What Journalists Got Wrong About BlockChain

With the price of Bitcoin hitting all-time highs in December 2020, and many saying it will 5x in 2021, there’s a whole new hype cycle for Bitcoin about to burst.

WARNING: This is a distraction!

This post is not about how Bitcoin will save journalism, because it won’t.

This is about how journalists misunderstand the value of Blockchain because we get distracted by the hype cycles of Bitcoin. Blockchain is the technology that enables distributed ledgers of truth. Bitcoin is a specific ledger of truth for a monetary instrument.

Blockchain 101

Imagine a group of people playing a pickup game of basketball. There’s no appointed scorekeeper, like in a professional game. When somebody makes a shot, they call out the new score “10 to 8!” Everyone acknowledges the new score and the game continues until the next basket. This is a “distributed ledger of truth” around the score. No single person is in charge. The game relies on agreement and instant updating across everyone who is playing.

This is how to understand what Blockchain technology enables. People around the world, who may never know/see each other, can agree on the “score” of something. This can have all kinds of applications and one of the first and most well known is around money.

Why Money?

An age-old problem of the Internet was that money couldn’t be exchanged between individuals without a trusted third party. If I buy something at a farmer’s market with cash, the transaction is transparent for all interested parties (just the two of us). But if I try and buy something from that same farmer online, we need a third party to “scorekeep” the transaction. With Blockchain I can send Bitcoin and the two of us (without a third party) can call out the new score for everyone else to see and the monetary game will continue.

Not only is a third party unnecessary, an unwanted third party can’t intrude on the transaction. Bitcoin can’t be inflated or confiscated. You hear the words “censorship resistant” and “decentralized” a lot in Bitcoin. These aren’t just buzzwords. Because Bitcoin doesn’t have a central arbiter of truth, no single entity can change the amount of Bitcoin in existence or stop somebody (with the right access to a wallet) from transacting with it.

So What’s Your Point?

It’s great that Blockchain technology via Bitcoin has been widely adopted as a monetary instrument, but that’s not the best application of Blockchain technology for media and journalism. I mean yea, we should get that money (I accept Bitcoin!), but thinking this is the use-case for media is like newspapers in 2001 copy-pasting their print stories into a website and assuming they now mastered the Internet. That’s missing the boat.

Remember Civil?

Civil, the best known (and roundly considered unsuccessful) application of Blockchain technology in media had many things going against it. I would argue it fundamentally misunderstood the opportunity of Blockchain. In addition to most coins in 2017 not having a clean onramp (not Civil’s fault), they created their own bureaucracy with tokens as both money and votes. It was caught up in the 2016/17 hype of Blockchain’s application to money (ICOs) and confused where the unique value for media could be accrued. Yes, journalism needs money. But journalism doesn’t need a native crypto-currency to fund content. That’s a big confusion.

Side note: I’d argue that “content-funding” is a useful application of Blockchain à la the Brave Browser and BAT (Basic Attention Tokens), but that’s not a journalism specific application and another distraction (as far as this post is concerned).

Journalism can benefit from a distributed ledger of facts.

Here’s a simple example

We are about to enter a world of deep fakes. So let’s imagine that certain cameras will let you log a photo onto a blockchain, forever marking that photo and all its meta-data as real/original.

Well. It’s already happening. Jonathan Dotan has been doing just that and partnered with Reuters on this already. I’m also willing to bet he’s not the only one specifically playing with crypto-verified photos.

With this example: Now you’d be able to tell if you’re looking at the unaltered original photo or something else. Having a source of truth is the foundation upon which more value for journalism/media can be created.

Now that we have a “true” photo, the photographer can sell that original photo in a way that the internet makes difficult today. Yes, digital copies of it could be floating around, but our photographer has the only one copy that is logged in the blockchain. It is unique and it’s impossible to duplicate that registration. There can only be one source of truth about this photo. This is called a Non Fungible Token (NFT) and is becoming an increasingly large part of the crypto world. (ie: Think about the future of trading sports cards).

Censorship resistant

Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are a central arbiter of truth for their respective platforms. For a not insignificant amount of time Twitter deleted a Tweet from the NY Post. With new laws underway Facebook began to block news articles in Australia. It is in the interest of news organizations to have the to publish to a decentralized social network where content is immutable and censorship resistant. That’s not to say it would be the first place they’d publish. But sovereignty lay with she who has optionality.

Thinking In extremes

Being able to attest to the “truth” of a photo being real is great. But what about more “squishy” facts/claims. Can blockchain be used to mark something like “Donald Trump’s inauguration rally wasn’t the largest in history” as real? Well…..yes. But no.

Remember the sports analogy. When a basket is scored, everyone agrees pretty quickly. It’s unambiguous. The new score is shouted out and the game moves on. But what if somebody claims to have shot a 3-pointer but the other team disagrees and says the shooter was over the line. What if somebody calls a foul and it’s disputed?

Some facts require consensus, and this is where Civil tried to jump in (at the level of newsrooms ie: this is a “Civil newsroom” and all others are less valuable). Blockchains can be created to build consensus around “squishy” facts, but they’ll have rival Blockchains with a different consensus. All this does is create various pyramids of truth which will be disconnected from each other. In essence, building moats around echo chambers. The uncanny valley of truth just got encrypted.

These kinds of blockchains are intellectually interesting. They would certainly add a sense of transparency to our chaotic world(s). One could look at the ledger of truth and understand why a news article is written one way (it’s based on these accepted truths) vs. another way. There’s an absurdity to it, I admit. But at least we’d be able to lay bare what our discrepancies are and what the accusations of “fake news” really boil down to. Still — this is NOT the application I think journalism/media most needs.

Back to Basics

The first step is figuring out if/what kinds of distributed ledgers can be created around unambiguous truths. Example: This is a photo or video that was taken and remains unaltered. This is a quote that was said by this person, at this time, in this context. These unambiguous facts are the building blocks upon which more value and work can be built. I suspect there’s more applications I can’t yet dream of and value built upon those which I can’t yet fathom. I just hope that whoever builds these things has journalistic values in mind.

Conclusion

Is blockchain a silver bullet? No. Nothing is. So let’s never ask that question again. But is it another tool in the toolbox that media organizations need to consider, especially those that produce original units of information. For people who fall down the Bitcoin/Blockchain rabbit hole, they envision a decentralized world. Their quest isn’t just “$$ goes up.” True believers in Bitcoin see blockchain as something that can topple central banks, create a separation between money and state, as revolutionary in thinking as the separation of church and state once was. They may be wrong. But if they are right, it’s the next phase of the Copernican revolution that is the Internet. And that means media/journalism will bend with it.

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