The Jan. 31 WhatsApp message brought terrifying news: ANSA, a major Italian news agency, had reported Italy’s first death from the coronavirus.
It read, “ANSA: First case of Coronavirus in Italy, a young 24 year old from the province of Vicenza paid the price.”
Except that it wasn’t real, according to the fact-checking website Bufala—an Italian version of Snopes.com—which said there were “no references on the agency’s official website” to the story.
Nearly a month later, on Feb. 25, ANSA itself reported that Bufala was still “flooded with false news about the virus.”
Reeling from its brand being used to spread fake stories, ANSA has launched a blockchain-based system so readers can track exactly where its journalism has come from.
ANSA says the tool allows anyone to verify sources behind an article—strengthening “bonds of trust between the organization and its readers and customers.”
Tracking the trolls
Such transparency comes at a crucial time for Italy, which has the highest number of fatalities from coronavirus globally. Over 135,000 have been sickened by COVID-19 as of April 7, and at least 17,127 have died.
Known as ANSAcheck, the system will show the origin of news articles, provide a history of how stories have developed, and allow the news agency to see how its reporting is used across other outlets.
Ensuring that accurate information reaches the public during the pandemic, and tackling the spread of fake news, has become a priority for governments and news outlets worldwide. According to Stefano de Alessandri, the CEO of ANSA, this tool is an “important step in the fight against fake news”—and by the sound of things, it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Even back in February, ANSA was warning readers of false stories about COVID-19 “cures” stories ranging from the useless—garlic, oregano, and sesame oil—to the actually dangerous, such as rubbing bleach on your skin.
“In recent days, we witnessed the frequent fraudulent use of our brand to give truth to false news,” he said. “We are therefore particularly proud to be the first to launch a highly innovative project, carried out for all our readers and clients of the agency.”
The ANSA to fake news
ANSAcheck could have an impact that stretches far beyond the agency’s output. It also represents 24 publishers behind some of the country’s biggest newspapers—and estimates suggest that more than 1,000 news items a day will be verified.
The service has been built on the Ethereum blockchain using EY OpsChain Traceability Technology. Cryptographic strings of news coverage are created, and articles that have been recorded on the blockchain will be furnished with a digital sticker on the ANSA.it website.
Marco Mazzucchelli, an executive at EY, said: “Today we are experiencing a period of great transformation, digital and economic, also dictated by the ongoing health emergency.
“With ANSAcheck, EY wants to support the digital transition of companies operating in the publishing industry, in a particularly delicate moment in which news takes on an even more decisive role by addressing social behavior and ensuring the authenticity of sources.”
That said, there are unanswered questions: sources often speak on the condition of anonymity, which is at odds with the push for transparency.
The grandma problem
Journalism is having an annus horribilis, with honest reporting on health scares and elections being drowned out by bots, deepfakes, and fabricated content.
As reported by Modern Consensus, blockchain is being explored as a solution to all of these issues. Outlets such as Publiq are vying to create a community of content creators and users, aiming to create an environment where those who create serious journalism can connect with readers who want quality content.
The research firm Gartner has forecast that at least 10 major news organizations will be using blockchain to combat deepfake video manipulation by 2022. And, in a sign that there’s funding for blockchain-based journalism ventures even at the height of the coronavirus market crash, Block.one recently injected $150 million into Voice, a social news platform aimed at concerns about fake news and data ownership.
However valiant these projects may be, it could be argued that they fail to tackle the source of the problem. Outlets such as ANSA have earned the trust of the public over 75 years. Although malicious actors masquerading as the mainstream media is undoubtedly a cause for concern, the bigger issue is the moms, dads, grandmothers and uncles who join millions in sharing typo-ridden, baseless posts on Facebook—or take them at face value.
Sadly, it may take more than blockchain to end that problem once and for all.