IN BLOCK WE TRUST

Politicians lie, we know that. And now they don’t even need to resign when caught lying. Because they have the backing of the press.

You know they are lying to you

I like to paint. Or I make things. I have a thing where I make models of buses. What I make is, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus.”

Either our Prime Minister was expertly trolling the UK as he won his Brexit General Election in 2019, or he can’t quite get the lie of the £350m a week Brexit Bus out of his head. In January 2017, Dominic Cummings, Director of Vote Leave, admitted in his article, How the Brexit referendum was won, written for the Spectator, that they played the NHS card with a lie to tilt the EU Referendum result. “Would we have won without £350m/NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests No.”

With Nurses being offered a paltry 1% rise after a year of pandemic trauma, the much advertised £350m a week (£18.2b) Brexit dividend ought to shore up £27,180 extra per year for the 669,600 Nurses in the NHS. This would mark an 81% increase in the average wage, when the unions are asking for 15%. Even if it was shared with all 1.5m staff in the NHS, that pay rise, without touching any other aspect of income or spending, would equal £12,133 per year. So where is it?

Politicians lie, we know that. And now they don’t even need to resign when caught lying. Because they have the backing of the press.

As the Government instead dish out lucrative pandemic contracts to their mates, they are supported by the mainstream media run by moguls. Press Barons accused of tax avoidance control public narratives that support such tax avoiding causes as Brexit. Politicians lie for power. Power equals money. The Newspapers back chosen politicians with biased news for the benefit of their billionaire owners.

You know why they are lying to you. Money

From Jonathan Harmsworth, better known as Lord Rothermere, (owner of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Metro) to the 28th richest man in the US, Keith Rupert Murdoch (Fox News, The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal), these modern-day William Randolph Hearsts leave a legacy of political and cultural influence that put Citizen Kane to shame. That legacy has found a new ally to bolster falling print circulation, as surviving twin, Sir Frederick Hugh Barclay (the Telegraph and Spectator) sees his family descend into a plot worthy of Succession after his brother David died this year.

The technology surpassing print is fueled on one business model: attention. Social media have some of the richest companies in history because they sell our attention to the highest bidder. They are free to use, as the users are the product: flogging those users to whoever wants to shift goods or political and cultural ideas. They are powered by algorithms optimised by Artificial Intelligence that learn how to game the billions of users towards whatever aim they decide. They have exponentially improved the power of targeted ‘advertising’ through addictive apps and content feeding us what we like with what they need to sell.

No single human has the processing power of the supercomputer to compete, not even the owners of Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc. Not Zuckerberg, not Jack Dorsey, not Larry Page or Sergey Brin. The technology takes the input delivered from its users to feed back a reality tilted towards what it knows you’ll respond to, no matter how distorted the truth of that reality may be. No matter how extreme. Customised for your attention.

The very idea of customised news is the polar opposite of the idea of truth. Jeff Orlowski, director of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma says it is “an oxymoron in itself, but that is what we’ve scaled across the globe.” What if the culmination of the exponential rise of technology wasn’t just an algorithm giving you a polarised fiction, just so that it could optimise its advertising for shareholder value?

Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology is a former “Google Design Ethicist” employee turned Anti-Google campaigner who talks of the dangerous polarisation of ideas caused by social media. His website states he has “spent his career studying how today’s major technology platforms have increasingly become the social fabric by which we live and think, wielding dangerous power over our ability to make sense of the world.” The AI only cares about your attention – it isn’t worried about political polarisation, blatant misinformation and the rapid rise of conspiracy theories. 

The press billionaires create perfect content for this business model – biased, opinionated and often untruthful assertions that feed into the emotional empowerment that individualism and ego devour. Belief over facts. Social media users themselves multiply this problem with their new found voice. Empowering a capacity to platform themselves without any substantive regulation or accountability. Users get a customised zeitgeist geared to their personal experience of what is happening in the world. Their narratives may be vastly different to others, but go unchallenged and endorsed by a juggernaut of content that emboldens their position. There’s much talk of echo chambers on social media, but the scale and impact of those customised realities is only just being understood.

You know the fallout

The consequences of this may be most visible in the rise of post-truth showmen Trump and Boris. Populism worldwide has taken a huge upturn. With Brexit, the storming of Capitol Hill, and the rise of Nationalism being born of a right-wing engagement in solutions to a world they are told is divided. Ironically dividing it further. A world where nuanced political debate is dead and opposition is deadly. Where fringe conspiracies such as QAnon gain mainstream traction through AI sharing content it knows people will watch and share regardless of the lack of truth or credible source.

Elections are gamed, results of referendums tilted and democracy suppressed.

Tristan Harris asks “How do you ethically steer the thoughts and actions of two billion people’s minds every day?”. The answer, presumably, is to not have a business model designed to capitalise on steering thoughts at all. In a world facing an ecological collapse that is verified by science, yet denied by huge sections of social media users and the press (Murdoch’s own son stepping away from the Empire for this very reason), the entire business model is built on sand of its own destruction.

So, what business model could it have?

What is the answer?

Fake news on Twitter travels six times faster than true news.” One of the hair-raising facts of The Social Dilemma. Another is an astute observation, “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

Addiction and dependence are human disorders built into our biology. A physical and psychological artefact of the reward system that ensures our survival. The stigma of addiction/dependence often results in a lack of empathy for those affected, the very opposite of what is needed to recover. Recovery takes time and requires positive alternatives, even for those looking for help.

It’s not all bad news. There are many benefits with the rise of the platforms; from the connectivity of social media to the rise of Independent News & Media providing alternative narratives to the mainstream press.

The growing readership of sites like Novara, Declassified, Evolve Politics, Tribune and The Canary demonstrate there is an appetite for actual investigative journalism. The ability to combat the bias in Murdoch outlets with articles published by the likes of Byline Times that broke the PPE cronyism scandal has given hope to an industry that is losing trust. Their leading news thread is called ‘Fact: Articles predominantly based on historical research, official reports, court documents and open source intelligence’.

But how do you create a business model that can compete with the billionaire press and use social media as a stepping stone to something where users are no longer the product? If we have moved from a tool-based social media environment to a manipulative one, how to we evolve to a more accountable, trustworthy model that gives everyone access?

Having become the most misreported politician in UK history for wanting to challenge the establishment, Jeremy Corbyn and those that supported his aims know more than most the power they are seeking to speak truth to. The unpopularity of the ex-Labour leader ‘on the doorstep’ for a candidate whose manifesto was hugely popular across the political spectrum was the result of an effective campaign of disinformation targeted personally at a politician who has always stood outside of establishment politics. 

The Peace and Justice Project has been created to advance a number of causes that had unprecedented grass roots support during his time as leader of the opposition. They are holding regular roundtable discussions with Independent News & Media around the need for reform to build a free, just and accountable media in the UK. The tone in these meetings, chaired by James Schneider, is calm and considered – and importantly open to how such coordination can work.

At a time when Andrew Neil is fronting GB News and Murdoch is launching a Fox News styled News UK, the timing could not be more critical. Both will only exacerbate the polarisation of news and lack of truth. The issue being discussed by the Peace and Justice project is one of creating shared truth over the shared fiction more commonly presented in the mainstream media. Fact checking and accountability are crucial to developing trust. The illusion of neutrality in news isn’t the answer, truth is.

The BBC often fall foul of the need for balance by presenting one side of the argument against another. This is fine for debate. But when lies are not challenged and something like climate change has one scientist (with the entire scientific community forming a fact-based consensus) being pitted against a climate denier (who offers only opinion), the truth is lost. The risk is it becomes a popularity contest over the style of the two in the ‘debate’ or apathy over information which is relevant and fact checked.

Unbiased news does not always mean not taking a side, it means reporting the facts. It means reporting regardless who the truth of the story damages or benefits.

Michael O’Sullivan of Bywire News has a bolder vision of how to answer this desire for trustworthy news delivered by a free press. It involves democratic regulation, authentication of facts, a channel for all independent news in one place, unable to be owned and tilted by a billionaire or media conglomerate and using technology that ensures immutable trust.

Rather than paying a number of subscriptions to various independent news media platforms, Bywire will be a news channel for all, free at the point of use where readers are authenticated as real people and their data is not used. Their reading habits and interests will not be collected and used to advertise or deliver customised content. 

The business model is one of stakeholder capitalism, where the beneficiaries of the success of the business are the journalists who get paid, and readers who earn credit by reading and choose a portion of their own voluntary contribution to go to specific articles they found rewarding. The rest of that contribution goes towards supporting all publishers on Bywire. An online news agent for independent news where you get all the papers in return for your voluntary donation.

Having worked in politics over an increasingly “destructive time for truth”, Michael saw the need for something that could “take on the lies of Murdoch and billionaire press”.

The overall content of the site is authenticated by an independent body democratically elected by all publishers. And perhaps most importantly the news will sit on a Blockchain ledger that can deliver that immutable trust.

How can Blockchain build trust?

What even is Blockchain? Most will associate the term with crypto currency, however that is just the first industry to use the technology. Banks, governments, even Walmart and Amazon all use Blockchain to deliver trustworthy data.

Blockchain is simply a database. How it stores information however, is a huge development in technology; blockchains store data in blocks that are then chained together. Sounds obvious. New data creates a fresh block. That block is then chained onto the previous block, making the data chained together in chronological order. A block has very sophisticated encryption. Add to that security, a block cannot be hacked without the other blocks detecting and correcting the breach, with a copy of all data on each block. Finally, data doesn’t exist on one server but is decentralised making it physically safe from attack. This may seem pretty dull to those not interested in databases, but it’s the foundation of a secure and trustworthy ledger.

How is this relevant to news? If news is a form of recorded history, then it is essential that recorded facts cannot be altered or lost by those that wish to suppress journalism. The days of lost dossiers and rewritten history are numbered as this technology is poised to replace all databases that require trust. Which means all databases, surely?

Michael’s vision for the future of independent journalism is bold. It will provide a platform free from such powers as Russian disinformation and media moguls. The goal is “not to tell the people what to think, but to enable them to think clearly”. By providing them with the information to engage in a “shared truth rather than didactic fiction,” from such fundamental aims as cultural action and critical consciousness, readers can develop and organically create social transformation.

In a world where Big Brother is already watching us with the cameras and screens we voluntarily pay for, the task is a mammoth one. Most of us believe the reality we are in is free and we have choices, but AI has already tilted that reality towards its own aim. Speaking truth to that power is a big ask, but if AI thinks we want it, it could even provide an aid to solving the negative effects of its work so far. It doesn’t deliberately exclude the truth; it just doesn’t value it. If we value it, then it will help deliver it.

NEWS – BN1 Magazine