Survey results show that publishers expect blockchain will help them tackle fake news, gain trust with readers and improve copyright/licensing agreements. But so far very few publishers have experimented with the tech.
Ranging from monetisation to SEO improvement, blockchain can be applied in various ways to support journalism. Some future use cases we might not be able to predict yet.
Experimentation with blockchain tech is expensive. News publishers looking to get involved should consider collaborating with developers in the blockchain space.
The conversation around blockchain can be confusing. On the one hand its advocates speak about the technology’s disruptive potential, which supposedly will transform a wide range of industries – including journalism. On the other, the technology’s concrete power may seem difficult to grasp, its news coverage ranging from the tech’s negative environmental impact to more esoteric fads such as the NFTs.
How is blockchain impacting the news industry? What are the actual use cases that we can highlight at the moment? The GAMI Briefing #2 was organised on Thursday 17 June, 2021 to seek answers to these questions, with a particular focus on how newsrooms can use blockchain to build trust.
The WAN-IFRA report “Blockchain and the Future of News”, published in December 2018, was our first in-depth examination of how the news industry is experimenting with blockchain. WAN-IFRA members can access the report here.
In addition to organising the event, we surveyed news publishers to learn about their attitudes and expectations regarding the technology. (More information about the four-question survey is below the article.) The results show that publishers expect blockchain to have a significant impact on their businesses.
As a technology, blockchain can be applied in a wide variety of contexts and for many different use cases. Although it’s still early days for the tech’s practical applications, our respondents have a strong sense where they expect blockchain to have the biggest impact.
In terms of publishers using blockchain, 21% of respondents said they have experimented with the technology – but very few have a specific strategy around it.
Why blockchain and news media are a good match
The GAMI Briefing started with a presentation by Walid Al-Saqaf, Associate Professor at Södertörn University in Sweden, who briefly introduced the event’s theme: how news organisations can benefit from blockchain, especially in terms of building trust with their readers.
When answering that question, it’s important to understand blockchain’s unique features: namely, public blockchains are distributed, traceable and immutable.
Because of these features, a piece of content that is legitimate and stored on the blockchain cannot be changed later, and it can always be tracked to the original source. And since there is no central authority who could control the blockchain, it makes the tech extremely resistant to attempts at censorship, Al-Saqaf said.
Crucially, the technology is also programmable, which means that new programmes and scripts can be built on top of it, and it might not be possible to predict some of the future use cases that we will see.
As for potential practical applications, Al-Saqaf mentioned different opportunities for photo and video verification (such as the app Truepic), the possibility of using blockchain to authenticate IP rights (even potentially in the court of law), and the ability of data journalists to enhance their reporting by using authenticated data from the blockchain.
Next, the event participants learned about the story of Civil Media Company, thanks to the participation by Úrsula O’Kuinghttons, Public Affairs & Communication at Parity Technologies / Polkadot. She joined Civil in 2017, which at the time was probably the best-known large-scale attempt in the news industry to experiment with blockchain, with over 100 newsrooms around the world participating.
However, despite attracting a lot of curiosity and media coverage, the venture ultimately failed to take off and was shut down in 2020. “It was very early for the blockchain technology, and it was a broad and big experiment,” O’Kuinghttons said.
Regarding the future of blockchain, she says that cross-chain interoperability will be crucial for the decentralised blockchain ecosystem. “We can’t just have these silo type of blockchains,” she says. “We need to have an open approach.”
That’s why four months ago O’Kuinghttons joined Polkadot, a shared protocol that enables blockchain networks to operate together. The Web3 foundation members are already building different applications using the Polkadot ecosystem. As for use cases specifically in journalism, she highlighted the fact that news publishers and journalists are already turning to NFTs to build new revenue streams.
How to get started? Collaborate
Zooming in on the topic of trust, Sebastiaan van der Lans, Founder of WordProof and Chairman Trusted Web Foundation, started by discussing why a lot of related problems stem from the fact that the internet in general has an issue with trust. “That happened because trust wasn’t part of the internet’s design,” he said. “As a result of that we today suffer from fraud, manipulation and theft on the internet.”
The solution is to bring transparency and accountability into the internet’s DNA through blockchain-enabled technology called timestamping, he said. Here’s how it works: if each piece of content has a unique fingerprint, a “hash”, which is stored in a blockchain transaction, the content can always be authenticated at a certain point in time. And if a person or an organisation connects their identity to that timestamp, they can take accountability for that content. Finally, through timestamp certificates, readers can verify how a piece of content has changed over time, and who exactly published it.
Ultimately, search engines and social media platforms can read timestamp certificates and are expected to rank timestamped content higher. “In a few years from now, if you publish information that isn’t timestamped, you’ll be considered a fraud,” van der Lans said. “People will simply wonder, if you don’t timestamp, what are you hiding.”
He expects that this will lead to improved SEO ranking for timestamed content. “Publishers can indisputably prove that you were the first one to publish information,” he said. “50 to 70 percent of all Google News traffic goes to the one who published first, so being first matters. With timestamping you can prove you really were the first to readers and search engines.”
WordProof’s system was put to the test by NRC, a leading Dutch publisher, which timestamped its entire archive as well as timestamping new content automatically as a commitment to quality and transparency.
Finally, Dwayne Desaulniers, Director of Corporate News, Blockchain & Data Licensing at Associated Press, underlined the need to look at the big picture when considering blockchain.
“In some ways blockchain is the internet all over again, but better. Some of the biggest problems the internet has caused to publishers have the potential to be solved and eliminated,” he said. “I would advise everyone to look at the blockchain from a very different perspective. Think of it as an entire new economy.”
As for practical application, Desaulniers talked about how AP used blockchain to call the 2020 US presidential election. He explained that one of AP’s tasks is to call US elections, and that for any election the organisation counts the votes and reports the results. It deploys an army of people across the country to collect the voting data and delivers the results to AP’s clients.
Traditionally the agency used FTP to upload the data, but for the 2020 presidential election it instead opted to use blockchain, in partnership with Everipedia. The reasoning was that since data on the blockchain cannot be deleted or altered, it seemed an ideal technology for storing the results.
The experiment was considered very successful, and Desaulniers said that AP would continue to use blockchain to publish election results also in the future. “We loved doing it, we’re very bullish on the blockchain. But we’re very early in the technology’s lifecycle,” he said.
Finally, he addressed an issue that is holding many newsrooms back from experimenting with the technology: “Blockchain development is very expensive. It makes for a pricy playground for newsrooms to venture into,” he said. “I think collaboration is the answer to that. There are a lot of development shops out there that are looking for things to do on blockchain, and journalism is an excellent use of the technology.”
Will more and more media companies begin experimenting with this new and promising technology? GAMI will continue to monitor the kinds of use cases news publishers develop for blockchain, and we are also considering another blockchain themed GAMI briefing toward the end of the year or start of 2022. Watch this space!
About the blockchain survey: 33 respondents from 21 countries filled in the survey in May and June 2021. 14 of respondents identified as Chief Digital Officers, Digital Director or having some other technology-related role in their organisation; other roles ranged from executives and managers to editors and journalists.
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