Project Origin and Truth Online

Marc on 2021-07-05

In a previous post I mentioned how Microsoft had announced various tools and initiatives to combat disinformation online. In amongst those announcements however there was another topic mentioned which I think also merits exploration - authenticity. By building in safeguards to ensure that content has not, or even cannot, be modified, this could offer a dependable means of combating disinformation. If bad actors cannot tamper with content in an attempt to pass off disinformation as stemming from a legitimate source or re-contextualising the message of an article to spread falsehoods, this could help users to regain trust in how they assess news media online.

So what steps are currently being taken to move towards a more robust and authoritative form of news publication? Well in the fast-paced world of social-media, reporters and the like do not reasonably have the time to fully review every piece of content that comes their way. As such, an approach that has seen considerable adoption within journalism (having been joined by the BBC, Associated Press, Reuters and others) is the Trusted News Initiative - an international partnership between outlets to combat disinformation. The TNI aims to ensure good cooperation between organisations to prevent the accidental amplification of false narratives and stories. This is done by notifying partnered outlets of emerging disinformation campaigns or debunked rumours as they appear. Despite only being established in 2019, the project has already coordinated extensively on major issues such as the 2020 US presidential election along with continual coverage of the Pandemic.

Where things get interesting however is in the talks of adopting verification technology to combat disinformation. Discussions are currently being held by the TNI to adopt Project Origin, an ongoing venture from Microsoft Innovation, as a means of authenticating content at the source. Given the myriad of ways in which content can be shared online, it goes without saying that a bad actor could easily tamper or otherwise modify a piece of media before sharing it on to others without any indication that changes have been made (Think rearranging parts of an interview to change the context or imitating the style of a legitimate news source). Project Origin would seek to digitally watermark content so readers can know definitively that what they are reading comes from where it purports to be and has not been modified since publication.

In practice, this project would operate through the usage of a manifest being attached to a given piece of content online; with each and every manifest being filed on a distributed ledger - a blockchain effectively. In doing so this ensures there is an indisputable source of truth from which the integrity of an article can be verified with. The manifest itself can contain data on the original author, time/location data, sources etc; whatever data is needed to ensure readers have a sufficient degree of context. In the event that any modifications are made to the content, the manifest will become invalid and the user can be alerted that the article, image, or video they are viewing has been tampered with.

Project Origin is certainly an interesting idea as blockchain-based technology has been gaining traction in recent years with Bitcoin and NFTs being just a few notable examples. Seeing how these distributed means of verification could be applied to journalism and combating disinformation is certainly an area that could yield fantastic results. By allowing readers to know for certain that the content they are viewing is an exact match to the point of origin we can help them meaningfully assess the information presented to them online.