Category Archives: Technology

Fixing Journalism? Two Approaches

Everybody knows that journalism is in crisis. It turns out that the Internet lowered the cost of delivering information to the point that anyone can play the role of journalism. Anyone. For any reason.

Worse, as the information economy has been increasingly captured by the advertising industry, all other interests have been obliterated. Everything is subordinated to the need to command a large enough audience to generate revenue for advertisers. We now have a word for this, “click bait”.

At the same time, the idea of “mass” media has been replaced with individually filtered channels. It isn’t necessary to serve a least-common-denominator, each person receives a custom stream, potentially different from any other. This has shattered cultural consensus that, for better or worse, was a side-effect of mass media.

These developments have had pernicious effects everywhere, but the destruction of quality (or even mediocre) journalism is particularly damaging to civil society and democratic government.

Scarcely a week goes by without hearing about some new effort to “save” or “reboot” journalism. Shorn of marketing hype, these ideas are basically about money. How can you sustain the activities of journalists or equivalent content creators?

There aren’t many candidate solutions, and they are all pretty much the same ideas as sustained print based journalism.

  1. be a captive propaganda organ
  2. advertising
  3. subscription

Setting aside the “ministry of truth” approach favored by political groups, let’s look at two recent examples of the other approaches.

Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism

One diagnosis of journalism’s malaise is that they need to adapt to the new world of on-line advertising and the accompanying need to “attract eyeballs”. Conventional journalistic organizations must be rebooted for this new world.

There are many versions of this, but one interesting concept comes from “Civil”, which not only aims to fix journalism, but uses trendy blockchain technology to do so.

The goal is “is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence”. Wow!

One of the key insights in this approach is to view the goal as a global marketplace for journalism, which eschews notions of a special fourth estate with a critical role in democratic self-governance. From this point of view, journalism is one kind of content, and it has to compete in a global marketplace filled with lots of other content.

In one sense, this is essentially conceding defeat. Journalism is over, so we’ll reuse the term for journalism-like content.

Their promised solution sounds too good to be true. Somehow this global, unregulated market will be free of influences, and “self-sustaining” without ads. How will this work?  Magic.

The magic is blockchain based “autonomous” organizations. This technology replaces a conventional organization with code, and, most important, aims to replace the critical functions of journalism with “autonomous” processes—protocols that are not controlled by any person.

So, Civil proposes a suite of processes that they believe replace everything important from conventional journalism,  and avoid costly overheads and intrusive outside interest.

Who are the stakeholders in the journalism game? At the heart, there are journalists (“sellers”) and citizens (“buyers”). There are  funders, owners, advertisers, and sponsors.

But the critical piece that makes it journalism rather than entertainment is quality control, selection of topics, honest investigation, and careful fact checking. In a conventional organization, this role is performed by editorial staff and other managers, who exercise power with judgment.

The ‘Civil’ project eliminates all of these players except the producers and consumers.

Civil aims to create a marketplace model for journalism where citizens and journalists connect around shared interests and standards.

This is both technologically and organizationally identical to many other Internet markets.

The Civil project diagnoses the weakness of this “Amazon” model as being the ease with which “anonymous black hats to cheaply produce and spread fake, malicious content in pursuit of clicks-for-cash ad dollars or nefarious propagandist aims.

Their solution is inspired by Wikipedia, and seeks to “incentivize journalism” while defeating non-journalistic behavior. In their analysis, the way to do this is to create a cryptocurrency and use it to implement micropayments. It’s a bit more complicated than this, because they want to encourage more than just personal payments. They want stable channels of information with strong quality or at least reputation for quality.

Their design has three pieces:

Newsrooms” – “Newsrooms allow citizens to pool funding to support coverage for a specific topic. The more citizens, the more funding, the more journalists will be drawn to cover it.”

Stations” – “Stations allow journalists to productize and price their work to their own dedicated audience however they want”

Fact-checking-as-a-service” – this is crowd sourcing of the editorial role.

These ideas are to be implemented with Ethereum-style “smart contracts”, creating protocols for buying and selling content, as well as voting, penalizing ‘inaccuracy’ and other activities.

The two “innovations” here would have to be the “newsroom” and the “fact-checking-as-a-service”. (“Stations” are indistinguishable from many other digital channels, including this blog.)

The Newsroom concept is an interesting take on how journalism is supposed to work. The idea that journalists should cover what “people” want them to cover is, well, problematic. There are lots of things I don’t want to know about (e.g., wars), but I need journalists to tell me about it. The idea that journalistic coverage should be driven by customer demand is pretty poor journalism.

The “Fact-Checking-As-A-Service” is even more problematic. This concept replaces the efforts of editors and quality control staff with an unspecified crowd sourcing. They don’t explain how this might work or even what it does.

First of all, “fact checking” is only the first level of journalistic quality controls. A report can be 100% “accurate” and still mislead by omission or bias. For that matter, much of the “fake news” is based on interpretation and even “alternative facts”. If there are multiple “fact checkers” who give different rulings, how does that help?

Second, actual quality control is far more than just double checking names and dates. Tracking down alleged events and sources isn’t trivial. More important, judging the weight to give various sources is hard. In this, journalists act as trusted sources of information, and we implicitly trust their sources because we trust them. Replacing this chain of trust with a “trustless” system is dubious.

As an aside, I’ll point out that the best journalists are not “incentivized” by money. They are motivated by a desire to be a trusted source of information. And the best of them report on things that no one wants to know about—and they make us care whether we want to or not.  Thus, the incentives of this system are probably misguided from the start.

The bottom line is that “Civil” is almost a caricature of the cryptocurrency culture. They aim to “fix” journalism, but they seem to misunderstand what it is, and misdiagnose its ills. Not surprisingly, the proposed “fix” is problematic, and unlikely to work.

The Conversation

“The Conversation” offers a rather different “fix” for at least part of the same problem. The conversation is a not for profit enterprise, dedicated to promulgating reliable, fact-based information.

Provide a fact-based and editorially independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.”

The Conversation is responding to the challenges described by Civil. They also perceive a disconnect between universities and the public. Universities are repositories of knowledge, but that knowledge is poorly represented in journalism.

The Conversation sees itself as a source of trusted information dedicated to the public good.

In contrast to Civil, The Conversation does not rely on a “market” to “incentivize” their producers. For one thing their writers are already highly motivated. What they do focus on is careful editing, which is not just ”fact checking”, but also helps create clear, understandable information for non-specialists.

Above all, The Conversation is aiming to create trusted and trustworthy information. They enforce strong rules on transparency, including disclosure of financial interests. The authors are not paid in cryptocurrency or anything, and the content is open for anyone to reuse under Creative Commons Attributions-No Derivs (CC BY-ND). This license preserves the attribution and precludes modification of what the author said, which are necessary to maintain both the trust of the readers and the reputation of the writers and editors.

In short,  “We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism.”

The content is not driven by user demand, it is curated by The Conversation. They are looking for people who know a lot about a topic of public interest, who want to inform the public about it.

Authors must agree to “Community Standards”, which amount to straightforward rules of civil discourse: mutual respect, staying on topic, be constructive, be responsible. It is interesting that one of the rules is “Be You”. No anonymous or pseudonymous posts allowed: you must take personal responsibility for what you say.

Articles are “pitched” to the staff, and if selected an editor is assigned to help create the article. The editor is not a “fact checker”, she or he is a co-creator,  charged to help design the article to be valuable for the general audience.

The published article will include the name, qualifications, affiliations, and funding sources of the author. In this, they are taking practices from academic publishing out to general readers.

The content is free for readers, and available for republishing. No one is writing to make money, but there is plenty of reputation on the line.

One reason this works is that the contributors must be affiliated with an academic institution. Aside from filtering out complete fakes and robots, this means that the authors have their own funding, and generally have a mission to publish. The Conversation doesn’t need to “incentivize” with a starvation wage.


These two (of many) efforts to “fix journalism” offer an interesting comparison.

Both Civil and The Conversation say that there is a crisis in journalism, and describe the illness in similar terms. But these two projects diagnose the underlying disease rather differently, and therefore prescribe different treatments.

Civil is concerned with the financial underpinnings of journalism, and seems to be mainly interested in coverage of current events, especially local events. They seek to use digital technology to create a more efficient, decentralized funding model. Specifically, they use trendy blockchain technology to design “markets” that replace the processes of journalism.

While Civil deploys “disruptive” technology, it’s processes aren’t especially novel, nor even that different from conventional practice. The main novelty is the replacement of editorial decision-making and quality control with market incentives and rather hazy notions of “fact checking as a service”.

The Conversation is concerned with creating better content in ways that are distributed as widely as possible. They are particularly interested in disseminating the deep knowledge accumulated at Universities to the general public.

The Conversation is focused on trusted information. As such, quality control is at the center of the solution, and incentives are aimed to support public interest, not market share.

The Conversation uses digital technology (of course), but musters motivated people from the existing pool of academic researchers who have a desire to support the public good. Authors are not paid, and the content is given away for free. Editors, on the other hand, are paid. If there is a market, it is a reputation economy.

It is notable that The Conversation has been operating for a number of years. No one is getting rich, but there is a lot of solid journalism being made. In that sense, it is a proof by existence.

Civil, on the other hand, is untried as yet. The blockchain technology it aims to use is not only new, it is extremely shaky.

My own view is that Civil’s approach to journalism exhibits fundamental misunderstandings and even a repudiation of what journalism actually used to be. Editors have always been aware of market forces, but are supposed to act as a buffer between producers and raw demand. That is, editors want to foster solid reporting, even if there is no immediate “demand” for it, and they want to report accurately regardless of what the customers want to hear.

Editorial staff does fact checking, but fact checking per se is only the most trivial aspect of quality control. In any case is neither an optional after market service, nor something that you choose to match your own prejudices.

I think that The Conversation’s focus on trust is a great idea, and I’m glad to see it working. On the other hand, The Conversation is focused on a small part of the problem with journalism, which is the poor use of expert knowledge. This problem has been around for decades in the form of anxiety over the challenges of disseminating scientific understandings.

The Conversation works because it uses already existing social mechanisms, specifically, the credentialing and public mission of Universities. These institutions are designed to create trusted information and conduct civil discourse. The Conversation extends the reach of these processes.

However, the entire enterprise of public universities is increasingly threatened by both cultural attack and politically motivated defunding. The Conversation only works if you think that University affiliated experts are trusted sources, and that belief is far from universal. A lot of “fake news” is simply nihilistic denial of expert opinion, and no amount of editing can overcome the will to deny.

The bottom line is that neither of these projects is much of a cure for journalism. The Conversation does a good job, but depends on the fate of academia and rational debate in general. Civil misunderstands journalism, and attempts to fix the problem of trusted information via “trustless” technology and market forces. Whatever Civil is doing, it isn’t good journalism.

  1. Civil Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism.June 20 2017,
  2. The Converstaion. The Conversation: In-depth analysis, research, news and ideas from leading academics and researchers. 2017,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Collapsable Delivery Drone

I’m not a huge fan of buzzy little quadcopters, nor am I a fan of delivery drones. The former are about as welcome as a cloud of mosquitos, and the latter promises to transfer even more wealth to the 0.001%. (I’m not sure who these drones will be delivering to, when none of us have jobs or money to buy things.)

That said, I was interested to see the “origami-inspired cargo drone” developed by a group at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne [2]. Their design wraps the copter in a flexible cage, which protects the package and also encloses the dangerous rotors. The cage is foldable, so it closes up to a relatively small package when not in use.

The cage is a nice design. It addresses the safety (and perceived safety) of the drone in a nice way. Rather than depending on complex algorithms to make the drone “safe” and “friendly”, their design makes the drone a soft beach ball like thing—the affordances are obvious and visible. Furthermore, the safety factor is passive. The effectiveness of the enclosure does not depend on either software or humans.

I’m sure that this basic idea can be realized in a lot of geometries. The EPFL design is modular, which means that a variety of cages can be made from the same design. It folds up rather neatly, and, of course, is light and strong.

I could imagine versions of this concept that have a standard coupling to a range of quadcopters. Sort of a “delivery cage” costume for drones. (I smell a new standard for “drone costume attachment” coming.)

Clearly, there is no reason why the cage has to be so bare and undecorated. Why not streamers, glitter, and even LEDs? These might make the drone more appealing, and would also make the drone more visible to cameras, radar, and sonar. (Another standard? Passive safety reflectors for drones?)

I’m still not eager to have my local stores put out of business by Amazon, but if I’m going to have to live with drones, I’d like them to bounce off walls and people, rather than crash into them.

  1. Evan Ackerman, EPFL’s Collapsable Delivery Drone Protects Your Package With an Origami Cage, in IEEE Spectrum — Automation. 2017.
  2. Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski, Stefano Mintchev, and Dario Floreano, An origami-inspired cargo drone, in IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. 2017: Vancouver.


Robot Wednesday

Handheld Mass Spectrometry

Mass-Spectrometry is pretty much magic. A tiny sample of matter can be analyzed to get a chemical fingerprint which reveals exactly what it is.

Today, mass-spectrometry requires a large and expensive machine, and generally requires a fairly large sample which is destroyed by the process, which takes 30 minutes or more to complete. This is fine for laboratory studies, but impractical for many medical applications.

This fall a group from University of Texas report on a new device intended for use in course of cancer surgery [3]. The device is a pen-sized sampler that is touched to the tissue around a removed tumor. It samples the chemistry of the tissue without damaging it, feeds the sample to a mass-spectrogram machine, and quickly screens the results to determine if the tissue is cancerous (and so should be removed). The algorithm is highly accurate, enabling a surgeon to find the edges of what must be removed.

The quick turn around and spatially precise sample are essential for use during surgery. The technique picks up metabolites from the tissue without destroying it, which is a great improvement over previous methods.

As Emily Waltz points out, this technique still requires a mass-spectrogram machind, which is impractical for most operating rooms. However, there are new developments that will make smaller and cheaper mass-spectrogrametry possible [1].  And, of course, machine learning can be used to create many different fast classifier algorithms.

Combining these developments, as well as other non-invasive sensing will lead to some pretty amazing medical tech.


Aside:  Please note the careful experiments and detailed open report of their validation studies in [3].  Compare to the usual Silicon Valley hype-intensive, data-light technology.

  1. Dexter Johnson, Mass Spectrometry Gets a New Power Source and a New Life, in IEEE Specturm – Nanoclast. 2017.
  2. Emily Waltz, Handheld Mass-Spectrometry Pen Identifies Cancer in Seconds During Surgery, in IEEE Spectrum – The Human OS. 2017.
  3. Jialing Zhang, John Rector, John Q. Lin, Jonathan H. Young, Marta Sans, Nitesh Katta, Noah Giese, Wendong Yu, Chandandeep Nagi, James Suliburk, Jinsong Liu, Alena Bensussan, Rachel J. DeHoog, Kyana Y. Garza, Benjamin Ludolph, Anna G. Sorace, Anum Syed, Aydin Zahedivash, Thomas E. Milner, and Livia S. Eberlin, Nondestructive tissue analysis for ex vivo and in vivo cancer diagnosis using a handheld mass spectrometry system. Science Translational Medicine, 9 (406) 2017.


IOTA’s Cart Is Way, Way Before the Horse

Earlier I commented on SatoshiPay microcrasactions switching from Bitcoin to IOTA. Contrary to early hopes, Bitcoin has not been successful as a medium for microtrasactions because transaction fees are too high and latency may be too long.

IOTA is designed for Internet of Things, so it uses a different design than Nakamoto, that is said to be capable of much lower latency and fees. SatoshiPay and other companies are looking at adopting IOTA for payment systems.

The big story is that IOTA is reinventing Bitcoin from the ground up, with its own home grown software and protocols. I described it (IOTA) as “funky” in my earlier post.

It is now clear that this funkiness extended to the implementation, including the cryptographic hashes used [1,2]. This is not a good idea, because you generally want to use really well tested crypto algorithms.

So when we noticed that the IOTA developers had written their own hash function, it was a huge red flag.

Unsurprisingly, Neh Haruda reports that their home grown hash function is vulnerable to a very basic attack, with potentially very serious consequences.

The specific problems have been patched, but the fact remains that IOTA seems to be a home made mess of a system.

Narula also notes other funkiness.  For some reason they use super-funky trinary code which, last time I checked, isn’t used by very many computers. Everything has to be interpreted by their custom software which is slow and bulky. More important, this means that their code is completely incompatible with any other system, precluding the use of standard libraries and tools. Such as well tried crypto libraries and software analysis tools.

I have no idea why you would do this, especially in a system that you want to be secure and trusted.

The amazing thing is not the funkiness of the software. There is plenty of funky software out there. The amazing thing is that lots of supposedly competent companies have invested money and adopted the software. As Narula says, “It should probably have been a huge red flag for anyone involved with IOTA.

How could they get so much funding, yet only now people are noticing these really basic questions?

It is possible that these critiques are finally having some effect. Daniel Palmer reports that the exchange rate of IOTA’s tokens (naturally, they have their on cryptocurrency, too) has been dropping like a woozy pigeon [3].  Perhaps some of their partners have finally noticed the red flags.

The part I find really hard to understand is how people could toss millions of dollars at this technology without noticing that it has so many problems. Aren’t there any grown ups supervising this playground?

I assume IOTA have a heck of a sales pitch.

Judging from what I’ve seen, they are selling IOTA as “the same thing as Bitcoin, only better”. IOTA certainly isn’t the same design as Bitcoin, and it also does not use the same well-tested code.  I note that a key selling point is “free” transactions, which sounds suspiciously like a free lunch. Which there ain’t no.

IOTA’s claims are so amazingly good, I fear that they are too good to be true.

Which is the biggest red flag of all.

  1. Neha Narula, Cryptographic vulnerabilities in IOTA, in Medium. 2017.
  2. Neha Narula, IOTA Vulnerability Report: Cryptanalysis of the Curl Hash Function Enabling Practical Signature Forgery Attacks on the IOTA Cryptocurrency. 2017.
  3. Daniel Palmer, Broken Hash Crash? IOTA’s Price Keeps Dropping on Tech Critique Coindesk.September 8 2017,
  4. Dominik Schiener, A Primer on IOTA (with Presentation), in IOTA Blog. 2017.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Agility Robotics’ Terrifying “Cassie” Robots

OK, this is a cool (and scary looking) robot! Actually, they seem to run in packs, which makes them even scarier.

Cassie from Agilty Robots is an amazingly capable bipedal robot, with better balance and coordination than I have.

The company is trying to build robots to “Go where humans go”, which probably accounts for the uncanny bipedalism.

However, these Cassies remind me mostly of dinosaurs; agile, bipedal carnivores to be specific.

In fact, Cassie isn’t exactly naturalist or bio inspired. I’ve never seen anything that does this kind of side-stepping, and I’ve definitely never seen anything except human dance companies that move in such coordination.

It’s really terrifying.

And the things don’t even have a head or eyes, which only makes them more inhumanly scary.

Forget the uncanny valley, these guys inhabit the archetypal pit of species memory. My hind brain is screaming, “they are coming to eat me!”

This psychological effect might not be a big advantage for the home delivery market they are shooting for.

Robot Wednesday

Robot Funeral Rituals? Augmenting Religious Practice

One of the most prominent aspects of human life that has been little affected by the internet and robots is religion, especially formal religious practices. Church, temple, or mosque, religious practice is a bastion of unaugmented humans.

There are obvious reasons for this to be the case. Religion is conservative with a small “C”, embodying as it does cultural heritage in the present day. Traditional ideas and practices are at the psychological core of religious practice. Religious practice is not generally about “disruption” or “move fast and break things” (at least not in the thoughtless way Silicon Valley disrupts things.)

Another obvious reason is that much of religious teaching is about human behavior and human relations. Emphasis on the “human”. From this perspective, augmenting humans or virtualizing human relations is at best irrelevant and at worst damaging to proper human conduct.

But this will surely change. Religious traditions are living cultures which adopt new technology. It will be interesting to watch how human augmentation is incorporated into religious practices, not least because it may create some interesting, humane modes of augmented living.

Obviously, many people have already adopted digital communications and social media in spiritual and religious life. Heck, even the pope is on twitter. But this is the tip of the iceberg, little more than the twenty first century version of pamphlets and sermons.

What else might be coming?

For one thing, virtual worlds will surely need to be converted.

I recall some science fiction story (quite possibly by William Gibson, but I don’t remember) that had a brief vignette about a devout Catholic who loaded his personality into an avatar in a virtual world. This splinter of his consciousness (soul?) kneels in a virtual chapel and prays 24/7. In the story, this practice is approved by the church. I think the notion is that he receives indirect credit for this pious exercise, which is sort of analogous to other practices such as hiring a mass for a deceased parent.

For another, robots and cyborgs need to be incorporated into both theology and practice.

Along these lines, Evan Ackerman reports this month on a service in Japan that offers a robot to perform Buddhist funeral rites [1].  The “humanoid robot, suitably attired in the robe of a Buddhist monk” reads the sutras and bows at the appropriate moments.

The robot is much cheaper than a human, is programmed for alternative versions of the ritual, and can live stream the affair to remote mourners. (It can probably work much longer and faster than puny Carbon-based priests, too.)

It isn’t clear how this will be accepted or how popular it may be. To the degree that the funeral is for the comfort of the living, much will depend on how the mourners like it. A robot is not a sympathetic and soothing as a person, so I don’t really know.

There are, of course, theological questions in play. Do the words count if they are said by a machine? (Would they count if a parrot recited them and bowed?) There are certain to be differences of opinion on this question.

Thinking about this, I note another interesting possibility: a robot can also be remotely operated. A human priest could very well supervise the ceremony from a distance, with various levels of control. The robot could, in principle, be anywhere on Earth, in orbit, or on Mars; extending the reach of the holy man. Would this remote augmentation of the priest’s capabilities be “more authentic” than an autonomous robot programmed to do the ceremony?

Such a remote operation would have advantages. The robot would add a level of precision to the fallible priest—the robot could check and correct the performance. The robot can operate in hazardous conditions, such as a disaster area or war zone (imagine remote chaplains for isolated military posts). The remote avatar might bring a measure of comfort to people otherwise out of reach of conventional pastoral care.

Human priests would not have to travel, and could perform more work. For that matter, a single priest could operate multiple remote robot avatars simultaneously, significantly augmenting the sacred productivity.

Taking this idea of a priestly “remote interface” seriously for a moment, we can speculate on what other rituals might be automated this way. Something like Christian traditions such as baptism or communion certainly could be done by robots, especially supervised robots. Would this be theologically legitimate? Would it be psychologically acceptable? I don’t know.

I haven’t heard of anyone doing it, and I’m not endorsing such a thing, I’m just thinking about the possibility.

To the degree that autonomous or supervised robots are accepted into spiritual practice, there will be interesting questions about the design and certification of such robots. It might well be the case that the robot should meet specific standards, and have only approved programming. Robots could be extremely doctrinaire, or dogma could be loaded as a certified library or patch. I have no idea what these software standards might need to be, but it will be yet another frontier in software quality assurance.

There are other interesting possibilities. What if a robot is programmed for multiple religious practices, coming from competing traditions. At any one moment, it may be operating completely validly for one set of rules, and later it might switch and follow another set of rules. This is how robots work. But this is certainly not how human religions work. Carbon-based units generally cannot be certified clergy for more than one sect at a time. Will robots have to be locked-in to a single liturgical version? Or, like TV or Web Browsers, would a tele-priest be a generic device, configured with approved content as needed.

While we’re on the question of software, what about hacking? What if malicious parties hack into the sacred software, and substitute the prayers for a competing version of the rite? Or defile the word or actions? Or simply destroy the religion they dislike? Yoiks! I have no idea what the theological implications of a corrupted or enslaved robot would be, but I imagine they could be dire.

  1. Evan Ackerman, Pepper Now Available at Funerals as a More Affordable Alternative to Human Priests, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.


Study of Trust in Fact-Checking Services

Petter Bae Brandtzaeg and Asbjørn Følstad write this month about Trust and distrust in online fact-checking services [1].

Everyone knows that the Internet is a perfect medium for disseminating information of all kinds, including rumors, errors, propaganda, and malicious lies. Social media have proved to be just as susceptible to misinformation, despite it’s filtering mechanisms (which are problematic in other ways).

One response to this flood of junk information is a proliferation of “fact-checking” services, which attempt to verify claims in public statements using primary and secondary sources.

The very fact that there are 100 or more such services would seem to be significant, though I’m not sure what it means exactly. This must be the ‘golden age of fact-checking’.

Bae Brandtzaeg and Følstad point out that a fact-checking service depends on establishing a reputation and the trust of users. In particular, what matters is how the user (consumer) perceives the service. There isn’t much point to a “fact checker” that you don’t believe is accurate and honest.

Their study analyzed social media discussion of selected widely used fact checking services. This data is unstructured (so say the least!), but does represent unfiltered publicly stated opinions about the fact-checking service by actual users. These sentiments were coded for statements about “usefulness” and “trust”.

One of their findings is that negative comments were often about “trust”, which positive comments were about “usefulness”.

Many negative comments complained about perceived bias in the service, which is certainly consistent with the vast research that indicates that people do not readily change strong opinions in the light of facts. In this case, they dispute the motives of the messenger, rather than their own opinions.

Positive comments about the “usefulness” indicate that the service may have achieved enough trust (or congruence with preconceptions) that the information influences the user’s opinion. This is consistent with the idea that someone who is both skeptical of a claim and trusts a fact checker will find the check useful.

The authors note that there may be a great need and desire for fact checking, but most people don’t use it. (For example, me.) If nothing else, the perceptions of these systems might well evolve if they are more widely used.

The authors point out that for many users the distrust in the fact checking service isn’t really specific to the behavior of the service itself, it is a distrust of everything. A very general disbelief in society is often highly emotional, so services should take care to present themselves in ways that try hard to engender trust.

lack of trust extends beyond a particular service to encompass the entire social and political system” (p. 70)

The long and the short of it is that fact checking needs to be highly transparent. Trust is created by knowing who is “checking” and how they do it. The authors also suggest that reliance on “expert” opinion should be minimized, and that “crowd sourced” verification may be especially useful.

Reading about this study, I am struck by the contrast with the widely held dogma of “trustlessness” of the cryptocurrency and blockchain world. Nakamotoan blickchains are a cure for everything, including fake news, some say.

It is thought that these “trustless” systems “can’t be evil”. Furthermore, in a medal winning rhetorical judo throw, the anonymous (or at least unaccountable) blockchain is considered “transparent”. Some even explicitly imagine that such “trustless” systems can fix journalism (generally through “market based” processes).

The Brandtzaeg and Følstad study makes pretty clear that the key to trustworthy information is transparent and accountable processes. I don’t see how you can hope to build trusted information on a foundation of “trustless” technology. Frankly, I think blockchain and other technologies are largely irrelevant to the problem of “fake news”.

Finally, I note that “trust” is an end-to-end property. People trust people. The technology in between the two people is relevant only to the degree that it obscures or enhances the ability of people to trust each other.

The challenge is that digital technology is naturally opaque and it is easy to be deliberately deceptive. In order to be trusted, a digital service must work hard to make clear to the human users who the human and other sources really are, and what their motives really are.

This is surprisingly difficult, and I think that “trustless”, peer-to-peer systems make it even harder to establish this trust.

  1. Petter Bae  Brandtzaeg and Asbjørn Følstad, Trust and distrust in online fact-checking services. Commun. ACM, 60 (9):65-71, 2017.