The Sierra Leone Vote: What We Got Wrong

Recent media coverage overstated a blockchain startup's involvement in the Sierra Leone election. CoinDesk inadvertently contributed to the problem.

AccessTimeIconMar 26, 2018 at 1:30 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:44 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 26, 2018 at 1:30 a.m. UTCUpdated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:44 a.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 26, 2018 at 1:30 a.m. UTCUpdated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:44 a.m. UTC

Blockchain technology may have the potential to change in the world, but exaggerating its real-world accomplishments can only sow public distrust and set the industry back.

The recent confusion and controversy over the role of Agora, a blockchain startup, in the Sierra Leone presidential election serve as a case in point.

While an Agora executive has taken responsibility for media coverage that overstated its involvement, CoinDesk inadvertently contributed in our initial story, which revealed the news to the world for the first time on March 8.

First, the facts: Agora acted as an international observer in the Sierra Leone election, and it was accredited for this role by the African nation’s National Electoral Commission (NEC). Importantly, Agora did not do the official vote count; that was the NEC’s job.

Rather, it provided an independent count of ballots that the official results could be compared against, and only for the Western district of Sierra Leone, not the whole country. Agora workers on the ground manually recorded its tally on a private blockchain.

That in itself was a first for the technology and a worthy story to report. But many media outlets made it sound like Agora was running the actual election for the government on a blockchain. Unfortunately, CoinDesk was among them.

The original title for our March 8 story, “Sierra Leone Secretly Holds First Blockchain-Powered Presidential Vote,” while vague, could easily have given readers the wrong idea (the adjective was later changed to “Blockchain-Audited”).

Further, the article as initially posted did not note that Agora’s work was confined to the Western district (a detail added after publication), nor did it explicitly spell out the company’s limited role as an observer, again potentially misleading readers.  

It should be noted that CoinDesk did attempt to reach the NEC for comment for that story, but did not hear back by deadline. An additional request has also gone unanswered. And our follow-up article, published on March 10, was much clearer about the scope of Agora’s activities.

Nevertheless, the early coverage across the media has led to “fake news” recriminations (mostly directed at Agora) and generally left a bad taste.

The NEC itself, in a March 19 tweet, flatly stated that it “does not use blockchain in any way.”

— National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (@NECsalone) March 19, 2018

Jaron Lukasiewicz, Agora’s chief operating officer and the main source in our March 8 article, issued a mea culpa, telling CoinDesk:

“I would like to acknowledge that any misunderstandings in the media are my own responsibility, though they were unintentional. I am implementing new processes for future media events covering Agora.”

And when interviewed by reporter Michael del Castillo for that first article, Lukasiewicz indeed spoke imprecisely, and perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, saying things such as this:

“You’re looking at a country that you probably wouldn’t normally expect to be the first to use transparent voting tech. But a country like Sierra Leone can ultimately minimize a lot of the fall-out of a highly contentious election by using software like this.”

Nevertheless, we recognize that the ambiguity in the March 8 article likely contributed to the confusion and should have chosen our words more carefully.

CoinDesk continues to strive for the highest journalistic standards, and to raise the bar for integrity, accuracy and clarity in our reporting.

Voters in Sierra Leone image courtesy of Agora.

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