Getting the story straight: Blockchain to curb fake news

With the United States Presidential Election set for next month, the concern over fake news has once again dominated public discourse. Fake news — the deliberate spreading of verifiably false information under the disguise of being an authentic news story ­— not only undermines the public’s confidence in the free press, it inflames social conflict, can result in health hazards (like swallowing bleach in an attempt to avoid COVID-19), gives rise to radicalism, undermines the integrity of elections, and manipulates markets. In short, fake news threatens the social trust we have in our institutions and in each other.

Common solutions today, such as fact-checking websites and artificial intelligence algorithms are deployed only after the fact — they aim to detect fake news that has already been created. The Blockchain Center of Excellence at the University of Arkansas just completed a case study on ANSAcheck, developed by Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata — Italy’s top news wire service — and Big Four audit firm Ernst & Young, which takes a different approach. ANSAcheck authenticates the source of a news story and guarantees “the story came from ANSA.”

ANSA had previously suffered from imposter news. In March 2020, for example, there were at least three imposter stories related to COVID-19. The fake stories were distributed using the ANSA brand, format and signature. Instances like these prompted ANSA to launch the ANSAcheck project.

Stefano De Alessandri, ANSA’s CEO and managing director, said:

“Fake news is one of the biggest challenges facing traditional media organizations and social media platforms as it undermines the trust they have built with the public and advertisers, undermining their strategic asset that is their reputation. […] If we lose trust, we lose everything.”

The ANSAcheck project started in 2019. Giuseppe Perrone, the head of EY’s blockchain initiatives in the Mediterranean, served as EY’s leader. The ANSAcheck solution works by assigning a unique hash ID to every ANSA-created news story and posting the hash to Ethereum, the world’s largest public blockchain platform. If even one letter in the story is changed, the system will detect that it is not an identical copy to the original story. Story IDs are batched and posted multiple times each day to Ethereum. If ANSA updates the story, another entry is recorded on the blockchain and linked back to the original entry to form a chain of provenance.

Each ANSA story posted on its website is accompanied with an ANSAcheck sticker to signal its authenticity to readers. Readers can click on the ANSACheck sticker to query the blockchain about the source of the story. By Oct. 6, as many as 532,727 ANSA news stories had been posted on the blockchain. Approximately 72% of ANSA readers had clicked on the ANSAcheck explanation tab to learn more about it, while 38% of people who viewed the article actually clicked on the sticker to perform the validation.

When users click on the ANSAcheck sticker, the console viewer displays the transaction details on the blockchain. Each story gets a unique ID using MD5 cryptography. In this example, the story headline is “Johnson, I still have a fever, I am staying isolated” and the unique story ID is “5b456347bf699bb9807b742e132c9120.” This story was created on April 3, 2020 and the Block ID is “AC202004031330.”

In the above image, users can see where the story is stored on the Ethereum blockchain. The story was added to Ethereum block number 9799299 on April 3, 2020 at 01:34:26 UTC. The unique transaction hash is “0xadc600195857be4f138b1a15b400ee4adf799cae462e3d6abaf1ecca8c52928d.” By pressing the verify button on the console, the application performs a real-time verification of the story.

Phase one of the solution was deployed in April 2020 using a smart contract. The smart contract mitigates the risk of Ether’s (ETH) price volatility by postponing the processing of new stories if the current cost of Ether is too high. EY also keeps transaction costs low by batching multiple news stories within a single transaction. Initially, EY was posting a batch of stories every 15 minutes, with an average cost per story of $0.06. More recently, EY was batching roughly 500–600 new stories every six hours, so the cost per transaction dropped to around $0.006 per story. Ethereum costs drove the decision to reduce the time of notarization. ANSA stories usually come in the news feed before they are launched on the website, giving EY time to register them on the blockchain.

Meanwhile, EY manages the end-to-end service. The firm makes sure that clients’ digital wallets are funded with enough Ether so that there is no disruption of service, posts stories on behalf of publishers, provides analytics, and performs and displays search query results. Chen Zur, EY’s U.S. blockchain practice leader, described the solution as “notarization as a service.”

EY plans to add other services to the ANSAcheck solution. EY’s Giuseppe Perrone said:

“The solution will become more sophisticated in terms of functionality and components, such as fact checking functions, semantic language analysis, and picture data protection.”

In addition to ANSAcheck, there are other blockchain-enabled solutions deployed or underway. Gartner estimates that by 2023, 30% of world news, including videos, will rely on blockchain technologies for authentication. There will likely be multiple blockchain-enabled solutions that provide services such as establishing content authenticity, tracking provenance of content over time, blacklisting imposters, spotting deepfakes (content manipulated by artificial intelligence), and tying digital content to the physical world, for example, by tagging the GPS location of a photo. De Alessandri welcomes such solutions, saying, “We were the first in Italy, but we don’t want to be the only adopter.” He also added:

“The value comes to readers, publishers, and journalists when everyone adopts a solution like this. Any tools to defend and enlarge professional information benefits democracy.”

Disclosure: EY has been on the Blockchain Center of Excellence’s executive advisory board since 2019 and is an active participant in the University of Arkansas’ blockchain research and events.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Mary Lacity is a Walton professor of information systems and the director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence at the University of Arkansas.

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