Harnessing Blockchain to Combat the Epidemic of 'Fake News'
23 Oct. 2023
Sonny Kwon, Founder CEO of PUBLISH Inc.
'Fake news' has resurfaced in the limelight, and it's a term that refers to the deliberate creation or manipulation of information with the goal of achieving 'political or economic gain,' even when it is known to be false. The proliferation of fake news is propelled by the rapid production and distribution of real-time information in the media, coupled with the rise of the "post-truth era," where beliefs often override facts, providing fertile ground for the dissemination of fake news.
However, the impact of fake news isn't confined to mental and ethical dilemmas. It wields considerable power, capable of disrupting individuals, businesses, society, and even nations, sowing anxiety, anger, confusion, and division. In 2017, the Hyundai Economic Research Institute estimated the economic cost of fake news, assuming it comprises 1% of all articles, to be a substantial 30.9 trillion KRW annually, equivalent to 1.9% of the country's GDP in 2015. Noteworthy examples include the 2013 hack of AP's Twitter account, which spread fake news about the White House being attacked, causing a sharp stock market drop. More recently, in November 2022, a fake Eli Lilly account's tweet about "free insulin supply" led to a decline in stock prices, illustrating the economic damage caused by fake news.
The problem exacerbates in times of high uncertainty, making it an even more significant threat to those already in crisis. In Iran, over 500 people lost their lives due to fake news falsely claiming that methanol could eliminate the coronavirus in 2020. Recently, social media platforms have been flooded with fake videos, such as the one depicting the Ukrainian president surrendering to Russia, and fake news regarding the Israeli Prime Minister being transferred to the hospital after a Hamas attack, further fueling confusion during times of conflict.
Government Initiatives to Combat Fake News... Balancing Freedom of Expression
Lately, South Korea's political circles have been abuzz with discussions on fake news and potential countermeasures. Last month, the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) announced its intention to combat fake news, asserting that fake news not only damages individual perceptions and reputations but also threatens public safety. The KCC has set up a platform for reporting fake news, aiming to expedite reporting, swift review, and subsequent actions through a fast-track system, including temporary content deletion. The commission has also committed to supporting relevant legislation, encompassing the definition and assessment of fake news and enhancing self-regulation among businesses and the review process. The government sees active intervention as necessary, as the foundational principle of "access to information" is under threat in the era of fake news. Swift responses to the spread of fake news can mitigate actual harm and thwart the malicious objectives of those creating fake news.
However, despite the toxicity of fake news, there is significant opposition to regulatory efforts. Concerns revolve around potential side effects that might weaken the media's role in overseeing and holding those in power accountable or infringe upon freedom of expression. Determining and penalizing fake news in a democratic society that values freedom of expression is a delicate task. Even discerning the objective truth is challenging, let alone uncovering the hidden "intentions," given the various interpretations of even simple events. Suggestions include adhering to traditional journalistic practices, where accurate information is disseminated through stages of initial reporting, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals, as well as relying on the existing legal framework for addressing media-caused harm.
Fake news is a global issue, and many countries have enacted laws placing responsibility for managing false, illegal, and harmful content on large digital platforms. Violations can result in hefty fines, reaching up to 6-10% of annual revenue. The UK's Department for Innovation and Technology has proposed the "Online Safety Bill," mandating platform content management. The European Union introduced the Digital Services Act (DSA), requiring platforms to establish clear deletion criteria and systems for the rapid blocking and prevention of false, illegal, and harmful content. France has introduced the "Information Manipulation Handling Act," allowing the immediate blocking of fake news during election periods, while Poland and Austria expand the range of measures against false information in the interest of national security and to counter third-country election interference.
Societies Vulnerable to Fake News
Fake news manipulates public perception and emotions to achieve specific objectives, using provocative material to guide the narrative. It skillfully blends fact with fiction, making it challenging to distinguish the truth. In this environment, individuals and society struggle to make informed decisions, leading to heightened anxiety, distrust, polarization, and hindrances in healthy public opinion formation, value sharing, social order, and harmony.
Human beings possess inherent biases that render them susceptible to fake news. Limited cognitive processing abilities often lead to erroneous reasoning, while confirmation bias drives individuals to selectively embrace information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. People tend to feel more at ease when they encounter information that confirms their preconceived notions, and uncomfortable when confronted with contradictory information. Even when presented with opposing viewpoints, this often provokes anger and resistance, solidifying existing beliefs. Emotions experienced upon initial exposure to information continue to shape judgments and evaluations after information has been modified. These persistent biases, combined with the deluge of fake news, distort people's capacity to accept and interpret objective facts and diverse opinions.
In a society that places more emphasis on personal emotions and beliefs over factual accuracy and where consensus often supersedes truth, the proliferation of fake news is further facilitated. The era of 'post-truth,' which was selected as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016, has witnessed the erosion of the authority of specialized knowledge and evidence, blurring the lines between truth and falsehood, and diminishing sensitivity to falsehoods and their implications.
The advent of social media has amplified these vulnerabilities and deepened the problem of fake news. Social media offers an easily accessible channel for information production and distribution, with no clear boundaries between information producers and consumers. Information is disseminated in real-time, including unverified content. The profit-driven structure, where attention translates to earnings, encourages the deliberate and repeated production of fake news.
Social media caters to users by providing information they want to hear, reinforcing existing perspectives based on users' viewing, search, and browsing history. Users with similar viewpoints easily form groups, fostering the unchallenged acceptance of favored perspectives. The combination of cognitive bias, confirmation bias, and biased information exacerbates the challenge of accepting objective facts and diverse viewpoints.
In an environment tainted by the pervasive presence of fake news, there is growing recognition of the need to enhance the public's ability to discern information. To avoid falling victim to fake news, individuals need to sharpen their information identification skills, which can be achieved by verifying information sources, practicing critical reading, and evaluating whether information triggers emotional responses.
The Role of the Media in the Era of Fake News
Above all, the role of the media as a trusted information provider becomes even more pivotal. The media's responsibility is to collect and analyze facts and opinions, delivering them to the public. The media is instrumental in monitoring and scrutinizing those in power, setting agendas, shaping public opinion, and bolstering democracy. Regrettably, social trust in traditional media has dwindled, and the credibility of new media platforms remains uncertain.
For the media to regain trust, it must adhere to the following principles:
Self-regulation: Media organizations should recognize their responsibility and the weight of their role in delivering information to society. They should reestablish their integrity and be accountable.
Transparency: Media organizations should clearly state their mission and principles and adhere to them without deviation.
Neutral reporting: Media organizations should differentiate between facts and opinions, refraining from mixing them and avoiding manipulation.
Communication: Media organizations should foster interactive communication with their audience, forming a community of shared values.
Rapid, accurate information: In the age of real-time information dissemination, media organizations should deliver accurate information as swiftly as possible.
While numerous initiatives and countermeasures are currently in progress, it is inevitable that the public will continue to encounter fake news to some extent. To effectively combat fake news, collaboration is essential from individuals to the media. Additionally, the role of digital platforms is crucial in establishing policies and improving the credibility of the content they provide.
Blockchain: A New Tool in the Battle Against Fake News
In the context of fake news, blockchain technology is emerging as a promising solution. Blockchain is a decentralized, distributed ledger technology that guarantees transparency, security, and data immutability. Originally designed for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, blockchain has found applications in various sectors. How can blockchain address the scourge of fake news?
Transparency and Trust: Blockchain ensures transparency by recording all data on a shared ledger accessible to anyone. This transparency can be harnessed in the news industry to verify the authenticity of sources and the accuracy of information. When news organizations use blockchain to timestamp and store their articles and sources, readers can effortlessly verify the legitimacy of the content they consume.
Data Integrity: Once data is added to a blockchain, it becomes nearly impossible to alter or delete it. This feature helps preserve the integrity of news articles and prevents malicious actors from tampering with published content. Users can trust that the information they access remains unaltered.
Fact-Checking: Blockchain can empower fact-checking organizations to timestamp their findings on a blockchain, creating a verifiable and immutable record of fact-checking results. Readers can use these records to assess the credibility of news articles.
Decentralization: Unlike traditional news sources, blockchain-based news platforms can operate in a decentralized manner, reducing the influence of central authorities and corporations on news production and distribution. This can help prevent censorship and manipulation.
Cryptographic Signatures: Blockchain can be utilized to verify the authenticity of authors and journalists through cryptographic signatures, adding an extra layer of trust to news articles.
Several projects and startups are already exploring the use of blockchain technology in the media and journalism industry, aiming to create platforms that offer transparent, tamper-proof, and reliable news content. By leveraging blockchain, these platforms can contribute to combating fake news and enhancing the overall credibility of news sources.
However, it's essential to recognize that while blockchain is a valuable tool in the fight against fake news, it is not a panacea. It cannot address the underlying human factors, such as cognitive biases and confirmation bias, that render people susceptible to fake news. Additionally, implementing blockchain in the news industry may encounter technical and adoption challenges.
The Role of Blockchain in the News Ecosystem
While individual efforts from lawmakers, readers, journalists, and media outlets are critical, it is equally important to foster a technological environment that supports and encourages effective journalism.
At PUBLISH, our vision is to revolutionize news by creating a journalism ecosystem that leverages blockchain technology to facilitate the production and consumption of 'good news.' The expectation is that blockchain can serve as a tool to combat fake news and drive innovation in journalism. Blockchain, with its enhanced reliability, transparency, and processing efficiency, can complement and support the functions of a robust journalism ecosystem.
Examples of blockchain's role in countering fake news and preventing information manipulation can also be found in other countries. For instance, The New York Times' 'News Provenance' project aimed to combat fake news by recording metadata for news photos on the blockchain. In the Netherlands, a blockchain-based project for countering fake news received recognition as the best project in the social contribution category from the European Union's Innovation Council in 2020. Chinese authorities have even uploaded an interview with medical staff regarding COVID-19 on the blockchain to safeguard access when they attempted to delete it.
Initially, PUBLISH focused on blockchain-based "fact-checking" to address the issue of fake news. In September 2020, we acquired a blockchain technology patent for fact-checking news articles and content. This technology allowed for the recording of news producer information, dates, locations, and metadata on the blockchain, enabling blockchain-based evaluations of media outlets and journalists.
While fact-checking is crucial for uncovering the truth, it may not be a comprehensive solution in an era inundated with information. Fact-checking fake news already disseminated can feel like attempting to purify polluted water. Fact-checking is often costly and challenging, and it should strive to uncover the truth without bias.
Currently, PUBLISH has shifted its focus from fact-checking to nurturing a culture of producing and consuming good news or 'redemptive news', which is truthful yet hopeful. The goal is to create an ecosystem that values good news and naturally discourages fake news and low-quality news, which erode trust among readers and society.
Blockchain can create a fair environment that applies equal standards to everyone through "smart contracts," which automatically execute under specific conditions. Moreover, it can facilitate the operation of an ecosystem that functions more smoothly and organically, rather than artificially.
Blockchain-based Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) support a process in which members propose ecosystem rules, establish rules with community consensus, and provide support. This approach ensures a dynamic and evolving ecosystem, rather than a rigid community fixated on specific criteria.
Blockchain technology experiments in journalism aim to create a secure environment where fake news has no place, maximizing the benefits that journalism can offer and upholding the principles of democracy.