Yesterday, Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies announced they would begin targeted attempts of removing Russian disinformation, one of the aggressor nation’s most potent weapons in its attack on Ukraine. As harmful as “fake news” and propaganda can be, there’s a strong case that evidence of this information war should be preserved.
Although private companies have every right – and sometimes the legal or moral obligation – to curate their platforms by removing or boosting content according to their own prerogatives and bottom lines, understanding history is often as dependent on remembering lies as documenting facts.
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Decentralized crypto platforms are designed to be information-agnostic, making them potentially important venues for understanding these times of conflict. By distributing trust and replicating data across nodes worldwide, they ensure this information remains undoctored.
That’s at least partly why Sam Williams, founder of decentralized storage platform Arweave, has called for people to back up and save the disparate accounts of the war using his platform. In particular, he’s looking to record the same “fake news” that Twitter and Facebook are removing.
“We built Arweave in this way to ensure that records of history cannot be altered after they happen,” Williams told CoinDesk in a private message. It’s “a global, permanent archive that anyone can write to.”
Examples of Russian disinformation are widespread – from unsubstantiated accounts of Ukrainian border guards welcoming Russian soldiers to photos of the Ukrainian army deploying chemical weapons or using civilians as human shields.
Further, there’s evidence that the Kremlin, Russia’s intelligence agency, had a premeditated media strategy meant to set the narrative of the war, (which they hoped was quicker than it it turning out to be). On Feb. 26, for instance, state-owned media conglomerate Ria Novosti published a triumphant article declaring Russia had succeeded in its “special military operation.”
Before being taken down, the article stated that Russia had restored “its historical fullness” by “gathering the Russian world,” and uniting “the Russian people” against Western aggressors.
Clearly, having these contested claims circulate in wider conversation could increase misunderstanding of the conflict. Fake news is often less about getting people wholeheartedly to believe a false narrative, than simply sowing distrust of credible facts and institutions. It’s a messy business, and one that needs serious investigation.
The social media companies’ actions here are protected first by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which allows private organizations to speak freely, including to moderate or censor discussions, and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms from liability if they choose to allow certain content .
But these ads, sock-puppets, false flags, distorted narratives, crisis actors and outright lies are all significant. Withholding information from public view, including articles from sanctioned media outlets and spam, might diminish our understanding of Russia’s campaign and Putin’s motivations. Itmight also prevent activists, writers and legal institutions from holding bad actors to account.
“If we had not stored information that we now know to be false in our archives surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam war or the 1939 invasion of Poland, we would not understand how these wars started,” Arweave’s Williams said.
“In each of these cases, 'facts' we later realized were at least partially untrue” – including the “existence/non-existence of WMDs in Iraq, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam, and the Gleiwitz incident in 1939” – “were all initially misreported in some form,” he added.
There are sustained calls from influential people for deleting Russian propaganda. Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox, “During the Cold War, we would never let Pravda publish in the United States.” Graham Brookie, a senior director at The Atlantic Council, said, “you have to mitigate online harms that make war worse for humans.” Others go further in calling for the expulsion of Russian students and employees from U.S. institutions.
Calls for censorship also come from the other side. In early 2019, the Kremlin began disconnecting Russia from the global internet, allowing them to control what information civilians can view. The agency routinely asks social giants to block information – calls that Facebook (with ~70 million Russian users), among others, often happily follows – lest it lose access to the entire market. (Russia has also threatened tech employees with imprisonment during disputes.)
Social giants mostly follow the speech laws of the countries they operate in, even if they must abandon the lofty ideals of “free speech.”
Open, decentralized platforms operate according to different, perhaps higher, values that information should always be readily accessible, unadulterated and durable. Several crypto exchanges, including Binance and Kraken, took a similar line when declining to follow traditional financial institutions from “freezing” Russian accounts (though official economic sanctions may change that position).
Crypto, in its truest form, presents a permissive view of data and finance – both money and information should be free. This perspective places a high degree of trust and responsibility on users to think critically about what they’re consuming and in what they’re investing. But it’s perhaps the only consistent standard that can be applied.
All other ways of reckoning with or packaging information are subject to the whims of human judgment, coercion and sanction.
William’s first call to action to document the war came earlier this month, before shots were fired. Over 10 million documents related to the war have since been preserved, according to its block finder. But his Berlin-based company has long been trying to bridge the gap between the Western internet and Russia’s limited web.
The team recently announced it raised $17.2 million to fund its “gateways” – the bridges that connect users to Arweave’s “permaweb.” “Gateways are generally difficult and costly to run and upkeep. There’s no upside for the gateway operator, either. It’s a pure expense,” an Arweave trade publication wrote on Feb. 28.
Indeed, many so-called decentralized platforms struggle to reach that point. Many, too, feel compelled to include points of centralization in their products and operations.
Like other blockchain-based systems, Arweave users are incentivized to use and keep the platform alive through token payments, but development and upkeep is primarily done through William’s core team and paid for by a roster of venture capitalists titans, including Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square Ventures and Coinbase Ventures.
Note that Arweave, founded in 2017, is funding people to collect and store information related to the Ukrainian invasion as part of a grant-system that also pays people to operate nodes. This dynamic isn’t an issue in itself –lot’s of Web 3 projects “bootstrap” use through token schemes. But it may raise questions about the sustainability of long-term data storage.
Information wants to be free, and there are tools that help that effort. But human beings need to participate.