The Real News on Blockchain

The NY Times last week released results from its preliminary research into whether and how blockchain might be useful in combating the problem of misinformation and disinformation spreading on social media platforms. It also released a proof of concept for how a blockchain-based network for photojournalism could work, which it built in partnership with IBM Garage.

Called the News Provenance Project, the work is being conducted by the Times’ R&D Lab, with the help of IBM technologists and input from other news organizations. The goal, according to a post by the Times’ Sasha Koren, was to see if technology can be used to solve some of the problems technology has created, such as the production of ever-more convincing deep-fake videos and the easily manipulation of photographs to create false narratives.

The initial idea was that publishers could contribute to creating a healthier information ecosystem by surfacing information they already have about the work that they publish. Our main hypothesis was that adding context to news photos — in the form of metadata, with information that is often contained in a caption, but gets stripped out as a photo travels beyond a news outlet’s own sites and apps — might help people make better decisions about the credibility of the images they see on social platforms and elsewhere around the internet.

A manipulated image that spread virally

The project chose blockchain because its architecture enables the storage of metadata about an asset in (more or less) immutable form, as well as the tracking of the asset’s provenance over time, including any changes made to it.

As a database, a blockchain can provide network members increased confidence in the reliability of its data, due to its enhanced security in the way it stores that data, which makes the records published to it more or less immutable. It also ensures transparency of all “transactions,” or updates to the records stored in the system, so that any major changes made to a record would be recorded and visible. In addition, it offers shared ownership of a database among a number of entities — in this case, publishers.

The Times deserves credit for investing the time, money and resources into addressing a systemic problem like the spread of fake news. But the results so far also illustrate the limits of blockchain’s capacity to solve systemic problems, at least within the media industry.

The Times’ researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 34 news consumers and daily social media users from a range of backgrounds and political leanings, to learn how they judge the credibility of news images.

They found that readers do apply critical thinking in interpreting images, although their approaches vary significantly.

Broadly, the subjects showed widely varying awareness of the contextual elements of an image on social media, such as its source, caption, date and other types of metadata. They also showed widely varying degrees of trust in news outlets. Using those data points, the Times sorted subjects into four broad categories:

Distrustful news skeptic (low trust, high awareness): Seeking to call out bias in mainstream media, a person in this category may use motivated reasoning to find any evidence to confirm their belief that the media is pushing a particular agenda.

Confident digital news subscriber (high trust, high awareness): A person in this category is digitally savvy and is comfortable distinguishing between true and false news when provided information from news outlets they trust.

Media-jaded localist (low trust, low awareness): This person may feel marginalized by mainstream media and uncritically accept hot takes from unofficial accounts as truths. They want news that feels local and authentic, but they don’t want to be misled by false information intended to deceive.

Late-adopter media traditionalist (high trust, low awareness): A person in this category may be more comfortable learning about news through older mediums such as television or newspapers, but less comfortable making sense of news online within the noise of social media.

While technology certainly influences how different people experience and react to news media content, the differences in their attitude and behavior are clearly not solely a function of technology. And no technology, by itself, is going to reconcile those differences.

The primary roles the News Provenance Project envisions for blockchain, moreover, such as surfacing more metadata and providing transparency into an image’s provenance, are likely to be relevant only to some categories of consumer.

The researchers also found that many of the signature concepts associated with blockchain — “immutability,” “encrypted database” — made little impression on subjects in the study.

A Heavy Lift

Another major challenge, which the Times’ researchers to their credit acknowledge, would be implementing a new blockchain-based infrastructure for photojournalism at a scale sufficient to make a meaningful difference.

To give a sense of what it would take to realize the full vision of surfacing provenance information on news photography, we’d need changes at every step of the process, from the time a photo is taken, to every instance of its publication and display. In brief, an ideal set of changes would be for:

  • Camera makers to help photographers ensure time, date and location settings in cameras are exact.
  • Every news publisher to modify their management processes for photo metadata so that they adhere to a common set of standards, such as those maintained by the International Photo Telecommunications Council (IPTC).
  • All platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, as well as chat apps like WhatsApp and Signal, to ensure the consistent display of this information.

Those issues will be familiar to anyone who has considered seriously the use of blockchain to address the challenges around data transparency and sharing in the music industry and other media sectors. The biggest challenges come down to questions of interests, incentives and inertia, which do not bend to technology no matter how innovative or powerful.

The ease with which misinformation and disinformation spreads and feeds back on itself today is in large part a function of the viral, peer-to-peer architecture of our new information ecosystem. It is a feature, not a bug.

That said, I hope the Times keeps plugging away with the News Provenance Project. The problem it aims to tackle, while larger than any one technology can solve, could not be more urgent. Even taking small bites out of a big problem can be worth the effort.