Jack Dorsey Has Floated Decentralized Fact-Checking at Twitter. Here’s What That Could Look Like

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, recently re-tweeted a call for fact-checking through open-source tech rather than new intermediaries like Twitter.

Dorsey’s message came at the end of May, after Twitter fact-checked tweets by President Donald Trump about mail-in voting, leading Trump to sign an executive order attacking Section 230 protections. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects platforms from civil liability for the content on them and has enabled companies such as Facebook and Twitter to thrive.

A decentralized approach to fact-checking is likely to be popular in the blockchain community, which has long championed ideas like the “verified web.”

“It shouldn’t be tech companies per se getting into fact checking,” Balaji Srinivasan, an angel investor, entrepreneur and former CTO of Coinbase,  tweeted. “It should be open source technology. Free, universally available code and data for epistemology. Take a piece of text, parse it, extract assertions, compare to explicitly specified knowledge graphs and oracles.”

“Agree this should be open source and thus verifiable by everyone,” Dorsey replied.

Facts are a flashpoint on the political stage right now, and given Dorsey’s quasi-endorsement of a tech “solutionism” approach to fact-checking, it begs the question: What would such a system look like?

Thousands of people commented on Srinivasan’s and Dorsey’s tweets, referring to projects they thought might serve as future models.

Newsblocks

One project is called Newsblocks, based in Glasgow, Scotland, and was conceived as a way to organize data for Newslines, a sister project. Newslines creates interactive news timelines about any topic. Think of it as a kind of “Wikipedia for news.” 

Here is an example for Conor McGregor, which has almost 2,000 events in it.

Mark Devlin is the CEO of Newsblocks and has been in publishing for years. He founded Metropolis, one of Japan’s top English-language magazines and Japan Today, a popular Japanese news site in English. His claim to fame: He was the first person anywhere to place reader comments directly under news stories.

Devlin realized the news he was collecting was actually data. For example, an article about Yoko Ono holding an art exhibition today will likely mention that she was married to John Lennon, who was murdered in 1980. That’s three pieces of data that can be extracted from the article and then used in different ways.

“Once news is data then the data can be used to make all kinds of new products. You can sort the data to create timelines and newsfeeds,” said Devlin. “You can compare the meta data, like the data’s sources and other factors to enable verification and fake news detection, and you can compare data with other data to do automated fact-checking by comparing pieces of data.”

As an open platform everyone can use the same data, companies can create news verification systems, such as credit agencies for news, and could be used by social media companies, like Twitter.

The idea of news-as-data led Devlin to blockchain technology, which can collect, verify, store, price, and distribute such data, in something like a news data marketplace.

Ideamarket

Ideamarket, a Los Angeles-based startup, aims to provide more objective rankings of information or ideas and move beyond traditional gatekeepers like media companies. It launched its prototype in November of 2019, and is built on Ethereum.

Idea markets use investment to establish credibility for ideas and narratives without trusting a centralized third party,” said founder Mike Elias in a blog post. “Fundamentally, idea markets use price discovery to advance discovery.”

Ideamarket functions somewhat similarly to Reddit, in which people can upvote various media brands, including independent journalists. But instead of having no cost, upvotes cost money and increase in cost as vote count increases, meaning that people have to put their money where their mouth, or itchy retweeting trigger finger, is.

THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO PAY HEED ARE THOSE WHO ARE OPEN TO QUESTIONING WHAT THEY HEAR

It makes credibility expensive, said Elias. “For media corporations it makes it equally expensive for everybody in the same way that bitcoin makes money equally as expensive for central banks as it is for you and me. It creates true competition for credibility and incentivizes the public to do due diligence and seek undervalued ideas.”

In addition to investing in and earning interest on the sources they trust, users could also sell the ones they don’t, and earn money off that as well. Elias likened it to a stock market, but for ideas.

Elias’ plan is to launch a browser extension that would include the ranking of the news source next to articles from it on social media. 

So, for example, depending on how the market shakes out, CNN might sit at 10th and Brietbart at 90th. Anyone can see how much trust a publisher has earned. Such a system could rank news sources on a platform like Twitter, without a single company having control over them and having to be the dreaded “arbiter of truth”.

“Rather than say this is true or false, which doesn’t really respect the readers free will and ability to make different judgments, we’re saying the market has put this at this rank,” said Elias. “And you can interpret a low ranking as fake news or an opportunity, because it’s undervalued.”

Any time soon

All of these models are at the early-early stage. Ideamarket is in the middle of raising its first round of angel investment, and Devlin has been unable to find funding for Newsblocks despite seeing significant interest in it, which he finds disheartening.

Another obstacle may also be the frustration of people trying to create platforms for facts in the current political environment. I reached out to Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab and the senior research scientist on a project called Defacto, for this article. Defacto is a decentralized crowdsourced news verification system.

He said he wished he could help but the dilemma he faces is that Defacto is preaching to the converted. This is not a new problem, said Lippman, but is intensified by the low friction and high speed of current platforms.

“We can develop all the mechanisms in the world to check facts and propagate results, but the only people who pay heed to that are those who are open to questioning what they hear,” said Lippman. “

As Jonathan Swift said 300 years ago, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”

President Trump Tweets a Video Decrying ‘Fake News.’ The Video Itself Was Manipulated.

President Trump tweeted a video on Thursday night bearing the CNN logo purporting to show CNN’s misleading coverage of a viral video of two toddlers of different races happily playing together:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump

The chyron in Trump’s video does not match CNN’s style, and the lower right-hand corner features a watermark for Twitter user @carpedonktum—whose location is listed as “Kekistan,” an alt-right term—but the video ended with the message “America is not the problem, fake news is. If you see something, say something. Only you can prevent fake news dumpster fires,” leading some viewers to believe the video was an accurate depiction of CNN’s coverage of the children.

Justice Department Reverses Course on Citizenship Question on Census, Citing Trump’s Orders

WASHINGTON — A day after pledging that the 2020 census would not ask respondents about their citizenship, the Justice Department reversed course on Wednesday and said it was hunting for a way to restore the question on orders from President Trump.

Officials told a federal judge in Maryland that they thought there would be a way to still add the question, despite printing deadlines, and that they would ask the Supreme Court to send the case to district court with instructions to remedy the situation.

President Trump had been frustrated with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for mishandling the White House’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, according to an administration official, and said on Wednesday that he was “absolutely moving forward” with plans to add it despite a Supreme Court decision last week that added barriers to the move.

It was the second time that Mr. Trump said he was directing the Commerce Department to move forward with the plan, which critics contend is part of an administration effort to skew the census results in favor of Republicans. On Tuesday, the Justice Department said that the census forms were being printed without the citizenship question and Mr. Ross said that he was heeding the court’s ruling.

The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!” Mr. Trump wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”

The Supreme Court last week rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding a question on citizenship to the census. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said the explanation offered by officials for adding the question “appears to have been contrived.” But he left open the chance the administration could offer an adequate rationale.

On Wednesday afternoon, White House officials were actively working on a way to satisfy Mr. Trump’s demand but had not yet settled on a solution.

The suggestion that Mr. Trump was prepared to defy the court’s decision stirred fears among opponents of the plan who hoped the debate over the citizenship question had been put to rest.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing plaintiffs in legal cases in Maryland, quickly condemned the president’s remarks.

“We are outraged at Trump’s tweet,” Denise Hulett, the group’s national senior counsel, said in a statement. “The Census Bureau must immediately commit to counteract his statements with the truth — that the citizenship question will not be on the census.”

Three separate federal courts — in Manhattan, Maryland and California — have ruled that the Commerce Department violated federal procedural law and the Constitution in hastily tacking the citizenship question onto the census last year. The Supreme Court upheld the Manhattan ruling last week.

Separately, an appeals court has ordered the Maryland case reopened to consider new evidence on a third charge: that Mr. Ross’s decision to add the question amounts to intentional discrimination against Hispanics, who are considered most likely to be undercounted out of fear of the consequences of revealing their citizenship status or the status of people who live with them. About one in 10 American households includes at least one noncitizen.

Judge George J. Hazel of the United States District Court, who is overseeing the Maryland lawsuits, unexpectedly summoned lawyers in the case to a conference call on Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Hulett said. Judge Hazel later ordered the Trump administration to confirm by Friday afternoon that it is not placing the citizenship question on the census questionnaire, lawyers for plaintiffs in the case said.

Read the Transcript of the Conference Call

A transcript of a call with Judge George Hazel and the lawyers in a Maryland court case about the proposed citizenship question on the 2020 census. (PDF, 15 pages, 0.11 MB)

Absent that confirmation, the judge said, the Maryland lawsuit will continue.

Attorney General Letitia James of New York, whose office headed the census lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling last week, dismissed Mr. Trump’s statement as “another attempt to sow chaos and confusion.”

The Supreme Court of the United States has spoken, and Trump’s own Commerce Department has spoken,” she said in a statement. “It’s time to move forward to ensure every person in the country is counted.”

The federal district judge in Manhattan overseeing that lawsuit, Jesse M. Furman, ordered the Justice Department on Thursday to brief him on the conference with Judge Hazel so he can decide whether a similar conference is needed in the Manhattan case.

Mr. Trump’s statements directly contradicted both the Justice Department and the Commerce Department, which had stated in writing that the next census will not include a question on citizenship.

Mr. Ross said in a statement on Tuesday that “the Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question.” And in a teleconference on Tuesday conducted by Judge Hazel, Justice Department lawyers confirmed that the government would take no further legal steps to add the citizenship question to the questionnaire.

Regulatory and legal experts largely agree that the administration’s chances of retaining the question were exceedingly dim in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to block it.

The administration itself had argued to the justices only this month that legal challenges to the question had to be resolved because the printing of census forms could not be delayed past early July. But the only avenue the court left open to restoring the question — producing and winning approval of a new explanation justifying it — would have taken weeks, if not months, to complete.

Census results are used to determine House of Representatives seats and for drawing political maps at all levels of government across the country. They are also used to allot federal funding for social services.

The defeat before the court came as a surprise to Mr. Trump, who for months was assured that the change was on track, and has placed Mr. Ross back in the hot seat.

Earlier in Mr. Trump’s term, the president soured on Mr. Ross’s handling of trade negotiations and suggested that the 81-year-old billionaire investor had lost his deal-making touch. Mr. Ross has largely avoided the president’s ire since then, but the census matter has continued to dog him.

Mr. Ross has also drawn anger from Democrats in Congress for offering shifting explanations about who he spoke with to determine the legality of adding the citizenship question. In 2018 he acknowledged that he had discussed the issue with Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former political strategist, after originally claiming he talked about it only with the Justice Department.

Administration officials said that the president was not planning to fire Mr. Ross, but that the situation had renewed concerns about his performance.

By Wednesday afternoon, whatever frustration that Mr. Trump had with the commerce secretary had largely dissipated, a second administration official said, and the president was focused on finding a way to add a question to the census. Mr. Trump told aides that might mean tacking on a question after census questionnaires had been printed.

Mr. Ross’s department will soon have to clarify the status of the census publicly. The House Oversight Committee said Wednesday that the director of the Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, would appear before a subcommittee on July 24 to review preparations for the 2020 head count.

“It is time for the Census Bureau to move beyond all the outside political agendas and distractions and devote its full attention to preparing for the 2020 census,” Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the committee, said in a statement.

A Commerce Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.