as a verifier for those posting news to social platforms. And that could be the key to saving journalism.
The problem in Koyen’s mind is that journalism plays under the rules of advertising, racking up more clicks increases your revenue. And this leads to a system rife with ad fraud through programmatic advertising and click farms.
This is where blockchain could come in, as an identity layer and transparent ledger that makes ad fraud harder to propagate undetected. Readers, either pseudonymous or not, would send a publisher a cryptocurrency token that is used to verify that they are in fact a real person.
Duignan-Cabrera agrees that this could free journalist from the clutches of advertising.
"Everything the internet touches, it devalues," he said. "Which could mean it makes it all crap but it could also mean that it just disrupts whatever previous revenue model was used."
And in publishing, that could be a good thing.
Through the blockchain, Duignan-Cabrera thinks a vetting process could be established which allows the content creator, advertiser and consumer to build a trusted relationship. This could use the payments features of the blockchain as well, allowing a consumer to directly pay a content creator or an advertiser to distribute revenue-share micropayments to publishers immediately.
For now, it seems there’s still hope in such systems, even if they’re not mature today.
"Decentralizing publishing is terrifying; there’s not a lot of incentive to strip away the centralized publishers because there’s still a need for trusted forums," he said.
But he argues that the blockchain could enhance the ability of these services to perform their duties, concluding:
"With blockchain, there could be verification of source, trust and viewers."
Distorted TV image via Shutterstock
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.
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