Can Blockchain Keep Social Media Honest?

Maybe the people who help Hollywood protect their valuable content from thieves could help the social media world repair its trust deficit.

For video, the protection is against pirates who use or steal copyrighted content without permission. With social media companies, reputation repair might be protection from the people or machines who post and propagate false and misleading information on their platforms.

In the pay TV world, forensic watermarks are imbedded in a video program. This allows those who distribute the content to track down thieves or pirates by identifying and locating their points of distribution. Data is used to help shut down the activity.

In the social media world, to date, little has been done to keep users from posting misleading or fraudulent information that can harm or deceive its members or the wider world. Facebook’s troubles regarding the proliferation of “fake news” during recent elections are different from its more recent privacy scandal with Cambridge Analytica. But both are two sides of the same coin: its actions—or inactions—create a lack of trust.

Could the watermarks used in the pay TV industry be used by social media platforms? In theory, posted content could be prepared with a forensic tool that drops electronic breadcrumbs back to the content’s originator. But that doesn’t seem practical. There would seemingly need to be an automated system that would encode or re-encoded trillions of pieces of content. Even if there were a practical way to do this, it seems unlikely that Facebook and its other social media brethren would be eager to pay for it.

This problem got me thinking about how the tech world’s latest darling, blockchain technology, might play a role. We’ve written about how this technology could be used by a TV service provider to reward its best customers with increased data security and privacy (such as limiting sales of customer data to third parties).

A watermark on a social media piece of content might reveal a bad actor’s location, but that wouldn’t reveal whether a piece of content had been altered (i.e., a photo altered to show a public official in an illegal act that was not depicted in the original photo).

The foundation of blockchain technology is the handling of encrypted transactions with rules and permission for an “asset” or a piece of content. Perhaps those rules and permissions might act as a deterrent to someone intentionally spreading fraudulent information. A recent article of the New York Times Sunday Magazine reported that scammers spread false rumors on social media to get large numbers of people to invest “in a sure thing,” thus creating large swings in a currency or stock that the scammer ultimately “shorts.” It would be a riskier crime if a technology could be employed to trace the “asset” or information to the scammer.

It is the early days in the life of blockchain technology and the enthusiasm for the technology is stubbornly stuck on bitcoin and other financial transaction applications. It may be naïve to think that it can be so massively scaled to effectively police fraudulent activity, or that social media companies would deploy it in this manner. A recent Facebook management reorganization includes “a new team dedicated to exploring blockchain.”

Chances are probably good that the exploration will be in crypto currency and financial transactions. The company has made no public statements regarding what it will explore, but it’s likely that it will have more to do with adding a new revenue stream than to work on its tainted reputation. Facebook probably has little concern that its users will leave the platform in mass numbers. It is governments and other public institutions that are more likely than users to hold it to account.

It’s surprising that many successful companies grossly undervalue trust when it comes to its customers and public institutions. Trust is hard to put on the bottom line of a financial statement. If social media companies had bigger deposits in the Bank of Good Will, government regulators (see GDPR), election officials and other public and private institutions might not be asking so many questions about how they do business.