Research Blockchain als factchecker
Designing a system of trust for journalism
1.1 Fact checking and trustworthiness
- Research Method
- Process & involved expertise
- Technical architecture
- Research technical peers
- Business model: demand and supply in a peer-2-peer economy
- Analysis quantitative and desk research
- Analysis qualitative and literature research
- Design intervention (experiment)
- Spin off / Dissemination
Blockchain als factchecker
Designing a system of trust for journalism
Three years ago a journalist, employed by the newspaper Trouw, got fired because it turned out that he had made up a large part of his sources. This journalist, Perdiep Ramesar, appeared to have used his own imagination for a number of his articles on radicalisation and Jihadism. The excess was widely covered in the media; how could it happen that a renowned newspaper did not discover the truth about his false articles. It resulted in a broad discussion on truth-finding and quality journalism, which continuously ended with the conclusion that journalists are eminently connected with the task to guard the truth in an information landscape in which the grey area between fact and fiction is consistently growing.
Meanwhile, the question ‘How are we going to safeguard ourselves against fake news?’ is embedded in the day to day media business. Since the questionable elections in the United States, in which fake news possibly played a decisive role, new fact checking options have been reflected on. During the American elections, two Macedonian teens, were able to manipulate the election results by launching over 100 election websites, providing fake news in favor of Donald Trump. This resulted in a discussion on global scale in which a particular question kept being asked; How could it happen that journalists did not unmask these fraudulent practices earlier?
The frequent reply by journalists is that they are constantly wedged in between providing this ever growing and faster moving information landscape and on the other side their task to filter out fact from fiction. In this news era fact checking has become so time consuming; journalists simply don’t have the time. Especially when we consider the budget cuts being laid upon editors as readers more often get their news through other (unpaid) media.
In addition, online fact checking substantially differs from the traditional ‘analog’ adversarial method that journalists are well equipped to perform. Often expertise of the world wide web is needed to recognize a hacked or untrustworthy site; many journalists lacks these online skills. The working area of the journalist changes quickly, yet the needed skills in this changing environment are falling behind.
During a recent debate in The Netherlands regarding this theme, organised by the Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek (stimulation fund for journalism), the emphasis was made that fact checking is a responsibility that has to be carried by us all. In addition, we have to strive to increase transparency of used sources, invest heavily in media literacy with both young and adult media users and above all we should create an environment in which free reporting is supported and propagated. But how do we create such environment in which everybody; amateur, hacker or spin doctor can broadcast information with such ease? How do we guard the trustworthiness of journalism?
The trustworthiness of the news is the unique selling point of journalism. When this particular aspect becomes questionable, then automatically the very existence of journalism becomes questionable. Other than in foreign countries, where fact checking is far more embedded in the journalistic system, Dutch news media don’t have a separate fact checking department. The German quality newspaper Der Spiegel employs around seventy staff members that have Verifikation as their main task. The British Full Fact organisation is an independent fact checking ‘charity’ organisation founded to correct in a broad sense: “We push for corrections where necessary, and work with government departments and research institutions to improve the quality and communication of information at source. We also provide a factchecking toolkit to give people the tools they need to make up their own minds.” In the United States a fact checking department is considered a quality mark, most large media platforms employ a department purely focused on verification.
Almost each medium has considered new options of fact checking in the past years. In 2012 NRC.next introduced next.checkt, a special column in which articles were featured and sources explicitly named. The Volkskrant introduced the column Wat is waar?, BNR nieuwsradio started the radioshow: Feit of Fabel (Fact or Fiction) and ‘the fact club’, and the TV channel Nederland 1 opted to use ‘analog’ fact checkers during the Dutch elections in the form of political commentators such as Wouke van Scherrenburg. However not only the traditional media, also information platforms that are accused of ‘helping’ fraudsters and spreading fake news, such as Facebook, are investing in verification. Facebook introduced the ‘thumbs down’ symbol for users to flag questionable posts. In the Netherlands, Facebook started a collaboration under the name of nieuwscheckers.nl with students from Leiden University to address fake news in an early stage.
We saw a similar movement abroad. Google stated their efforts to improve their algorithms in the battle against fake news. The French newspaper Le Monde intends to help young people through snapchat in recognising fake news. In the United States Facebook sought to collaborate with the verification platform Politico to address fake news. The Norwegian factchecker website Faktisk, a collaboration of four large competitor Norwegian media organisations, started a ‘hunt’ on fake news during the elections and decided to continue this as it would contribute to regain the trust of the public.
1.1 Fact checking & trustworthiness
But to what extent do these tools result in more trustworthy news? According to Kustaw Bessems, Chief ‘online’ at the Volkskrant and leading role behind de live factcheck a self-cleaning effect is apparent. A group of thirteen editors focused on the statements made by 8 party leaders during the Dutch national election debate of 5 march 2017. According to Bessems the very existence already had an useful effect. ‘The very existence of fact checks already has a corrective effect. I, at least, have the impression that the speakers substantiate their statements more carefully’.
However, recent research by Yale university states that ‘tagging’ of fake news on Fakebook appears to have an adverse effect. Simply tagging an article with ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ could possibly even increase distrust. If the article were to be true, would it needed to be checked? It could even result in a backfire effect: When a factcheck does not comply with what reader expects, they will find it less trustworthy and even persevere more in their own belief.
The study, reported for the first time by POLITICO, found that tagging false news stories as “disputed by third party fact-checkers” has only a small impact on whether readers perceive their headlines as true. Overall, the existence of “disputed” tags made participants just 3.7 percentage points more likely to correctly judge headlines as false, the study said.
Currently, the focus on fact checking has increased to such extent that newspaper Volkskrant columnist Sheila Sitalsing even asked herself what ‘fact checking’, to factcheck the factcheckers factcheck, actually checks. “Nowadays you can fact check everything, and a fact checker is always ready to factcheck the fact check of the fact checker, followed by a third fact checker that questions the facts of the first and second fact checker and a fourth fact checker has to be involved to make a final verdict. That in a closer look is a temporary verdict, because there’s always a fact checker that has another say. By that time I am already confused.”
In Forbes, author Kalev Leetaru also focused on fact checking mechanisms of fact checkers, following the report by the Daily Mail that the ‘Snopes’ website, an among journalists popular platform that is being used to trace ‘fake news’, is using questionable practices. At first, Leetaru thought that the report by the Daily Mail would turn out as fake news. Surely the journalistic Snopes platform would have its practices in check? Why would Facebook recently become a partner otherwise? Hij decided to contact the head of editorial office himself, but got the answer to not discuss this.
“Putting this all together, we simply don’t know if the Daily Mail story is completely false, completely true or somewhere in the middle. Snopes itself has not issued a formal response to the article and its founder David Mikkelson responded by email that he was unable to address many of the claims due to a confidentiality clause in his divorce settlement. This creates a deeply unsettling environment in which when one tries to fact check the fact checker, the answer is the equivalent of “its secret.
Leetaru comes to the conclusion that:“At the end of the day, it is clear that before we rush to place fact checking organizations like Snopes in charge of arbitrating what is “truth” on Facebook, we need to have a lot more understanding of how they function internally and much greater transparency into their work.”
What we can deduct from the above is that we should not necessarily focus on ‘fact checking’ mechanisms, but mainly on increasing transparency of news reporting. Closer to the end of 2012, Laura Wismans and Wilmer Heck wrote an evaluation regarding the used fact checking tools by NRC (a Dutch newspaper). Amongst others they indicate that the road to judgement is more relevant that the judgement itself. More attention should be given to this particular aspect.
The same conclusion is made by researchers of the news agency Reuters and Oxford University in a recent report News you don’t believe: Audience perspectives on fake news. The researchers followed eight focus groups in their reaction to fake news. They find that, amongst others, addressing fake news is important, but that the focus should shift towards restoring the trust in the whole ecosystem of information gathering and spreading: Tackling false news narrowly speaking is important, but it will not address the broader issue that people feel much of the information they come across, especially online, consists of poor journalism, political propaganda, or misleading forms of advertising and sponsored content.
The website Stellingchecker was launched two years ago to check statements made by politicians by civilians (moderated by journalists) was an interesting attempt to improve the transparency of fact checking itself. The basic thought behind this platform: anyone can provide statements that can be checked by a community based on ‘transparency principles’ as drafted by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). In turn the platform is ‘controlled’ by journalists by checking the trustworthiness of the participants.
The basic principles behind this platform are interesting; the platform employs its own readers’ community to assist with fact checking. The readers are led through the verification-process, are supported with tools to check and the whole process is transparently presented on the site.
However, are readers prepared to perform these extra actions? Considering the low activity on the platform, we could conclude the opposite. What is the incentive for readers to trace potential faults in media reporting? It appears that, considering the often cited discussion about filter bubbles, we increasingly consume the things we like the most; we are increasingly creating our own favorite news ‘meal’. That this meal is not particularly healthy for ourselves is emphasised more often; “We are getting fat from all the ‘tasty’ information. It makes it more difficult to follow a healthy diet. You have to learn that vegetables are necessary.” according to Rick Klau (Google Invest).
The current fact checking systems do not appear to contribute to more trustworthiness. Journalists are fully occupied to produce valuable articles from the information flow that is served daily; an information flow that actually needs larger editorial offices. That information flow also gives readers the impression that journalism no longer is needed; they are able to filter their own ‘tasty’ news diet. We cater for our own interests and create a filter bubble. We are being supporting in this by smart algorithms based on our online search- and clicking behavior that are supposed to learn our interests and use these accordingly. In the end we only consume the ‘tasty’ meal that we like and it becomes harder to try new flavors and recipes.
It appears that we are in an era in which fake news and filter bubbles are increasingly surrounding us. More than ever proper journalism is needed to puncture the filter bubbles. We need journalists to provide a ‘healthy’ meal instead of only the ‘tasty’ stuff and making sure that the readers want to consume this. But what is the recipe to make this happen?
- Research Method
Can we design a system to increase the trustworthiness of journalism and improve transparency in journalistic expertise regarding fact checking? That was the underlying question which started our research on blockchain als factchecker. Based on the journalistic landscape discussed in chapter one we see a great need for a new system of fact checking; a system that is better able than current verification mechanisms to provide insight process, without adding extra actions for reader or journalists. Can we design such a system with the use of Blockchain technology?
Blockchain, the emerging technology in the financial and technical world is known as a system based on trust. All data in this decentralised ledger is distributed throughout the whole network; no authority is needed anymore to verify a transaction; the whole network is responsible. All of the data is continuously traceable and due to this fact also transparant. The system currently is mainly used as a currency (e.g. with Bitcoins). Other industries such as transport companies and food chains are interested to use Blockchain for their transactions. In such manner the distribution of coconuts, energy providing and logistical processes can be processed transparently. Each ‘transaction’, each step in the process can be made on and validated by the blockchain.
Can we wield this ‘system of trust’ and use it for journalism? We could say that the technology is focused on the validation of transaction by a chain of ‘fact checkers’. However, it can only validate ‘fixed agreements’; a currency transaction that can be expressed in absolute figures, a transport transaction that is expressed in a set weight or cubic metres or a transaction of food expressed in distances the product has covered and the temperature of the food during the transport.
If we want to use Blockchain technology for journalism, it is important to find out which ‘transaction’ we want to ‘verify’. Do we want to verify an article on source level, do we want to verify the quantitative data used in a journalistic article or possible the trustworthiness of the journalist? Subsequently, can we validate this transaction and we do we validate exactly in these cases? If the source is used correctly and originates from a reliable news source? Or if the journalist in question can appeal to the code of journalists, so that Macedonian teens can be unmasked? Then again in the last case we would once more need an authority (e.g. the association of journalists). This would conflict with the underlying blockchain philosophy.
In conclusion, can we use blockchain technology from the basic philosophy of the system – as a chain of ‘trust’ – to increase the trustworthiness of the news?
2.1 Process and involved expertise
To answer the central research question, we decided to employ a design research approach. From our belief that both the technical design of the perceived blockchain system as the ‘social’ design of the chain of trust with which the promise to the ‘user’ regarding verified and transparent news can be fulfilled, we have chosen this design research. In our research quantitative research, prototyping and qualitative interviews with news producers and consumers, research on the technical infrastructure and reflection on the process go hand-in-hand and are continuously overlapping. The model below, represents our integral research method.
Het development team, consisting of two blockchain consultants (Remco van Riet en Thomas Koes), two blockchain developers (Kaj Oudshoorn, Tim de Jong), two journalistic and design researchers (Martijn Rademakers, Danielle Arets) and visualiser Lianne Polinder en Jonas Ersland analysed blockchain technology and tried to apply this to diverse cases studies, based on current events.
News articles regarding the new cabinet formation and messages concerning the alleged heavy knee injury of footballer Van Persie were analysed. How could we use blockchain to fact check such reports? Who should verify the news? How would this chain contribute to more transparency?
The case of the heavy knee injury incurred by Van Persie, a Dutch footballer, clearly showed that legitimacy of news sources is not questioned quickly. The first message was adopted without extra verification and marginal source checks by a number of other newsmedia. Thus it could happen that the report regarding the injury could escalate and the person with the injury, Van Persie, was not consulted. The most important source had to make a statement himself to debunk the rumours.
By considering a current event during the two-weekly design sessions, we tried to analyse both the technical infrastructure as the desirability of this system for our end goal. By researching if blockchain can be successfully employed for a fact checking mechanism, it is of importance to keep in check with reality, as numerous ‘technical’ questions need a deep-dive into the technology before a verdict can be made about the use of blockchain in our case.
To critically analyse our research question and research method from different perspectives, both journalists as blockchain experts were invited to research sessions.
- Technical architecture
In the beginning of the research process we started with an analysis on blockchain technology. What are the characteristics and what is the promise of the system and in what way can we apply and implement it within the field journalism?
The first concept for registering the ratings of articles on the blockchain can be distributed among several components. In this concept we presumed the fact that users need to be registered before they can actually rate and provide feedback on articles. Subsequently the articles could be rated, either from an interface in which articles appear that are marked by readers as suspicious for false information or directly on the article itself. The assessor can hand out a negative ‘like’ or a positive ‘like’ leading to a final rate of the article. This rate is stored on the blockchain and is immutable, safely stored, therefore manipulation is not possible.
We anticipate a field with two different actors: the assessor who validates an article and the reader who can read the scores and can flag an article as suspicious. The registration of the assessor is mandatory, so that the ‘tokens’ which are used to transfer the likes among articles. The choice and the data of the assessor can be completely anonymous to the public, partially anonymous or completely public, depending on how we want the users to interact with the system.
For the registration we distinguish two options. At both options the first step is to determine if the user is not a bot. Option 1 allows everyone to subscribe and potentially make transactions with no required authority. The second option only allows people that belong to a specific group ‘factcheckers’, which demands a detailed registration in which a point of authority is need to figure out who is going to be able to participate as an assessor.
Daily new articles are published of which most of them are trusted. In order to prevent the ratings to be too heavily influenced by positive likes a flagging system can be implemented. In this way assessors can focus on articles that are flagged as ‘suspicious’. These ‘flagged’ articles are displayed in an interface for the assessors, in which the assessment beside fake or real also supplementary information can be added. Examples are doubt on the trustworthiness or marking that further research need to determine if the sources are legit.
At the moment an assessor ‘likes’ an article, a transaction of a token with either credibility or dis-credibility value is distributed to the article. This transaction is presented as a new block to the network (blockchain network). In case the block is validated by the miners, the block is added to the chain and the transaction is marked as accepted. A so called ‘wallet’ is created for the article if this did not exist yet. Otherwise the token is added to the current wallet of the article that was already assessed before. Therefore the balance displays the actual status of an article.
For more clarification a new token is directly created on an existing blockchain, such as Ethereum. This does not have a direct connection with the value of the coin (ether in the case of Ethereum). Other changes such as dispensing the tokens and creating new wallets for articles are programmed in a ‘dispenser smart contract’ and a ‘receiver smart contract’. In such a smart contract; agreements such as a third party paying for the transaction costs, to remove entrance barriers for assessors that are willing to rate an article.
The reader must be aware of the current status of all news articles on websites. From a design point of view more research is required to determine the right user experience and display. A status can be displayed as a balance in credibility and dis-credibility, a abstract status with description or with pictograms and or colors. This can be seamlessly integrated in the code of the website or to the browser extension that needs to be installed by the reader.
The above described technical architecture was shared with several blockchain experts and afterwards their feedback was included. A list of blockchain experts that are involved are the following: Koen den Hartog and Marloes Plomp (both as experts involved in setting up blockchain pilots at the Ministry of Internal Affairs), Fako Berkers (technical developer/designer) and Professor Lex Hoogduin (Professor Economics of Complexity and Uncertainty in Financial Markets and Financial Institutions / director / supervisor). In addition to blockchain experts, the following experts on journalism were involved; Bart Brouwers (Professor Journalism, University of Groningen), Yael Woortman de Haan (Senior Researcher Crossmedial Quality Journalism and member of the Council for Journalism). All insights of these experts are taken into account and are used in the design sessions, design iterations and the qualitative analysis of the report.
3.2 Research technical peers
A competitor analysis of similar initiatives was also in scope for this trajectory. The American platform Civil is currently developing a blockchain platform where civilians and journalists together form a community surrounding a specific theme. By adopting collaborative editing methods this platform wants to create a marketplace for journalists, which is completely free of ads, fake news and outside influence. Civil’s goal is to stimulate an infrastructure where journalists can be capable of producing accurate articles, whereas readers can support these journalists. Fact checking is another service that is provided by the platform.
The most fascinating fact about the way Civil is using blockchain technology, is that the new business model is completely transparent and readers together with journalists decide the ‘agenda’. Subjects which have a high demand, shall result in more journalists willing to write on these topics. The journalist however can also present a theme to bind readers to him in order to ‘finance’ the fact that he is going to read the article. In fact, Civil creates a new journalistic ecosystem in which we can independently from publishers bring news based upon interest, expressed in crypto-currencies.
But is this marketplace for news actually going to fire up the discussion on fact or fiction? How will Civil prevent that the journalist, poised for a nice payday, is not going to write solely what readers are waiting for? He is directly paid by the demand for certain topics and the famous filter bubble phenomena also seems to be revealing itself here. The need to cater oneself for own interest, is directly correlated to our own information bias in which we seek confirmation to what we already know. This effect is increased by smart algorithms, that are revealing more similar information or what we already possess.
At ‘de Correspondent’ platform this thus far does not seem to be a problem yet. This online paper chose four years ago specifically for a new model in which not only facts and press articles are (re)written in quality articles, but moreover writers were challenged to provide their own ‘taste’ to the news. Especially that goal, should give new meaning to the relation they have with their readers or the relationship they build with them, citing founder Rob Wijnberg.
The interesting fact about the exercitation of Wijnberg and his team is that the paper achieved to let readers pay for more subjective news, by making use of crowdfunding. The Correspondent therefore started a new journalistic ecosystem in which readers and journalists indeed form a close relationship.
If the future is going towards such matters, what is the role of fact checking? If we make the journalist bigger than the medium for who he or she works than the individual credibility of all journalists become more crucial than ever.
Wijnberg writes in a ten point program which was held because of the 4th year of existence of the paper, that there is a special focus on how we can provide ‘the best cure against daily delusions’. By putting structural development of newsworthy journalism on the top of the agenda we can strengthen the news industry. One of the planned strategies is to let articles be checked more often by specialists, before they are actually published.
Blockchain technology itself is not easy to use as a factchecking system. Blockchain can in fact mostly present if a transaction has been done write, but distinguishing if the content is fake or real is not possible with solely blockchain. Blockchain is mostly a valuable intervention to store who published what and who reviewed what. Therefore our research question was adjusted to the following:
Can we use the philosophy behind blockchain technology to develop a system which increases trust in the entire chain in order to increase the credibility of the news?
Especially since hackers, but also tech savy amateurs are more easily able to launch fake news sites, it is relevant to explore if blockchain can play a role in fighting these evildoers. There are already initiatives to check for false sources (http://www.hoax-wijzer.be/valse-nieuwssites or the also by Google DNI supported Decodex of Le Monde). However in these cases a single authority decides if a website is spreading fake news or a source is falsely used.
We could use blockchain to keep a list and users can be guaranteed that the data which is offered is correct and not changed by any hacker of some kind. Official websites as well as fake news website would be added to this list. The control group would consist of (amateur)journalists that review this. Users (readers and journalists) would make use of a browser extension that checks sources and searches for shady URL’s which can be flagged and questioned later on. In the diagrams below two possible concepts are depicted, whether the user is on a mobile website or on a desktop site is not important at the moment. It is important to see if reliable sources actually remain reliable. The Dutch Paper Trouw, which is normally presumed to be reliable, also spread fake news with journalist Perdiep Ramesar, making judgment of reliable sources a tricky one.
- Peer feedback
Do we have to develop a system in which journalists are to some extent holding some control over his or her coworker?
A recent study revealed that fact checking works more positively if it has been done by friends. People are more eager to change their article if critics rise from close ones and people they trust.  In another recent research, conducted by Drew B. Margolin, Aniko Hannak, and Ingmar Weber on political fact checking for Twitter, the correlation between social connections and the acceptation of critics on social media was investigated. A conclusion that could be drawn is the following; “individuals who follow and are followed by the people who correct them are significantly more likely to accept the correction than individuals confronted by strangers.”
Could peer feedback be more integrated within the journalistic system? How inclined are journalists to receive criticism of their ‘peers’ and accepting this? Moreover in what way are they open to provide feedback and more importantly would this indeed lead to more transparent journalism?
Bundling those questions, sets the goal for our more social line of research. Within science and academics peer feedback is a well known and long accepted phenomenon. A large time investment is required by the reviewer to judge a paper’s quality and this investment only has a positive payoff if there is a common trust in science and the academic system. A requirement is that the reviewer also receives judgment on his/her own scientific papers. Once and for all the mechanism of peer feedback relies on a deep trust in the system itself. This trust has been growing over the years and nowadays it is deeply rooted within the academical infrastructure. Every scientist or university graduate knows that during their career, credibility is always on the line and needs to be continuously tested by the community.
Could we develop a peer-feedback system in which journalists constantly present each other with feedback and also make this transparent to the readers? In this way the important context for fact checking is open to everyone and the trust in the entire new system can be maintained/increased.
- Business model: demand and supply in a peer-2-peer economy
De Correspondent (the correspondent) and Civil specially chose for a new business model in which fitting to the peer-2-peer economy a more direct relation between supply and demand for news is possible. From this perspective the two-sided market, network effects are expected to arise and balance out a perfect equilibrium for both parties. By looking from this new perspective Media Advisor Gillmore questions in his column on Medium if we have been paying too less attention to the ‘demand’ – side of the equation?
Also before the internet age demand and supply were never separate worlds, but as a result of big data, artificial intelligence and small algorithmes they have become more intertwined. “In this environment, even as we upgrade our information sources, we have to upgrade ourselves — as users of media who consume, create, share, and collaborate in our endlessly complex ecosystem. And we have to find ways to do this at scale — reaching as many people as possible to help them, above all, to be critical thinkers who would use media with integrity.”
Gillmore in collaboration with Facebook, Arizona State University: Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication has started a so called ‘news literacy’ group, consisting of journalists, tech-heads and scientists. Together they explore how demand and supply can become more connected, without having to sacrifice the quality of news.
It resulted in the Co-lab (also collab) that needs to determine if a new model for demand and supply, will also close the increasing gap between providers and consumers of news. Gillmore foresees an overall task to increase media awareness. In his recent book Mediactive he calls for a more active consumption of media: “We all need to use, not merely consume, the media–and that being literate in a digital age includes being creators of media, too. We’re in an age of information overload, and too much of what we watch, hear and read is mistaken, deceitful or even dangerous. Yet you and I can take control and make media serve us — all of us — by being active consumers and participants.”
Overall we see an increase in news- and communication platforms that focus on these peer-2-peer communication models in which readers in close collaboration with journalists decide the future. As an example the popular campaign platform Avaaz tries to mobilize civilians worldwide to take action for urgent national and international problems; from poverty to the crisis in the Middle East to climate change. The opinion of the participants of the platform heavily influences the decision making and the action process in counteracting such issues. Looking at the popularity of the platform in addition to the do-democracy in which civilians are more actively involved by governmental parties especially when it comes to decision making it seems to be that such models are of high interest for journalism as well.
‘News also needs to score.’ In order to feed this goal media companies currently are mostly gathering extensive amounts of data on users, to keep feeding them with their own wishes and needs. That this leads to the famous filter bubble does not require extra emphasis. The Norwegian company Schibsted pursues the fact that data should actually help journalists. ‘Algorithmes should assist journalists, not dictate them’, thus Adam Kinney, vice president of the company in an interview with het Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek (a Dutch stimulation fund for Journalism) director René van Zanten. 
- Analysis quantitative and desk research
The discussion on the validation of URL-sources of website, in addition to the topic of peer feedback, lead us to question the digital skills of journalists and subsequently research this with Gillmore’s mentioned media literacy.
A recent study executed by the University of Georgetown has demonstrated that less than 18% of employees within editorial offices of news organizations have a specific technical expertise, concerning the verification and getting to the bottom of digital sources. This survey was drafted in 12 languages and executed in over 130 countries and especially gave insight in the lack of technical expertise within many news organizations. Furthermore of the journalists who use social media as input for their articles, only 11% is familiar with using social media verification tools.
Another research, conducted by the College of Utrecht in collaboration with the Amsterdam School of Communication Research revealed that Google strongly influences the searching behaviour of journalists as well as their verification methods. ‘Through the recording of screen activity, followed by a quantitative content analysis of that activity, we show that search strategies are heavily influenced by how the search engine Google sorts and ranks potential sources. Moreover, online news production also clearly challenges the verification process. Results suggest that journalists use no explicit but only so-called hybrid methods of verifications, such as background checks of websites, and social media accounts and cross-checking of sources.’ 
Additionally the research explains that journalists let themselves be easily influenced by Google. This could mean that journalist’s source selection is increasingly steered by an algorithmic logic instead of a journalist’s logic. The study ends with concluding that it is of huge importance for journalists to understand the ‘Google logic’, in order to prevent that journalistic research is strongly steered by the way they use the search engine.
The Google literacy which the researchers put emphasis on is in line with the call to increase the digital skills of journalists. Most newsrooms are a little lagging when it comes to a new tech and digital first mindset is the conclusion of an extensive study conducted by the International Center for Journalists (CFJ).
This input, lead us to sending out a survey to 100 journalists ourselves. The emphasis in the survey was on how fact checking takes place within their current work environment, how much time on average they spend on fact checking, what are possible obstacles they encounter and to retrieve information on what their experience is with online checking and what tools and expertise they use to track false websites. Additionally they were questioned about the potential a peer review mechanism could have if implemented and what ideas they have themselves to better verify news.
The survey was sent to a mix of journalists, 80% had fixed contracts, whereas 20% were freelancers. Unfortunately the response rate so far is only 10%, making it hard to draw thorough conclusions. However from the respondents we can confirm that also in our survey it seems that the specific expertise on checking digital sources, verifying online trolls and verifying digital data is little to none. But as mentioned before we cannot draw too many conclusions solely on our own survey, due to the low response rate. Nonetheless if we combine all results there is indeed a need to boost the digital literacy of journalists. In the next phase of our research we are going to cover this more extensively, since journalists are the end users. Adoption by this group needs to be seamless and matching to their existing way of working.
- Analysis qualitative and literature research
Simultaneously to the quantitative research we started a serie of qualitative round table interviews and discussions with four large quality media; NOS, NU, DUIC and NRC Handelsblad. Initially, these interviews were mostly conducted to retrieve information on the current status of peer feedback within these news organization and if applicable how this is executed.
- Do journalists give each other feedback?
- Are they willing to accept feedback of their co-workers?
- How can we set up the system in such a way that it is not too time consuming, thus only leading to better journalism?
These interviews are taking place in the months december and january and are going to be covered within the second phase of this trajectory.
8 Design intervention
Conclusively we have chosen to design an intervention, which is our prototype that allowed us to research the chain of trust. Hereby important research questions are:
- How can we develop a system based upon peer feedback, in which journalists review each other and simultaneously inform readers about the process of fact checking?
- Thus, how can we make the verification process as transparent as possible by seamlessly integrating and introducing peer-feedback to our system?
This research question is going to be covered in the second phase of this trajectory and goes by the name of kiesfeiten.nl (translated: choosefacts.nl). In close collaboration with Utrecht’s College for Journalism we are covering all related news to the Dutch Municipal Elections on the 21st of March 2018. In order to have more focus we narrowed the target group to the Netherlands’ four major cities (Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht) and shall only create the peer feedback mechanism for political correspondents.
In close collaboration with Obi4wan, a platform focussed on social media monitoring and publishing, the kiesfeiten.nl website is going to be tracked. On this website all on and offline news related to the elections in the major cities is going to be published. These news items are going to be screened and judged, by the students of the aforementioned College, upon political neutrality, use of legitimate sources and the use of data. These to be journalists shall reach out the the professionals if they question one of the factors or facts written in the articles. This conversation is going to be completely transparent to the public (readers) and shall also be online.
The journalist as well as the peer-reviewer (students guided by a team of professors) will act completely transparent within the entire process; which means that the author and reviewers of the article will be public. Afterwards both the journalist and the reviewer are going to be asked for permission to let them participate in an interview session in which the (if wanted: confidential en anonymized) information is going to be discussed. Subsequently the results from this experiment are going to be analyzed and processed into a thesis.
The first insights in this research are based upon the combination of qualitative research (round table discussions, reconstructing fact checking related articles, expert interviews) and quantitative research (survey among journalists on their digital skills and their need for peer feedback, survey among readers for media activism). Secondly investigating the possible technical infrastructure by using blockchain as a fact checker (on article source and user level) in combination with the reflection of the design team together with blockchain experts and journalists we can already provide some interesting information.
In our journey for a new tool surrounding the topic fact checking we quickly stumbled upon fundamental aspects of an open society which has freedom of speech and press. Questions that were discussed:
- Why has fact checking become such a controversial topic?
- How can we increase/regain trust in journalism by using a fact checking mechanism?
- Who is the right party to ‘fact check’ and who authenticates the mechanism?
Nowadays news is spreading itself more quickly, on multiple platforms and even on a global scale. This puts a lot of pressure on journalists to verify all their sources, but with only limited time. Would ‘fact checking’ increase the trust of the author and or article and what is actually ‘fact checked’?
Based upon desk research and expert interviews we have started to investigate the technical infrastructure of blockchain and concluded quickly that the verification methods of blockchain will only help when validating certain agreements (smart contracts). However blockchain is not providing insight when such agreements are unclear or questioned, thus it is not providing us facts as if something is true or false. What it does add to the process is transparency of fact checking by registering the author and the reviewer’s statements as a digital hash. Therefore their statements are immutable and registered on the blockchain. Nonetheless the system acts to certain agreements and within the current process facts and fictions are both possible, since some journalists tend to break certain agreements (e.g. not verifying sources, therefore spreading false information). Blockchain itself is not the solution for this situation, but thinking in blockchain as a concept we can apply it on increasing the trust in journalism. This leads to the following question, which became the most important question in our research:
‘Can we develop a system of trust, that contributes by increasing the trustworthiness and validity of journalism as a whole?’
Our focus was on peer-feedback systems; a system that has been used successfully for centuries in academics and science and actually creates ‘trust in the system’. But how can we implement such a system in journalism? Do journalists accept feedback of their peers? What is required to give and receive quality feedback and accordingly with the right incentive?
Such questions we are going to answer by targeting the process of fact checking both by quantitative as well as qualitative research. So far research is conducted on the current states of fact checking/peer reviewing within editorial offices and by measuring how aware journalists are of their own fact checking process and what need there is for new tools if they want to act accordingly to new digital standards. Surprisingly and maybe even shockingly we can note that many journalists lack expertise on both digital as well as data analytics, but also do need really see the need for tools that can help them spread quality news. For this reason in phase two extra effort is going to be put in investigating this phenomenon .
So far we can conclude that fact checking is difficult in a time, which has an increasing flow of information, but simultaneously editorial offices are shrinking in FTE, therefore increasing the pressure on the remaining journalists. A valid business model is required to make this project also a success from a financial point of view. In the peer-2-peer economy we see that multiple journalistic platforms are seeking for more direct forms of journalism, with more direct relations between users/readers and authors/journalists/publishers. In what sense these platforms can break the so called ‘filter bubbles’ that only provide quick to consume news, need to be researched more into detail. The mechanism for peer feedback could help us retain journalistic quality, but also break the filter bubble for readers (Results from planned interviews to be added). Especially because the feedback provided by the peer-reviewer is completely transparent, the readers could also more actively participate in media usage. During our experiment kiesfeiten.nl we expect to retrieve more valuable insights.
Based upon the current information we do not directly see the need for blockchain technology used as a fact checker. This is because it does not add value to the actual fact checking process, which is at the moment the bigger use within the world of journalism. Despite this statement, we do see value in the transparent aspect that blockchain brings to the table. Therefore in the second phase of the research we are going to take a (technical) deep dive into the positive effect blockchain can have when applied within the chain of news media channels. Focus is put on the verification of authors and publishers and even keeping in mind tracing on the lowest level, which could be a single article.
Moreover we foresee chances by using the philosophy behind blockchain technology for a new transparent journalistic feedback system in which journalists give another feedback on a regular basis. This feedback adds value to the entire media, including the consumer (reader) of news content.
With the planned intervention and qualitative interviews we assume to gain a deeper understanding of the media environment with all her actors and the role digitization can also have a positive impact.
- Spinoff / dissemination of the project
During the research trajectory several public institutions have shown interest in the topic ‘blockchain as a fact checker’. Our expectations for the planned intervention are that it is going to generate even more public attention, from news organizations to governmental parties. Therefore during the second phase of this project a dissemination strategy is required, which covers sharing our research results and providing new information for journalists and the public (readers) on possibilities for fact-checking. Additionally by meeting up with partners we plan to host and attend several events, to gain traction and receive funding to develop more prototypes and eventually a final product. See below a list of events we have / are going to attend:
- Interview serie Mediapioniers VPRO gids (August 2017)
- Presentation Economic Board Utrecht/ Fintech meeting (September 2017)
- Presentation project on Nederlands Film Festival Utrecht (October 2017)
- Presentation ECP Den Haag (October 2017)
- Presentation Google DNI Fund meeting Brussel (27th of October 2017)
- Presentation Brussel News Impact Summit (4th of December 2017)
- Culturele zondagen (November 2018; covering the Blockchain program)
 paper/ proceeding