Gagik Yeghiazarian, co-founder and CEO of Publiq

Publiq CEO says blockchain and community can beat fake news

By relying on people being reasonable and working together to change journalism, Publiq is trying to build a crypto-media utopia

There are a number of companies seeking to use blockchain to reinvent the publishing business to restore trust in media and fight the rising tide of fake news, but none quite like Publiq.

For one thing, the Publiq Foundation’s goal is to go as close to out of business as is possible after building a community of content creators and users. And for another, it is not trying to eliminate the bogeyman getting a lot of blame for the recent decline of the quality and profitability of media: advertising

A non-profit, Publiq believes that an open-minded, community-controlled body of content creators, publishers, and token-miners exists and wants to support serious journalism aimed at readers who want quality content.

One reason they will do this, said Gagik Yeghiazarian, co-founder and CEO of Publiq, is that those members are the only ones who receive any money from the endeavor, which is supported by a private cryptocurrency and ads the community will sell itself.

A former publisher and editor-in-chief of Forbes Armenia and publisher of Forbes Georgia, Yeghiazarian said, “Our mission is to build an internet of owners and we want to give the entire ownership to those who are creating this space called media. We believe that any participant who is trying to facilitate this process should have no stake in the game. It should be fully community action. The goal is that less and less role and voice will come from Publiq, except for [being] a supporter of the ecosystem.”

To do this, it has created a three-layer system: a content sharing layer that allows anyone to post articles and stories, a transactional layer that includes income collection and revenue distribution, and a reader-based reputational layer that encourages and rewards high-quality content.

Funded entirely by Publiq’s founders, Publiq’s business plan and technology was impressive enough to be selected as one of the 10 blockchain companies selected by the U.K. All Party Parliamentary Group on Blockchain (APPG Blockchain) for its March 2019 showcase of companies solving real-world problems with fully functioning blockchain technology.

Publiq’s PBQ tokens are to be mined via a proof-of-stake (PoS) process going forward. Publiq’s publishing platform entered beta testing at the beginning of this year, and the PBQ tokens became spendable on March 29.

The PoS protocol supporting Publiq’s blockchain will bring the PBQ tokens into the system in two ways: utility token sales and mining, which requires a stake of special mining tokens bought with PBQ. A distributed storage system for content will be paid for with those PBQ tokens.

AI vs. partisanship

Artificial Intelligence is an important part of Publiq’s system of getting the right content to the readers, but also for getting around the one-sided, partisan news channels that are proliferating. The AI engine will make recommendations based on user activity as well as direct input, and give them the content they are likely to want, Yeghiazarian said

It will also classify content by opinion, and provide readers with the option of seeing the opposing side—so an article about President Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel would offer links to other content giving the position of Democrats, the position of Israel, and the position of the Palestinians, he added. “Then I will have a more balanced view on the matter to form my opinion.”

Of course, this assumes that there is a large enough pool of people open to rationally discussing other opinions, and that has not been the experience of online news outlets lately.

A Pew Research Center poll from 2017 found that about 40% of both Democrats and Republicans belong to their party because they oppose the other party’s values, rather than because they are particularly aligned with their own party, the politics website 538 reported last year.

“The danger of mega-partisan identity is that it encourages citizens to care more about partisan victory than about real policy outcomes,” Lilliana Mason, a University of Maryland political scientist told 538. “We find ways to justify almost any governmental policy as long as it is the policy of our own team.”

Yeghiazarian is not naive enough to believe that Publiq will cure all of this. “We understand that fake news is not going to be eliminated in one go,” he said. “Technology is not that magical move that can immediately bring us the remedy for this disease. It has many causes, and it existed well before the Internet was around.”

A community against fake news

Publiq’s success relies on a supportive, proactive community that discourages fake news providers and trolls, and encourages the creation and distribution of high-quality content. Anyone can provide and post it, and get paid according to its quality.

While Publiq describes its goal as “reshaping the media industry by enabling censorship free generation, selection and assessment of content,” getting to quality content requires both the carrot and the stick. These are managed by an AI engine, which is also heavily involved in getting the right content to users.

The carrot, Yeghiazarian said, is that authors will be paid for each piece based on smart contracts that distribute revenue in the form of PBQ tokens based on a Publiq Score. This is based largely on reputation with readers—how much content is produced and what consumers read, what they mark as liked, what they comment on, and what they share.

There are several sticks, however, starting with making authors pay a small fee in PBQ to post until their Publiq Score reputation reaches a certain level, to prevent authors from spamming low quality content, Yeghiazarian said. Having material flagged as poor or inappropriate by readers can lower that score, although a community council will oversee that to prevent pieces from being flagged by people who disagree with the opinions or conclusions rather than the quality. And of course, low quality content that gets few views, shares, and the like will generate lower income.

While Yeghiazarian calls Publiq a “cooperative environment,” that cooperation is enforced by the governing Publiq community council, which will be made up of at least 40 authors from around the world with high reputation scores. It will be able to issue PBQ fines and suspend content creator’s ability to post articles for violations of community guidelines including posting duplicate articles, fake news, or content that is discriminatory, threatens a person or group, or advocates violence.

Advertising supported

Like competitors such Ethereum-based Civil and Decentralized News Network, Publiq decries the overwhelming control exerted over online advertising by companies such as Google and Facebook, which together account for nearly 60% of all digital ads placed, it says.

Unlike them, Publiq is not seeking to change the basic economics of journalism. Publiq uses advertising to finance the system, albeit advertising sold and placed by the Foundation, and eventually the community, rather than third parties like Google and Facebook.

“Everyone shys away from advertising because of the influence of advertisers, and also it is done because this model is broken,” Yeghiazarian said. “The problem is that the lion’s share of this advertising revenue is shared by a few.”

One of Publiq’s goals is to eliminate middlemen taking money out of creators’ pockets, and it seeks to achieve this by acting as a non-profit middleman itself, aggregating content and providing a review and rating system to judge quality. And although it is doing so now as it tries to build a community, Yeghiazarian says Publiq’s goal is to become what amounts to an IT department, running the blockchain without making any decisions about how the content community uses that technology.

The Publiq AI will oversee the placement of advertising—mostly sponsored advertorial content, according to Yeghiazarian—that can be targeted to desired demographics or audiences. But those advertisers will not be able to control the media outlet in which it is placed—just as writers cannot choose where their reporting will be published.

“All the relationships within Publiq’s ecosystem are agnostic to each other, so the advertiser does not have the ability to influence where an ad will be shown,” Yeghiazarian noted. “There is no influence, and the same is true with the publisher and the author relationships.”

While the appeal of such a system is untested, the fact that Publiq does not take any of the ad revenue from the community will make it appealing, Yeghiazarian believes.

“The advertiser knows that he contributes to building a free media space where user has authentic content to enjoy and authors benefit the most for the work that they are doing,” he said, putting a fair amount of faith in advertisers’ altruism.

Authors will receive between 97% and 99.5% percent of the ad revenue, with the rest going to support the distributed storage of content. The publishers get a source of content for their websites.

But, Publiq also uses a token economy, in which 70% of the revenue will go to miners, between 0.5% to 3% going to storage, and the rest to authors.

The PoS protocol supporting Publiq’s blockchain will bring the PBQ tokens into the system in two ways: utility token sales and mining, which requires a stake of special mining tokens bought with PBQ. A distributed storage system for content will be paid for with those PBQ tokens.

No Public Access

Another difference between Publiq and its competitors is that Publiq does not actually intend to reach the public directly, at least over the long term.

“We are not going to compete with anyone in the media,” Yeghiazarian said. “Publiq … which is now visible, will be silenced once we have the community operational. We recognize that publishers are major participants in the media space, and their work is very much needed. So, no author can directly present his creation to the users, without [a] publisher or a channel. This is how we established our link between the authors and the readers.”

Instead, Publiq will work in the background, he said, either with the publisher’s existing website or by via a branded site built on the Publiq engine.

He adds that Publiq already has distribution deals with several major media outlets ranging from Germany to Japan, as well as a major U.S. university.

While those publishers cannot alter the content, they can edit it, Yeghiazarian said. The difference lies in the nature of the blockchain: any change in the content produces a new version, and a new block.

Beyond that, a publisher’s edits have to be input by the author—the content owner—before a new version is created. And every one of those versions are available to readers who may want to see a longer or original version. “The feeling was that this is a transparency that the media needs,” Yeghiazarian said. “We guarantee the ownership rights, no matter how the content is used and where.”

But the original is always there, and as is the case with all information on a distributed ledger, cannot be destroyed. While this sounds like it could present a problem under European laws like GDPR, which includes the “right to be forgotten” by having news about oneself removed from public view, or the recent New Zealand law that forbade publishing or even possessing video of the livestreamed Christchurch massacre, it is not. After all, Publiq content will eventually not available directly to the public, so publishers could remove it if required to do so by law.

“It is the responsibility of any publisher to adhere to the rules of the environment and the legal and whatever ethical rules they’re operating under,” Yeghiazarian said. “I don’t think that we will be changing the game much in this regard, because the publishers are accountable for their actions.”

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Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus editor-in-chief, is a New York-based journalist who has traveled the world writing about incentive travel. He has also covered consumer and employee engagement, small business, the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and New York City crime, nightlife, and politics. Disclosure: Jakobson has put some 401k money into Grayscale Bitcoin Trust.