Friday, September 01, 2017

Blockchain and the Edge of Disruption - Fake News

In a world where stability and trust are under threat, blockchain may seem to be a good way of holding the line. In the past month, @omribarzi has written several Forbes articles describing various applications of blockchain technology.

In this post I want to look at his proposal for addressing the problem of fake news, in which he makes the following claims:
  • Blockchain Tech Seeks to Decentralize News
  • Blockchain Tech Can Fix Mainstream Media
  • Blockchain Can Also fix Social Media
  • Giving Control Back to the Users
So let's start with the problem statement.
"The biggest issue with news sources in the digital age is verifiability. ... During the last American election, accusations of bias were everywhere, and the public has grown sick of the lack of clear and unbiased journalism."
 One of the things that blockchain can do is provide a clear lineage for a given item. If someone presents you with a dodgy story and claims that it comes from a reputable source such as the BBC, you can (if you choose) inspect the blockchain to verify this claim.

Or you could just look on the BBC website. It is not clear that blockchain is any easier or more reliable than other methods of fact-checking.

One use case described in the article is that "writers can offer snippets -- concise summaries of news articles". Blockchain may be able to verify that an original news article has a reputable source, but how can Blockchain verify that the summary accurately represents the original news article or articles? Fake news can sometimes contain true snippets taken out of context, and juxtaposed with other material to create a deliberately false impression.

A lot of recent fake news has been exposed by simple fact check. For example, the false assertion that President Obama played golf during Hurricane Katrina is refuted by a simple date check (Obama was not president during Katrina) or by looking at contemporary news reports. Is there a way that Blockchain could establish a link from the snippet to the fact-check?

And the quality of news is not just dependent on identifying the source. The BBC is a reliable source of news for many topics, but in some areas (e.g. climate change, Brexit economics) a dogmatic notion of "balance" results in its giving the same respect to dubious minority opinions as to expert consensus.

Verifiability is ultimately a question of methodology. Where a news story is controversial or politically charged, a good journalist or editor strongly prefers multiple independent sources, and will actively check the most obvious ways in which the story might be refuted (such as reverse image search). How is Blockchain going to help here?

Most of the time, fact-checking is relatively easy if you can be bothered. The reason fake news flourishes is that people can't be bothered. Often they can't even be bothered to read the article or view the video before reposting something, so the "like" is based purely on a seductive headline.

The article describes a platform called Snip, which will establish a reputation economy, and somehow remain immune to armies of bots. Snip means you never have to read long-form journalism (if you don't want to) and it has a machine learning algorithm "that learns you and your preferences so the end result is highly relevant personalize genuine news feed". Sounds pretty much like Facebook. Is that really "giving control back to the users"?



Omri Barzilay, Why Blockchain Is The Future Of The Sharing Economy (Forbes, 14 August 2017)
Omri Barzilay, 3 Ways Blockchain Is Revolutionizing Cybersecurity (Forbes, 21 August 2017)
Omri Barzilay, How Blockchain Is Reinventing Your News Feed (Forbes, 28 August 2017)
Omri Barzilay, Will Blockchain Change The Way We Invest? (Forbes, 30 August 2017)

Alexandra Svokos, Barack Obama Actually Visited Hurricane Katrina Victims, So Haters Get Out (Elite Daily, 31 August 2017)

Related Post: Blockchain and the Edge of Disruption - Brexit (September 2017) 

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