Blockchain fever was already on the rise through much of last year with the surge of hype around NFTs, Web3, DeFi and related hot concepts. The sanction-driven economic isolation of Russia has now escalated focus on the role of cryptocurrency in a balkanized world to the level of geopolitics. My colleague Avivah Litan’s blog post on the topic provides a lucid summary of these issues.
Much recent debate has focused on cryptocurrency’s role in promoting a new world economic order where various aspects of governance are up-for-grabs. This often pits the libertarian roots of cryptocurrency against enforcement of sanctions. But less attention has been paid to blockchain’s potentially crucial role in the distribution and veracity of information—and what brands and publishers should do about it. Although most global brands doing business in Russia have answered the call to divest, there’s more they can do to promote a future where vital content can be accessed and verified by anyone with an Internet connection.
The interests of democracy and business are aligned on the dangers of disinformation. The wave of disinformation that currently isolates many Russians in an alternate reality narrative of their country’s invasion of Ukraine highlights how the toxic effects of propaganda are being amplified by digital media. Author Richard Hasen uses “cheap speech” to describe how the tools of disinformation are embedded in the economic structure of social media. The checks-and-balances that journalism used for decades to protect veracity of news content have mostly unraveled on the Internet.
Beyond its debilitating effects on democracy and public safety, disinformation harms brands in two ways:
- By exposing them to counterfeits and deepfake defamation.
- By associating ads with fake news through blind placement on social media and ad networks.
The latter can make brands complicit the dissemination of harmful content, lending it both credibility and financial support. These concerns have become more acute with wartime propaganda on the rise. Brands face conflicting pressures to use marketing budgets to support critical media efforts while avoiding risks of controversial placement. In a sign of how complicated this can be, programmatic ad tech’s indiscriminate placement has also been recruited to subvert Russian censorship with real news, as reported here and here.
Blockchain for Content Distribution
Blockchain tech is positioned to fight disinformation two ways. Each has implications for how brands and publishers should think about it.
First, it keeps users connected and evades censorship. The use of cryptocurrency to evade the effects of economic sanctions undermines the isolationist goals of “splinternet” measures being pursued both in and outside Russia. Severing Russia’s Internet connection with the outside world would naturally neutralize its citizens’ ability to use stable coins like Tether to isolate themselves from the collapse of their fiat currency. The connectivity required by crypto-commerce reinforces the Internet’s well-known tendency to route content around censorship. Centralized feeds like Facebook and Twitter can be blocked but blockchains are replicated across all the nodes on their networks so they’re immune to censorship without also shutting off commerce.
The observation that blockchain is well-suited to censorship-resistant content distribution has attracted the interest of many entrepreneurs. Although none has achieved scale to interest advertisers, they provide useful opportunities to experiment with media alternatives to centralized platforms like YouTube. However, that notion immediately brings up the second shift needed for blockchain to play a positive role in the fight against disinformation.
Blockchain for Content Authenticity
Evasion of censorship is only truly beneficial if people can distinguish true content from false. Otherwise—as we’ve seen—the result is a shouting match that devolves into polarized versions of reality with no objective consensus on truth and ample opportunities for scalable deception.
Recognizing this, companies have joined forces to combat fake content with the tools of cryptography and decentralization. Several complementary initiatives have emerged:
- The Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA) is developing technical standards for certifying the source and history (or provenance) of media content.
- The Content Authenticity Initiative, led by Adobe, is working to promote the adoption of these standards across the Internet. The New York Times, which has been involved since inception, has a demonstration here.
- Project Origin, a Microsoft-BBC-led organization is aiming at misinformation in the digital news ecosystem.
These initiatives share a common goal to add a layer of verifiable authentication to any type of digital content. C2PA released its first specifications in January. Although the C2PA specifications avoid reference to blockchain specifically, the technologies they describe are clearly pages from the blockchain playbook:
- Binding immutable digital signatures (with verified time, date and location) to digital assets at each step from creation or capture in a camera or microphone, through editing and publishing.
- Displaying an easily accessed, cryptographically secure public record of the provenance of a video or image when viewed by anyone (similar to NFTs).
Blockchain distribution could accelerate the global penetration of the necessary end-user software to support content provenance inspection—assuming the adoption of standards and establishment of a trusted origin. Adobe has committed to contribute open source software to the effort.
Nevertheless, full realization of a goal like this may take years: deployment of complex standards is notoriously slow. Although Twitter has joined chip makers Intel and Arm, the absence of Google, Meta, Apple and other big media platforms is a notable disappointment. Nonetheless, these organizations offer opportunities for brands to learn and get involved, at minimum giving preference to media partners that show seriousness about adopting content verification measures.
We Need to Tell True Stories
The prevalence of viral fake imagery continues to undermine efforts to disseminate facts about the situation in Ukraine. Meanwhile, dozens of global brands have shuttered stores and operations in Russia, severing ties with millions of customers and employees. The narrative they’re presumably hearing is one of Western conspiracy against them. It would be good for brands in the long run to gain the ability to show why these measures were necessary, with unassailable proof of the conditions they were responding to.
As Avivah put it, “the Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven beyond any doubt that computer protocols are infinitely more trustworthy than certain governments are.” I’d add that goes for digital media platforms as well. It’s time for marketers and publishers to take a fresh look how these technologies can help restore confidence in the media they rely on.