Editor’s Note: Does blockchain technology offer a potential solution to often misleading, censorial, and even fraudulent corporate news media that plagues the Western world? As the author notes in his conclusion, such projects may seem far-fetched at present, yet it was not that long ago that few believed Wikipedia would ever gain traction. Today’s real news and analyses are coming from citizen journalists who remain vulnerable to YouTube, Google, and social media gatekeepers. What if they were given the means to form their own “ecosystems” for news and commentary?
“Creating comprehensive community-powered marketplaces for production, distribution, and verification of news”
(May 19, 2018)
In the US and around the world, quality journalism is going through difficult times. Against the backdrop of steadily declining trust in the mainstream press, systemic issues like the ever-intensifying political polarization of the media, proliferation of fake news, and asymmetric power relations between platforms and publishers, among others, stand in the way of the press striving to fulfill its crucial societal functions. The central role of the media in the society is, at least normatively, to provide the public with essential knowledge of the state of the world that would enable people to make informed choices. In a democracy, both institutional and social media are also supposed to facilitate an open arena for public discussion and deliberation where the wide array of voices and ideas are represented. However, the reality seems to be drifting away from this ideal in dramatic ways.
A longstanding critical tradition has an extensive list of claims to lay to the US media system’s structural deficiencies. Even in the pre-digital era, some scholars of communication were uneasy with the growing concentration of corporate ownership in media industries, seeing this trend as threatening the democratic process. Proponents of this intellectual current advocated for as wide a distribution of communication power as possible as a safeguard against power abuse at the hands of big corporate and state actors. The advent of digital news has seen yet another wave of similar criticisms, as it had soon become apparent that, contrary to early internet enthusiasts’ expectations, the new media ecosystem does not quite eliminate the disparities in communication power. Instead, it seemed to be reproducing the old patterns of power concentration, as well as giving rise to some new problematic trends.
Most of the contemporary media criticisms converge around one point: the digital news economy. The ad-based online business model often proves to be inadequate for sustaining certain forms of journalism that rely on specific and narrow audiences for financial backing. These forms happen to be the ones of social importance, like local news or investigative and issue reporting. Labelled the “attention economy,” the incentive system that social media news feeds have engendered rewards content that attracts eyeballs and generates clicks. Facebook and Google, which derive the bulk of their profits from selling targeted ads, have apparent reasons to stimulate as long user engagement with content as possible. Here’s where algorithmic newsfeeds come in handy, facilitating users’ selective exposure to content they will likely enjoy. Extrapolated to the political arena, this logic results in people getting locked up in ideological information bubbles, where partisan views become amplified and biases get confirmed. These bubbles also provide fertile soil for the spread of politically charged misinformation.
Aspiring media reformers have proposed multiple cures to these maladies. Among alternative models are philanthropic foundation-supported nonprofits, issue-specific donation-funded media outlets, and various forms of collaborative citizen journalism. Albeit sustainable in certain contexts, such solutions have so far failed to demonstrate flexibility and scalability needed to achieve any degree of mainstream adoption. Besides, these models mainly rely on goodwill of those people whose motivations are purely altruistic, which makes it difficult to ensure a steady flow of contributions.
A handful of blockchain-driven media startups that aspire to revolutionize the news economy are different in this important sense. They hope to not just draw in people longing for good journalism, but also provide them with economic incentives to contribute their efforts to sustaining the ecosystem for substantive news. Using the versatile incentive-building tools made available by crypto economy, combined with game-theoretic behavioral modelling and principles of decentralized governance, these projects aim at nothing less than creating comprehensive community-powered marketplaces for production, distribution, and verification of news.
A defining feature of each of these platforms is that they are all powered by the principles of the token economy. Unlike traditional fiat currencies or even a general-purpose cryptocurrency that could be used for any manner of transaction, crypto tokens are usually designed in a way that programmatically restricts the range of their uses to a certain set of roles and functions within a given system. Tokens therefore reflect the purposes and values of a certain platform, and can be used in order to align the economic interests of its individual users with the interests of the community at large. As a vehicle for transactions, such tokens are no longer a content-neutral instrument that simply enables transmission of information or value; rather, they entail the shared interests and values of those who subscribed to use them within a specific economic ecosystem.
Within the broader ecosystem of emerging blockchain-powered media startups, there is a wealth of platforms that use crypto-economic models to redefine the system of monetary exchanges between creators and consumers of information goods. The most common focus is on user-generated content and the ways in which regular folks in social media contexts are rewarded for their work: some examples include Steemit, Sapien, or Po.et, to name a few. The following review, however, focuses on a more specific set of projects, which explicitly address some problematic institutional aspects of the current news media system. As such, the projects in the list recognize the independent social value of news, and offer fixes that are designed to produce a better informed public.