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Can We Handle The Truth? Trying To Re-establish A Working Infrastructure For News (Part II)

April 3, 2019

A story from Rewiring Democracy

New from Public Agenda, Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement and the Future of Politics , explores how the latest technological trends may reshape our democracy, our politics, and our daily lives. In a series of blog posts, we are sharing some of the stories from the paper to illustrate some of the impacts on journalism, political advocacy, city planning, and other fields.

In this latest installment of the Rewiring Democracy blog series, we explore if, and how, technologies like blockchain can save journalism. We also examine whether Americans should have a voice in how media organizations collect and share news, and if so, how it can be done in an equitable fashion. Need a refresher on the previous post? Take a look through “Can We Handle the Truth? Trying to Re-establish a Working Infrastructure for News (Part I),”where we describe the challenges to journalism and how one organization is looking to address them.

COULD THE BLOCKCHAIN SAVE JOURNALISM?

Over the past decade, journalism has faced a number of challenges impacting the news industry’s viability and ability to grow. These challenges are in part due to digital innovations that have on one hand accelerated and modernized how information is shared, but on the other hand diminished the authority of news organizations and journalists. However, there have been attempts to save journalism that are trying to turn online technologies from a threat to an asset. For example, the leaders of Civil — a blockchain-based journalism platform –turned to the blockchain because they felt it would enable a more meaningful, participatory relationship with their audience.

Through the use of CVL tokens, stakeholders have the opportunity to reward the newsrooms they feel are providing quality journalism, buy membership to certain publications, or even start their own newsroom. Not just anyone can buy CVL tokens – interested buyers have to register and pass a questionnaire in order to participate. Although newsrooms may make revenue from CVL tokens, Civil does not intend that newsrooms will stake their business model on the blockchain alone – most participating newsrooms draw on conventional funding models like subscriptions and donations, although Civil requires that newsrooms disclose any advertisers supporting their work.

Civil also has policies in place to protect against bad actors that try to compromise the integrity of news. If Civil users feel a certain news outlet is violating journalism standards, such as plagiarism, hate speech, or misinformation, they can use their tokens to challenge the newsroom.185 Once a newsroom has been challenged, other token holders can then use their tokens to vote on the issues, and if any violation is determined to be valid, the newsroom then owes a payout to both the challenger and any voters. News stories can’t be altered by large companies or wealthy individuals unless the majority of CVL stakeholders agree; Civil’s leaders argue that this prevents the possibility of any one entity exerting too much influence over their news operation.

Such practices help to incentivize token holders to participate in controversies and share their opinion, and also create pressure for news outlets to act ethically, since they face revenue loss for bad action. There is also a kind of Supreme Court for Civil: the Civil Council, made up of veteran journalists, journalism scholars, and attorneys, who can review community votes and overturn those they believe to be contrary to the Civil Constitution.

Civil is not the only attempt to use technologies to make newsrooms more transparent and accountable. For instance, a Twitter bot monitors anonymous editing of the Wikipedia pages of government officials, to protect against alteration or distortion of official information. Similarly, Facebook has partnered with CrowdTangle, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to monitor social media, to identify false news, photographs, or videos they see on Facebook.

THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

In journalism and in other realms, the appeal of blockchain and its cryptocurrencies is that they make it easier to combine a financial transaction with an exchange of ideas. As consumers, people holding tokens can exert influence by choosing who to invest in, and as citizens, they can have a voice in how those organizations conduct journalism.

Along with other would-be reformers of journalism, Civil is trying to reverse the journalist H. L. Mencken’s famous quote, that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Many journalists, entrepreneurs, and funders are banking on the proposition that if they allow audiences to contribute money and ideas, the money will be sufficient to support media organizations, and the input will be intelligent enough to be helpful. This approach has many skeptics. Some point out that there continue to be digital divides in access to the Internet and great disparities in online skills. Increased public engagement in journalism could exacerbate equity disparities, if people with access, wealth, and skills have more influence over the news than others. And if people don’t agree on what constitutes high-quality journalism, let alone the truth, they may simply demand stories that reaffirm their existing beliefs.

Blockchain itself raises many ethical and technological questions. By nature, it is unregulated and decentralized; if something goes wrong, it is difficult to see what will happened to all the sensitive information blockchain contains, or what the effects would be on world financial markets.

“I’m not a believer in blockchain,” says Ethan Zuckerman. “What fascinates me about it is that it is fundamentally about trust: people mistrust the governments that manage conventional currencies, and so they have created an alternative. This mistrust is really expensive – it costs vastly more to do Bitcoin than to run the US dollar, and so people are paying immensely. To me, blockchain is an interesting symptom, not an answer.”

When trying to handle the truth, and reinforce a shared sense of the dividing line between facts and fiction, it seems unwise to sidestep this problem of trust. Whether we turn to technologies like blockchain, employ more conscious strategies to connect journalists and citizens, or some combination of the two, we should focus on how these approaches create more interactive, trusting relationships between the people who generate the news and those who consume it.

Next week, we’ll explore micro-targeting and messaging, technology’s role in mobilizing movements, and the value of citizen connections, in ‘Geo-locating Protest: The Revolution Comes to Your Doorstep.’ Meanwhile, you can download the full report here.

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MATT LEIGHNINGER

Vice President of Public Engagement & Director of the Yankelovich Center for Public Judgement

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