There, I encountered all sorts of random items: trading tips, motor vehicles for sale, statements about the oil pipeline protests at Standing Rock, the occasional conspiracy theory and a message that read, “In loving memory of Georges Fraipoints (16/01/1946-19/02/2017). Awesome man, father and friend. We will miss you.”
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But it is one from October 2016 that struck me most: “Need 30 btc. Please! Dream to leave Syria…Help get out of Syria. I live in Aleppo. I am 14 years old. I do not cheat. Community help!!!!!!!”
Did this young person ever get the donation? (At that time, 30 BTC would have been about $18,000.) Did he or she ever get out of Aleppo? Did they survive?
I knew I’d never get answers to those questions or find out whether the message was a legitimate call for help or some sort of con. But that didn’t stop me from being struck by the pathos of what I’d read. In the midst of a brutal war, Bitcoin’s immutable ledger had offered someone a means of asserting their humanity, a small but crucial act of defiance against an authoritarian regime hell-bent on denying it.
When you strip everything back from the mania around crypto and the new business models being built on it, its core, most important, idea is that of immutability. A truly decentralized, permissionless blockchain is perhaps the only unbreakable record of history we’ve ever had. At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise, that’s an incredibly powerful concept.
Effectively using blockchain technology as a bulwark against authoritarianism will require the complex integration of many moving parts, including changes in the legal process and the practice of journalism. But a framework for how it might be helpful – in concert with other tools of cryptography – is starting to take shape, partly because of the work being done at the Starling Lab, part of Stanford’s Center for Blockchain Research.
Lower down in the column, we’ll delve into the Starling Lab’s bid to improve how we authenticate and store information to bolster trust in news sources and evidential information, drawing on this week’s episode of the “Money Reimagined” podcast, in which our guest was the Starling Lab’s Jonathan Dotan.
Dotan makes clear that this is a challenging task. But God knows it’s one we must undertake.
Lies as legitimacy
All authoritarian regimes tend to assert their own, inevitably distorted version of history as part of their strategy for maintaining power. Without the legitimacy of a mandate founded on a free and fair election, they will strive to install some other legitimizing story in the public consciousness.
Think of Pol Pot’s Orwellian decree restarting Cambodian history at what he called “Year Zero.” These myth creation processes often manifest as historical appropriation, as when Hugo Chavez recast Simon Bolivar as a socialist, even though the 19th-century Venezuelan independence hero died two decades before a young Karl Marx wrote “The Communist Manifesto.” And, to be sure, they often fail, which, for now at least, seems to be the fate of former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement. (Have @ me, Trump supporters. That was an attempt at an authoritarian flex if ever there was one.)
Right now, we face a front-and-center example of immediate importance. Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to shore up support at home for his country's invasion of Ukraine by perpetuating the myth that Ukraine is occupied by Nazis and that Russia’s soldiers are liberating a neighboring country in the same way that a World War II generation fought back Hitler’s armies on the eastern front. Meanwhile, with the shuttering of independent media outlets, the Kremlin is covering up both the atrocities committed by his military and its own massive loss of Russian soldiers’ lives.
That this is occurring in an age of deep fakes, of bot-driven misinformation campaigns and of cynically crafted psyop strategies designed to steer our dopamine-triggered minds into amplifying false information makes the issue all the more urgent.
At the dawn of the social media age, Silicon Valley leaders would tout Facebook and Twitter as tools to democratize information and power. No longer. Nefarious uses of social media have generated what social scientists call the “liar’s dividend.” They foster broad-based mistrust in information generally, including in what might otherwise be seen as incontrovertible evidence that something is untrue.
To address these massive challenges, we need to re-architect the internet, says Dotan. And while blockchain technology is no panacea – as critics frequently point out, you can immutably store a lie in a blockchain – its principles of information permanence offer a framework for changing how we engage with online information.
When combined with encryption, decentralized storage and zero-knowledge proofs, along with a new mindset for how we verify and weigh cryptographically signed and stored information, the Starling Lab’s approach offers a path to improving how we collectively ascertain facts and decide what’s true and what’s not.
The lab is working with journalists, lawyers and historians to develop standards on how best to use these tools to create new systems of archiving and evidence gathering. The goal is to foster “decentralized trust” so as to “lower information uncertainty,” Dotan says.
“The technology around cryptography gives us a chance to do two things: One, it allows us to find ways to authenticate information – since I know at the source exactly what happened, I can freeze that moment, lock it in,” he says. “And the second thing I can do is I can encrypt, which means I can choose what I want to disclose and to who and when.”
Citing Russian misinformation bots’ cynical use of “#SyriaHoax” tweets to sow doubt in the minds of the public before evidence of chemical weapons attacks were revealed in the Syrian war, Dotan said it’s critical we now use these techniques to record evidence of Russia’s war crimes in the Ukraine invasion. That way, when the world finally gets around to delivering justice, it will have a safeguarded, provable record of what happened.
It’s the early days at the Starling Lab, but some of the team’s undertakings demonstrate the potential significance of its work. Using Filecoin’s decentralized storage protocol, for example, it has created an archive of the photos covering 78 days of the presidential transition in 2020, including the Jan. 6 riots. The team has also recorded the testimonies of Holocaust survivors in the same manner.
The Holocaust case seems especially pertinent. If humanity is to live up to the “never again” commitment that was expressed at the end of World War II, we cannot allow future generations to forget or misrepresent the truth of what happened there. There is no more important use case for cryptography and blockchain technology.
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