Media Verification Through the Crowd

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.43.55 PMPhoto courtesy

One of the greatest challenges for journalists, especially conflict journalists, is the validation of user-generated content. Was this picture really taken in Homs? Was it taken at the time my source alleges? Google image searches catch some more obvious reposts, but sometimes it’s too hard to tell. As a result, valuable media gets passed over, or it is used and later disproven.

Way back in 2012, Neiman dedicated an entire issue to the subject. Journalists from many respected institutions weighed in on their preferred methods of verification. The BBC (among other organizations) suggested that “the golden rule…is to get on the phone whoever has posted the material.”

This is a great idea in concept. But in practice is full of problems as even the authors go on to state (emphasis mine): “Unless sources are activists living in a dictatorship who must remain anonymous to protect their lives, people who are genuine witnesses to events are usually eager to talk.” So what are people to do when they are living under an oppressive regime (like Syria), with unreliable cellphone access?

Unfortunately this hardship usually translates to a dearth of publishable content, and, sadly, a dearth of media attention. News organizations fear a backlash if a public-made video or image they publish is later proven to be forged or repurposed. And the more dangerous or unstable an area is, the fewer Western journalists are going to be there. All this leaves areas most in need of attention ignored and left to fend for themselves.

A potential solution was developed in 2008, but in a corner of the Internet no one might expect. Bitcoin, the largely misunderstood cryptocurrency, has a fascinating, and impactful infrastructure, with implications for almost every industry. This supporting technology is the Blockchain.

Go ahead and watch the video, I’ll wait. And the rest of this post will make no sense without an understanding of Blockchain.

Tl;dr: (Too long; didn’t read for those wondering) Blockchain allows for decentralized record-keeping by all users on the blockchain. What’s even better, users do not need to be identified for the system to be effective and ironclad. This is how users on the Silk Road were able to buy and sell illicit goods without anyone knowing who anyone else was.

So now we have a method of community verification that need not be tied to a person’s identity. Next, we combine this method of verification with a way of establishing each user’s presence in the community, through a mesh network. Mesh networks allows Internet-enabled devices within a geographical area to share internet access without passing through a central hub (like traditional networks). Imagine logging on to a social networking app (like FireChat, used for communication during the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong) to communicate with fellow activists or resistance members. Upon logging on, you are verified as being physically present in a location, and your account is provided a certificate of authenticity (of sorts).

As you upload photos or videos to the app, this certificate follows those images and videos thanks to the Blockchain. (A company called Monegraph is doing something similar with copyright and art.) When you leave the mesh network, your certificate is revoked. If, later you tried to change metadata about images or videos, or add other content outside the network, the Blockchain ledgers wouldn’t match, and the changes would be rejected.

Decentralized/Community record-keeping is a game-changer for many areas of life. And it is only a matter of time before we see it shift the balance of power and attention. But where that power and attention shifts to, is largely dependent on the systems we build.