Blocking Fake News: Blockchain as a Digital Notary
July 9, 2021 | By Ryan Decker
Researchers: Daniel Conway, Mary Lacity
Although the term “fake news” was meaningless only a few years ago, Americans now view it as a larger problem than racism, climate change, or even terrorism. While the term originally described the deliberate spread of verifiably false information under the disguise of being an authentic news story, some people now use the term for any news they dislike. This new usage muddies the waters of what fake news really is.
The rise of this newer definition seems to be driven largely by politicians labeling unfavorable news coverage or that which seems biased as fake news. The obsession with the phrase ends up hurting credible news outlets. Many people are likely to drop a news outlet and/or reduce the amount of news they consume over concerns of fake news. This behavior may lead to increased polarization: ignoring information that may contradict one’s prior beliefs or even cutting off social relationships. This sort of polarization makes it harder to find common ground and fix problems.
In short, fake news is a major problem, but it’s difficult to solve the problem without clear definitions. It helps to break down the ambiguous term “fake news” into misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead. If you tell someone false information while believing it is true, you are spreading misinformation. Disinformation, however, is deliberately misleading or biased information, manipulated narrative or facts, or propaganda. This aligns with the first definition of fake news. The creators of fake news share disinformation and rely on uninformed readers to share it as misinformation.
The world is complex, and journalists play an important role in giving readers the Reader’s Digest version of a topic. People want stories in black and white rather than shades of gray, so a journalist may focus on certain aspects of it to make it more understandable or easier to read if you’re on the go. If the story wasn’t meant to mislead readers, it is misinformation and will likely be corrected. While incomplete news is another problem, a story is not “fake news” just because it may have left out a relevant detail.
Fabricated news is commonly used to spread false information about politics, science, and the economy, which radicalizes citizens, compromises public health, and manipulates markets. How can we stop the spread of fake news? Mary Lacity and Dan Conway from the Blockchain Center of Excellence discuss in their latest paper, Authenticating real news with ANSAcheck, a blockchain-enabled solution developed by ANSA and EY, how Italy’s top Italian news wire service, Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA), and Ernst & Young (EY) have used blockchain technologies to stop disinformation at the source before it is widely shared.
Even for the most skeptical people, identifying fake news can be hard. People tend to look for information that confirms their existing beliefs and attitudes and view this information as more persuasive than dissonant information. “With so many new sites,” the authors write, “such biases may prompt individuals to select ‘echo chambers,’ that is, news sites that merely echo their ideologies.” Interestingly, people believe that those in their own echo chamber can better spot fake news than those from a different group (such as an opposing political party).
Not only can fake news be difficult to spot, but how we consume news actually contributes to the problem. Because social media sites like Facebook and Twitter allow users to quickly share information with others, fake news can easily “go viral.” MIT researchers found that Facebook groups can perpetuate fake news around vaccines in two major ways: “They serve as ‘echo chambers’ where members ‘like’ posts from other users that reinforce their views or opinions; and they act as a dissemination tool when members share posts made in the group with their own wider social networks.”
Similarly, the more an individual sees a fake news story, the more likely they are to accept it as true. This acceptance is concerning given how social media platforms promote “viral” posts. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, fake stories surrounding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were shared millions of times. In fact, there were more fake news story engagements (8.7 million) on Facebook than legitimate news story engagements (7.3 million) in the months leading to the 2016 U.S. election.
Stopping the Spread at the Source
“No single solution can eradicate fake news,” the authors write. Everyone from governments, journalists, publishers, social media platforms, and citizens have important roles to play to stop the spread. Currently, most solutions to fake news are deployed after the news has already been released. Fact-checking websites, artificial intelligence, legal liability, and education have helped mitigate the impact of fake news.
What if there was a way to stop the fake news at its source? ANSA, one of Italy’s independent news agencies, developed a unique solution to do just that. ANSA ran into problems with imposters, fake news stories that appeared to have been released by ANSA. These imposters used the ANSA brand, format, and signature to give credibility to fake news stories. Since these stories had the traditional markers of the ANSA brand, readers had few reasons to reject the stories as fake news.
Stefano De Alessandri, CEO and managing director of ANSA, led the ANSAcheck initiative to combat the imposters. “Fake news is one of the biggest challenges facing traditional media organizations and social media platforms,” said De Alessandri. An impostor story “undermines the trust they have built with the public and advertisers, undermining their strategic asset that is their reputation. If we lose trust, we lose everything.”
ANSA worked with EY to use blockchain technologies to guarantee the origin of an ANSA-created story and trace that story through its entire history of updates and reposts. The solution is basically a digital notarization. Just as notary publics in the United States impartially confirm identities and verify signatures of important documents, ANSAcheck verifies that news did in fact come from ANSA and not an imposter.
All Aboard the Blockchain Train
Blockchain is an exciting new technology gaining traction in many industries, including food safety, supply chain management, financial services, and more. A blockchain is a decentralized, distributed ledger that stores information in a growing list of ordered records. While this may sound confusing, you can think of a train or train network to easily understand the concept.
A blockchain works very similarly to a large train exactly replicated on many independent tracks: it consists of connected cars (blocks) linked together (using cryptography) that run along a set of rails (nodes). Data stored in each block is unique and consists of just a part of the overall data set; in other words, it is decentralized. Just as there wouldn’t be a cargo car in a passenger train, not just any piece of data can be added to a blockchain. Cryptography ensures a stable and secure connection between cars, and nodes regulate the state of the data just like rails keep the train on track. This is only the Reader’s Digest version of blockchains. Learn more about it.
Blockchains have a variety of functions, but they are particularly well-suited for news verification. ANSAcheck assigns a unique ID to an ANSA-created news story and then posts it every 15 to 30 minutes to a public blockchain. The blockchain creates a tamper-resistant record of the news story, consisting of the story ID, the transaction ID, the timestamp, and location in the blockchain. Each verified news story has an ANSAcheck sticker that the reader can click to see the source of the story and any updates that have occurred. This sticker functions similar to the lock you see next to a URL on your browser marking this site as a “safe” one to visit.
If the train analogy made sense to you, the database (train network) of potential ANSA publications consists of ANSA stories (red cars) and imposters (blue cars). If an imposter tries to modify an existing story or publish a fake story (add a blue car to the train), the blockchain will reject it at the originating depot – even if only one letter is changed. As new stories are posted over time, more red cars are added to the train, connected to the latest story through secure cryptography.
The solution can register around 3,000 news stories every day, and, as of October 6, 2020, over 500,000 ANSA news stories had been posted on the blockchain. Future iterations of the solution will allow for the authentication of images and videos and allow for non-identical copies of the original news source to be shared, such as a publisher reposting a story and adding their own commentary.
What to Know Going Forward
The Walton College Blockchain Center of Excellence discusses four lessons learned from the ANSAcheck solution for other companies looking to use blockchains to solve problems.
- Don’t Ignore Public Networks
- Build Strong Networks from the Inside
- Keep it Simple
- Focus on Value
While most companies have used private networks called permissioned platforms, EY advocates for and invests in public networks to ensure that open, decentralized blockchains thrive. Just because a blockchain is public doesn’t mean data is accessible to all parties. EY’s blockchain resembles a virtual private network (VPN) that allows for private transactions on public blockchains. Companies looking to implement blockchain solutions should consider the use of public blockchains to improve scalability and increase transparency.
The reputations and networks of founding members of a blockchain ecosystem are more important than the number of founding members. “Other potential members who trust the founding member(s) will be more likely to join the application.” For example, ANSA is connected to over 35 other publishers and is considered the top news wire agency in Italy. By joining ANSA’s blockchain network, other publishers improve their own reputation by improving ANSAcheck’s value.
Blockchain technology can be intimidating. Terminology like cryptography, distributed digital ledgers, native digital assets, smart contracts, and more can cause anyone’s head to spin. “ANSA chose to educate readers more on what blockchains enable rather than explaining the technical details,” the authors write. Keeping initial solutions simple helps potential adopters understand the value of the solution and reduce risk.
Similarly, the adoption of blockchain technologies relies heavily on how potential adopters view the solution. If potential adopters are overwhelmed by the topic and are unable to see how it could create value, they are less likely to come aboard. ANSAcheck adds value by increasing brand awareness and confidence through verification, but it also helps publishers accurately price their subscription and advertising fees by tracking reposts and other analytics. Focusing on the value blockchains create helps potential adopters see past blockchain’s complex façade.
The Future of Blockchain
Blockchain has a bright future in many industries – especially in information verification. By 2023, 30% of world news will rely on blockchain technologies for authentication. As concerns around fake news reach all-time highs, blockchain offers a promising solution to many of these problems. ANSA, while the first in Italy, does not want to be the last to implement blockchain solutions. “The value comes to readers, publishers, and journalists when everyone adopts a solution like this. Any tools to defend and enlarge professional information benefits democracy,” De Allesandri says. Blockchain may help bring us together, one block at a time.