Can Blockchain Revolutionize the Media? The Example of Civil
UPDATE (2020-11-10): The Civil project ended in June 2020. The Civil team and technology will be joining ConsenSys, a blockchain startup incubator, to build identity solutions on Ethereum.
"It is not enough for a journalist to have knowledge, he must also be just, [...] quote with precision, and never disguise or change anythin
― Denis Diderot
Trust in journalism is at a very low level in most western countries and in particular in Europe, where around less than half of the population in the Member States of the European Union still have trust overall in the news they get. But most Europeans have trust in the sources they use, which shows that digitalization and the diversification of supports - as information nowadays shows in different shapes such as webzine, websites or podcast - may imply a targetive behavior in the way people consume the news. The fact that users resolutely target specific sources - most of the time fitting their own moral tendencies - can lead to misinformation and fake news, depending on the trustworthiness of the source.
But in the digital era, some professionals in the sector have decided to tackle this issue with blockchain technology. Among several initiatives, one is drawing attention, namely Civil. This community of journalists and engaged readers believe in a blockchain-based journalism solving the issue of trust in the written news, deleting the need of advertizers and publishers, and involving the readers in a community-like, sustainable newsroom.
This paper addresses the questions raised by the use of blockchain technology in the journalistic sector, and the relevance of it. Can blockchain save journalism? Is it possible to bring trust back through involving readers and inciting authors?The paper will first focus on a technical introduction and will tackle the issues Civil means to solve, after what it will elaborate to what extend it can be problematic.
Functioning Introduction To The Civil System
The CVL Token Economy - Civil is based on a token-curated registry design. The Civil Token (CVL) is an ERC-20 token built on the Ethereum blockchain, running under an open-source 'Smart Contract' architecture. This cryptocurrency gives the (token) Holder a say in the decision making process. To understand how the Holder is involved, it is important to elaborate on the organizational architecture of Civil.
Civil is divided into 'Newsrooms', which gather on the one hand journalists who want to put their work online, and on the other hand readers who want access to the articles. The particularity of Civil is that the readers need to buy tokens to be able to join a Newsroom and so enjoy its content. `
Using tokens, the Holders can read the articles. Their tokens also make them part of the internal structure of Civil, since tokens correspond to a right of use, a voting right, and a means of payment.
Tokens can be spent to become part of the Civil governance ecosystem, since the amount used will correspond to a proportional voting right in the decision making process, regarding the content (eg. an article's publication), the business model (eg. advertizer's involvment) or the community itself (eg. journalist's banishing).
The Civil Constitution: Bringing Trust Back - By giving users a say in the decision making process, Civil gives them the power to sanction authors that would write unethical content. To define what falls into the unethical domain, Civil released the 'Civil Constitution'. All content posted on the platform has to comply with it, otherwise its publication can be denied by Holders. Furthermore, beside the Civil Constitution, each Newsroom determines their own Charter, explaining their mission(s) and rules. So the authors are underlying a two-level regulation.
This system aims to create a virtuous circle in which users control the content that is posted and so promote ethical and trustworthy journalism. In the other way round, this incites authors to publish content relying on provable facts.
Decentralization For Less External Influence - The CVL Token economy makes it possible to create an autonomous community where authors are directly financed by the Holders and the editorial choices are commonly chosen by both redactors and users. This micro financing system in each Newsroom erases the need of advertizers' financing and indirectly influencing the editorial content. Furthermore, since everything is stored on the blockchain, the decentralized structure allows Civil to work without needing a centralized publisher taking care of the content publication. This enables an independent and unbiased work.
Content Archiving And Tracking - The content posted on each Newsroom is also stored on the blockchain. This implies that once an article has been published, it cannot be erased or altered anymore. Furthermore, it enables readers to track back with certainty which article has been written when and by whom. For journalism it means that archives can be stored permanently and cannot be subject to any kind of censorship of the media in future.
If a single topic is covered in many ways through the media, it is helpful for readers to know that media such as Civil are safe sources. This tackles the fake news issue, as the source and the context of the article is clear and its trustworthiness proven. When two sources are contradictory, readers might automatically choose to trust the transparent one and not the one they cannot track back.
It also helps the authors keeping the ownership and copyrights on their works, helping with the payment of their royalties.
An All-Round Solution... And a Trojan Horse?
Targeting The Audience - To achieve its goals, Civil needs as many users as possible, as the system is participative. The whole blockchain concept is avant-garde and it is likely that most of the people do not feel concerned about it, since it may seem unclear for most of them. This concept might attract people who are tech-savvy, committed to independent and transparent journalism, and who are willing to move the lines. This seems to be a small fragment of the potential written news consumers.
Hence Civil struggled integrating into mainstream readers markets, and this led it to contact major media firms (such as The New-York Times or The Washington Post) to collaborate. These media underly their own publishers' guidelines and are dependent on advertizing to finance their work. So in a way, a collaboration with them could challenge the independence Civil gained by using blockchain.
Editorial Choices In Perspective - If Civil can be seen as an example when it comes to trust and ethics, there still might be voices rising against the statements that are made due to the Civil Constitution. The text follows a liberal line, which can be disliked. The editorial content can be considered biased in a way through it.
Even though it seems that the concept behind Civil stands for freedom of the press, freedom of speech and democracy, it could possibly give ideas to alternative thinkers. It would be indeed possible to imagine another blockchain-based and participation driven concept that would stand for a totally different editorial line, arguing for protectionism and nationalist retreat. In this case, it would challenge the trustworthiness of the news posted on Civil, since same topics could be covered in two different ways, with both sides arguing they are trustworthy because of the blockchain-technology they use.
Civil tackles a modern and serious issue indeed, but the concept still seems similar to the the physical world, in which several news sources intend to be trustworthy.
Blockchain can help in the sense that the author can be traced and identified, as well as the time and space in which the article has been posted. Civil gives the opportunity to trace the source back and so the ethical and editorial line of it, giving more transparency to the reader, who can then choose to trust it or not. But it would be problematic to firmly state that Civil actually gives a solution to fake news.
Independence v. Freedom - The Civil Constitution head line reminds of the freedom of the press. However, some professionals of the sector argue otherwise, pretending that Civil should be called 'independent' rather than 'free'.
The Token Economy is meant to involve users in the decision making process, creating a virtuous circle making freedom of speech possible and fake news passé. It might be possible for some to consider this system as a kind of censorship, since readers have the power to stop the publication of an authors' work, making it impossible for them to speak up their mind on a given topic.
Civil fights fake news through transparency and ethics of the authors, but the issue might be broader than that. Misinformation is not caused through unethical journalism only, but also due to other reasons made possible by digitalization. Fake news can be published by anonymous users on social media or can circulate orally in the physical world. This component is not solved nor even tackled by Civil.
After launching and until now, Civil didn't get the success it hoped, even though it aroused great interest and enthusiasm. Some authors think that blockchain technology is seen as a tool solving all possible problems in almost any area, but its real power lies in its ability to put things into movement. Civil is based on blockchain, but even if the project does not work as well as expected, it shows that there is a need indeed to involve news consumers in the decision making processes of newsrooms in the physical world. The rise of new tech-companies relying on the same concept shows the need of change that 'post-industrial journalism' has to face.
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