In the past 10 months, COVID-19 literally brought the world to its knees. But the pandemic, as it turns out, has been less of a pandemic and more of an infodemic. The internet was teeming with a deluge of news reports, stories, blog articles, and ‘guidelines’ on ‘how to stay safe out there’.
And what percentage of this content is actually worth relying upon? Which source to trust, and which one to shun? Why has this global catastrophe become a breeding ground for misinformation and rumor peddlers? Why is it painstaking to absolutely genuine information? Is blockchain technology the answer to this endless barrage of coronavirus misinformation?
The ‘COVIMisinformation Virus’ And How It Came To Life
The practice of rumor-mongering has been in existence since time immemorial. We human beings have been spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories since the very invention of speech. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic propelled fake news circulation to an altogether different level.
The coronavirus spread through human carrier hosts. While misinformation pervaded via mass media. Digital technologies, social media networks, and online news portals only added fuel to this fire. So-called mainstream news outlets orchestrated the functioning of an elaborate fake news machine.
Through The Social Media Machine
Apart from this, social media proved to be one of the most prolific production portals for fake news and misinformation. And the worst part about content churning out of social media is the corroboration with actual facts. The social media players manipulated most of the actual, useable information. And promptly trashed the actual genuine, useful stuff. Either by group admins or by the company folks themselves.
Stripe CEO Patrick Collison recently flagged this issue on Twitter.
Someone I know has had some quite useful COVID-related posts removed from Medium, LinkedIn, and Nextdoor—they’ve been deemed “COVID misinformation”. (It’s not what the WHO endorses!)
— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) December 15, 2020
The issue blew out of proportion exponentially. So much so that information from the most trustworthy and verifiable sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) was not allowed to see the daylight of reality. This has inadvertently led to an upsurge of self-proclaimed censorship and conspiracy peddling.
Stanford Digital Economy Lab Director and Stanford University professor Erik Brynjolfsson seconded Collison’s viewpoint by pointing out how Twitter apparently has ‘historically’ projected false aspects of true stories.
Twitter has historically amplified falsehoods relative to truth. See https://t.co/oW7TMnA9A2
So I would say if anything they underinvest in trying to filter out misinformation.
— Erik Brynjolfsson (@erikbryn) December 15, 2020
Another example of Twitter’s self-assertive policing is how the platform flagged certain tweets with the ‘misinformation’ label. This, in turn, makes it difficult to like/retweet tweets. TechCrunch described this inappropriate stance of Twitter ‘appropriately’.
Twitter says it tries to deamplify misinformation today by not allowing those labeled, misleading tweets to appear in Search or injected into users’ Timelines (if they don’t follow the account). But those tweets can still be replied to, liked and retweeted.
Through the Generous Contribution Of Medical Experts
The Week Magazine pointed out that medical professionals and public figures have also contributed to the spreading of lies and questionable opinions with regards to COVID-19.
The magazine quoted research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information which states:
Many specialists took contradicting sides, emphasizing the severity of COVID-19 or calming the public with claims of the virus being non-hazardous. From that standpoint and medical experts not having a united voice, it became somewhat difficult to distribute varying accounts.
With respect to public figures, many saw the populace reject their thoughts about the pandemic. Why? Simply because he/she doesn’t belong to the group which they (the people) incline themselves with.
Can Blockchain Technology Help Fight The Fluff?
As reported by CryptoPotato, New York-based 174-year-old, non-profit news agency, The Associated Press, recorded their calls for the 2020 US Presidential election on the Ethereum blockchain. This is the first time that a prominent body leveraged a distributed computing system. To publish data pertaining to one of the biggest electoral events in history. But can blockchain technology help provide respite from the slew of fake news, misinformation, and censorship?
Yes. Why? Because decentralized systems have an edge over centralized information portals like social media platforms and news outlets. These portals leverage human trust to disseminate news which, in turn, also gives them an upper hand to censor genuine information as and how they please.
And since this data transmits online through centralized servers, hackers can intercept the traffic and manipulate information bits to further aggravate the issue. Online perpetrators can tamper with ‘already tampered’ information to further their personal agendas. Or they can just disguise themselves as notable folks and deal out scams. This was evident from the infamous Twitter hack a few months ago, in which bitcoin scam tweets went out from handles of uber-famous personalities.
Distributed Computing Is The Key
However, with blockchain systems, this risk gets short sized significantly. Popular public blockchain networks like Ethereum, Bitcoin, or for that matter private networks like Monero can stall the spread of fake news and misinformation. And the manipulation of information.
Through trustless and verified data injection in the blockchain, it becomes difficult to doctor facts. Nodes in the network approve information (to be inserted in a block) only after sufficient consensus. And this absolutely nullifies every possibility of information adulteration.
Additionally, the verified piece of information, in this case, COVID-19 safety guidelines/news would always remain accessible to all users of the blockchain minus the ‘single-point-of-failure attack risks’. As long as the nodes keep running. All spurious versions of a particular piece of information can be readily verified against the genuine version on the blockchain thus laying rest to the spread of misinformation.
Not There Yet
But while the above sounds absolutely fantastic on paper, the ground reality is a bit different. Truth is that blockchain-based systems are not entirely ready to tackle the transmission or storage of critical information. Or for that matter sifting through a gargantuan pile of data to weed out misinformation.
The same was recently pointed out by eminent MIT scientists Ron Rivest, professor at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Michael Specter; Sunoo Park, and Director of MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative (DCI) Neha Narula in their latest paper.
The paper‘s literature takes a sharp dig at blockchain’s theorized application in electoral processes. And illustrates meticulously how instead of heightening security, distributed ledger technology would instead plug gaping cybersecurity holes in the voting process.
While current election systems are far from perfect, blockchain would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures. Any turnout increase would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast.
So, while the Associated Press may have leveraged the Ethereum blockchain to record calls for the latest US Presidential elections, it is not at all a green light for mass adoption. But by their inherent design and principle, blockchains could actually help fight the disease of misinformation.
What they need is a little bit more work.