The News Provenance Project Wants to Save Journalism Using Blockchain

Technology aimed to blunt the spread of misinformation

The New Provenance Project bets on blockchain to save journalism against the rise of misinformation.
Blockchain technology could protect journalism against the rise of misinformation. Twitter
Headshot of Josh Sternberg

There’s a curious sense of irony that The New York Times R&D Lab is looking at an unrefined, if not undeveloped, technology to fix an industry beset by issues created by, well, technology.

Over the past couple of years, the Times has been working with IBM to create The News Provenance Project, looking to answer a few questions that dance around two main themes: the rise of misinformation and using technology to blunt the spread of that misinformation. This week, the team released its first batch of findings and design principles.

Marc Lavallee, the media company’s R&D chief, told Adweek the company is looking at how it can help build an ecosystem of solutions, not just conduct fact checks or have a reporter on the misinformation beat. 

“It’s about finding multiple seeds and starting points of collaboration,” Lavallee said. “We’re trying to do two things: figure out from different angles what different parts of the solution look like, and two, the opportunity to use the name recognition of New York Times to get everyone to work together. It’s not just tech companies but other news organizations. Misinformation is an everyone problem.”

The idea seems relatively straightforward. In an age when images are manipulated and deepfakes get more sophisticated each day, using blockchain technology to show readers and viewers where and how an image, static or moving, has been changed can be an important way for consumers to understand where the image actually came from—trusted source or not.

Perhaps at a more foundational level, the main question The News Provenance Project seems to be asking is: Can blockchain save journalism, if not society? Lofty, yes. But what is an R&D Lab if not reaching for the stars.

Using blockchain technology and user research, the skunkworks team of five shared its findings earlier this week “about the problem space, user insights and technological solutions,” according to Lavallee. 

As he wrote on LinkedIn, his team “developed a simple perspective about content: Users have a right to know where it came from. That means all the images, text, video and audio in their social media streams and on news websites.”

Putting images on the blockchain through the metadata can let readers know those images haven’t been altered and that they aren’t fake news, no matter what the memes say.

While internet users can see the “view source” of a webpage with a right-click, we don’t have a mechanism yet to understand how that information ended up there. Or as Lavallee put it, “We should also be able to view SOURCES”—not just the source code, but also the people that uploaded the content. 

For example, one discovery was that people “are capable of being discerning, yet rather than ask themselves whether a post is true or not, they are motivated by whether they find a post interesting,” Emily Saltz, the UX lead for The Provenance Project, wrote in a Medium post outlining the research.

Project lead Sasha Koren, who is now an editorial consultant, went on to describe in a different post the creation of several design principles “for how digital platforms and publishers might better communicate information about photo provenance.”

Some of those principles are “assessing visuals for source information at the same time a photo is uploaded,” “using prompts to induce a more critical mindset,” and “highlighting details that users can understand for themselves.”

All of this is in service of the reader, but perhaps more nobly, society. If journalism is to help inform the public and to let society make better decisions based on accurate and truthful information, then we need to establish protocols and systems to let readers understand what they’re seeing. It’s no longer putting trust in one person, like the TV anchor or the newspaper columnist. The News Provenance Project’s bet is that blockchain is that technology to help us all. 

However, blockchain has fallen out of favor among many of its participants. The technology is confusing at best, and to get publishers across the internet—many of whom actually make a pretty penny from peddling Photoshopped images—to adopt an immutable ledger seems, perhaps, a bit idealistic.

The promise of a technology “saving journalism,” while not new—hello, ad tech—does hold a particular kind of idealism that speaks to the very real, dark timeline the media industry lives in.

@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.