The Times’s Research & Development team is exploring ways to make the origins of journalistic content clearer to news audiences.

There is a gap between the vast amount of information news organizations possess about the media they publish (photos, videos as well as articles and other forms), and the subset of that information to which their users have ready access. That’s especially true when that media travels around the internet, largely stripped of its original context.

Into that gap, trolls and bad actors have established many tools for misleading people, generally using authentic photos and videos as source material. Some of the techniques are simple: recycling old images, selective cropping and editing, slowing down and speeding up videos, and so on. Other techniques are more sophisticated, involving the creation of “synthetic” media such as deepfakes.

In a time of heightened political polarization and widespread social media use, the prevalence of misinformation online is a persistent problem, with increasingly serious effects on elections and the stability of governments around the world. In addition to false statements published as fact in text and photos that have been manipulated or republished out of context, instances of manipulated video are now on the rise. How should news organizations respond to this crisis?

The news media may not have created this problem, but it is theirs to contend with. More crucially, the audiences for news must navigate an all-too confusing landscape of information and, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, they want the news industry to fix it.

The News Provenance Project by the New York Times is conducting experiments in this space with the goal of building an industry-wide solution, one that works for large and small publishers, open and closed platforms and most importantly, people. 

The project is being spearheaded by The New York Times’s Research and Development team, which is made up of technologists and journalists who explore the potential of emerging technologies for journalism.

Their initial work involves exploring a blockchain-based system for recording and sharing metadata about media — images and videos in particular — published by news organizations. They are also conducting user experience research to identify the types of signals that can aid users in recognizing authentic media.

In the first phase of their project, which is currently underway and will run through late 2019, their aim is to turn their technical and user research into a proof of concept, focused on photojournalism, to demonstrate how this system could work at scale. 

Why Blockchain?

All hype aside, blockchain offers mechanisms for sharing information between entities in ways that are essential for establishing and maintaining provenance of digital files. Specifically, data is stored to a blockchain is immutable (read: tamper-proof), and copies of the database can be held by multiple parties.

Like databases in general, there are a variety of blockchain implementations, each with different features for managing access, determining consensus, and so on. 

As a proof of concept, The News Provenance Project is creating a system for storage and sharing of contextual metadata about photos using Hyperledger Fabric, a permissioned, private, open-source blockchain framework. They are developing this proof of concept in collaboration with the IBM Garage, who has executed similar projects in other industries.

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