Why does journalism need blockchain technology?

Blockchain technology by itself can’t answer this question, but it is the paper on which we can write the answer.

By Maria Bustillos

(cross-posted from Civil)

Blockchain technology entered the world in January 2009. What you may already know is that Satoshi Nakamoto combined existing techniques like digital signatures, peer-to-peer networks, and public-key cryptography to create Bitcoin, the world’s first real cryptocurrency. But what the Bitcoin system brought into the world, more importantly than the cryptocurrency, is a new kind of recordkeeping.

Whenever people need to know whether or not something happened — someone depositing money in a bank account, changing the title of a house, or voting in an election — we set up institutions to guarantee that it happened. For important transactions, we have multiple layers of authority to make those guarantees. We have the Fed, credit agencies, the passport office, the DMV, notaries public, government licensing and regulatory bodies — many, many institutions whose purpose it is to know what happened.

Blockchain technology can be used to make those guarantees automatically, by distributing a shared, verified public record to as many people as are interested in seeing that record. Anyone interested can join a computer network and download the record. Each new set of entries to the record — each block — is added by all the computers in the network, and then verified and timestamped. Because new information is added on block by block, no one can go back and alter what has already happened. The record is incorruptible.

It’s obvious why this sort of recordkeeping is valuable for journalism: it allows us to maintain archives that can’t be censored or altered after the fact. We can amend previous records only through addenda, in other words: not through erasure. This is the first benefit of blockchain technology to the free press, and this benefit alone makes it worth moving our news media into blockchain-based publishing systems. But there is more.

Our media have grown dangerously vulnerable to tampering in the Internet age. The vuvuzela of propaganda drowns out the work of real journalists. Platform companies like Facebook and Google take advertising money for showing you news stories they did not pay to produce. They’re not journalists, and they have failed, catastrophically, and are still failing, to understand the importance of impartial media in a free society. Mark Zuckerberg claimed that it was “crazy” to suggest that his company had affected the results of the 2016 U.S. election. At the moment he spoke these words, his company’s political ad sales pages were bragging about Facebook ads’ power to affect elections, as they still do (“influence online and offline outcomes through DR and video”).

There is no exaggerating the irresponsibility of Silicon Valley’s tech titans, who somehow wound up being in charge of your information, who are accountable to nobody, and who have no earthly idea what they are doing.

By creating an ad-free publishing economy on Civil’s Ethereum-based platform, instead of on the traditional web, Popula is putting up a wall against tampering. Popula is accountable to its readers alone, and is impervious to the interests and agendas of advertisers or other intermediaries or “influencers” of any kind. Readers, and readers alone, provide our community, our platform, and the funding for our journalism.

In addition to this, Popula’s readers and their interactions with the publication will be part of a larger, novel experiment in cryptoeconomics. This sounds scary, but I promise you, it’s not. It’s useful and fun.

Consider Internet comments. At the moment, you can’t be sure whether a Facebook comment on your feed came from a bot paid for by some Dr. Evil freak billionaire, a Russian troll farm, or your cousin’s friend from work. Some hidden percentage of what you are seeing online is not commentary from real people, but bought-and-paid-for, computer-generated propaganda.

Now imagine for a moment that commenting on a news story wasn’t free to every Tom, Dick and Yuri, but was instead a privilege that comes only with a paid subscription to a responsible publication. It would be worth paying something to know that the comments are real, right?

Commenters can earn tips on the Civil platform, so there will be a point to being smart and careful about what you write. Imagine adding information to a news story you’re interested in, and not just getting thumbs up or ‘likes’ for it, but getting paid for it. Same with comments: make a comment that others find interesting, and your subscriber account can be credited with microtips that will accrue for as long as they continue to read and value your contribution. And, when someone comments, the microtipping system forwards a portion of every tip to all subscribers, meaning that all subscribers benefit from an active network.

By the time the stories of November 2016 are told in full, from Cambridge Analytica to the truth about the mass dissemination of propaganda on social media, I believe it will be even more obvious that the free press in America is in a state of crisis.

If we want information that is true to the best of our ability to report it, unaffected by commercial or political interests, we need to remove the influence of advertisers or sponsors on editorial concerns. Money never comes without strings. That’s why we can’t allow anyone but our readers to pay the bills.

On Civil’s Ethereum-based platform, we can make very nearly certain that only individual readers are paying for our work: Blockchain technology is as valuable for the hidden tampering it forbids, as for the verifiable gathering and dissemination of information it permits. That’s why my colleagues and I gave up everything else we were working on for the chance to start Popula, an alternative internationalist news and culture magazine: it’s the world’s first publication to live on the blockchain, and to use this new technology to benefit everyone who believes in society’s unfettered right to inform itself.

Journalist, editor and entrepreneur Maria Bustillos, whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Awl, Harper’s, the Guardian and The New York Times, is the editor-in-chief of Popula, an alternative news and culture publication that will be launching on the Civil platform. Popula is written and edited by Trevor Alixopulos, Aaron Bady, Willy Blackmore, Maria Bustillos, Ryan Bradley, Vanessa Davis, Sasha Frere-Jones, and Sarah Miller.