We live in a precarious time for trust. From viral videos, to raw diamonds, to organic chickens, the question of authenticity has never been more salient. Perhaps it’s because authenticity has never been easier to forge. Technology has given bad actors powerful new tools to manipulate our very perception of the truth. But technology can also help us fight back.
In industries like ocean shipping, food and mining, blockchain has emerged as a powerful solution for tracking and validating the provenance of goods. Now, the News Provenance Project, a research initiative led by The New York Times Company and powered by IBM Blockchain, is evaluating whether the same technology can help turn the tide in the battle against misinformation online.
Provenance and authenticity are inextricably linked: By establishing a product’s origin and documenting its journey from source to endpoint, consumers can feel reasonably confident that they’re dealing with the genuine article. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Any asset — be it a physical mango or a digital image — passes through a vast network of parties, each tracking their own narrow piece of the journey. This makes it extremely difficult to get a full picture. Blockchain provides a shared, immutable ledger where all parties can exchange data in near real-time, thus creating the digital breadcrumbs leading back to an asset’s provenance.
While digital content might not seem like the most obvious application for this technology, the News Provenance Project will operate under the same principles as a classic blockchain. Initially, the platform will focus on photojournalism from established news organizations. Leveraging The Linux Foundation’s, open source Hyperledger Fabric and built on the IBM Blockchain Platform, it will build an immutable record of each image that includes metadata, as well as a detailed, tamper-evident history, tracking the photo as it’s republished and shared across the internet. A visual signal will travel with the photo, and anyone can click to see the original source, context and full journey of the image. Armed with this information, readers can make more informed decisions about the content’s trustworthiness.
The project, still in development, was conceived in a design thinking workshop at the IBM Garage, our signature co-creation experience that brings together diverse teams of experts to drive purposeful innovation at scale. In the IBM Garage, a team working in tandem with The New York Times Company identified opportunities to enhance transparency in the reader experience. Together, the group developed a robust set of user personas and created storyboards illustrating how a potential blockchain solution might impact readers, photographers and other stakeholders. The team is now working toward its next milestone: a minimum-viable product to test their assumptions.
The News Provenance Project is still in early stages, but the Times eventually hopes to use blockchain not only to validate the images we see, but also the stories we read.