By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Executive President of IE University
Last week in Zurich, during a conversation with CEOs at the Lorange Network, I raised the question as to how blockchain technology might help in the global battle against fake news, a growing challenge in today’s post-global, post-truth society, where social networks now provide a large part of many people’s news and information diet.
Blockchain technology already provides global online databases that anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection, can use. Unlike conventional databases, which are owned by companies or public institutions, blockchains belong to the whole community.
So why not create a blockchain news repository for the global community containing verified facts and data? This would be a reliable ledger of objective information about what is going on in the world, from weather conditions to election results, or the rate of divorce in any country or its average butter consumption.
This information would be permanently updated, constantly verified or classified, and then stored and distributed through the network of computers of its users. Decentralisation would prevent manipulation and cheating.
As we have seen, blockchain can be used across a wide range of industries and business processes. For example, it can track commercial transactions globally, such as the trade in goods across continents, or validate academic and professional certificates.
Returning to my proposal, creating a media blockchain would provide transparency and reliability to all public statements by politicians, influencers, bloggers, journalists and anybody on social networks.
When I met Allen Blue , co-founder of LinkedIn, last year in Madrid, I recall that one of the things we talked about was precisely how to assure the reliability of social network content. He shared the increasing concern of social network managers at the abundance of false statements and lies on the web, none of which seems to incur any negative consequences for those behind them.
Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently said that as many as 10 million people saw the political advertisements that were purchased by a shadowy Russian internet agency and ran on its platform.
The blockchain I have in mind would not aim to restrict freedom of expression. People could publish anything they wish without any prior censorship. But after publication, the blockchain would highlight all factual errors or contradictory data it had detected.
Imagine, for example, that when a politician or CEO tweeted something of questionable veracity, a blockchain mechanism would tick it in red as false. Wouldn’t such transparency make our leaders more accountable?
The procedure would also apply to photographs, an area where we have seen manipulation, although the aim is not to expose people trying to improve their appearance with Photoshop, but rather to prevent images being misused
The idea of a blockchain of facts and data is certainly an attractive one, but just how would it work in practice?
-Firstly, it remains to be seen if the blockchains used in industries such as bitcoin fulfil their promise and are resistant to cheating, reliable and most importantly, accessible to all.
-Secondly, and arguably the major challenge, is that many people actively want ‘opinionated’ news coinciding with their own beliefs and viewpoints, and are not interested in verifying them.
But perhaps the thorniest issue would be establishing consensus among the members of such a blockchain about what constitutes a “fact”: history provides plenty of cases showing how the majority can disagree or choose to ignore reality: from Nazism to recent polls.
Finally, who would pay for a blockchain of facts and data: would it be commercially viable? The answer to that question depends on how many people are willing to pay to know the truth. Some newspapers and media companies already lay claim to this monopoly, using it to attract subscribers.
So, until a blockchain of facts and data of the type described above can be made feasible, the only remedy against fake news is more public debate to raise awareness of the problem, as well as pressuring social networks to continue taking measures to monitor the information they provide a platform for more carefully, based on the traditional ethical principles developed by journalists over the decades.