The ability to trace our actions online back to us as individuals will shape our behaviour.
Authorities guard the prevailing moral code
Why is it that most of us fill out our tax returns properly? Or that we scan that truffle tapenade on the self-scan checkout at the supermarket? You could say that we follow our moral compass as humans, but this is only half of the truth. We do these things because there are certain rules with consequences if we fail to comply, and the authorities can identify us if we break them. We are held accountable for our actions, and that’s why we behave; the authorities are guarding our morals, and ultimately that is a good thing.
Privacy and anonymity
However, an important side note here is the difference between privacy and anonymity. We are pseudonymous in the public. If we steal something in the supermarket, the authorities may ask us for identification. If we wear a mask when stealing in the supermarket, we’re anonymous and the authorities can’t identify us. Our face acts as a pseudonym; recognizable, but not identifiable to everyone.
Online it is a ‘wild wild west’
Currently, there is almost no accountability online because of a lack of traceability. To spread disinformation on the internet, all anyone has to do is create an email address and social media accounts with a fake name or unidentifiable username (also free of charge), register a new domain name that sounds official, and design a website to look like a news site. Voila! You have your own news site. Now, any information – true or false – can be shared on this unverified news site without the author suffering any consequences, as there is no way to identify the creator and hold them accountable. Without accountability, the creation and spread of “fake news” are incredibly easy.
Accountability on the internet
The hypothesis is that when Twitter users or blog writers are held accountable for the content they post, they will pay more attention to its integrity – just like in the offline world. If a piece of content is not accurate and/or against the law, and a regulatory organization discovers this, it can be traced back to the author who will have to face sanctions.
For example, we see this accountability mechanism working online when we look at social media influencers: if a vlogger posts a video with “law-breaking” content under their name, the vlogger is held responsible for this.
However, this system does not always work online as it does in the offline world. As it is possible to conceal your identity online, not all online content is traceable and people are no longer held accountable for their actions. As a result of this lack of digital traceability, we see changes in behaviour (compared to the offline world); in theory, anyone can do anything online without suffering any consequences.
Tackling fake news
Currently, we do not have any mechanism in place that can effectively identify fake news. Algorithms try to separate the wheat from the chaff and identify unverified news, but fail to do so effectively. Next to this, even if the content is found to be unverified, identifying law-breaking internet users costs authorities a lot of energy, and is sometimes impossible – especially if they mask their IP address with a VPN service. Besides, the programming of these algorithms lies with organizations such as Google and Facebook that have commercial motives, whilst the core of this problem is moral.
We have also attempted to solve the problems of fake news and legal violations on the internet with new legislation or by imposing (financial) sanctions on media platforms, however, the effectiveness of these methods is also limited. The new legislation is incredibly difficult to enforce given the size and scope of the internet, and especially because the (technically un-savvy) government will have to try to keep up with the Big Tech companies. Furthermore, so far, financial sanctions do not seem to be effective given the amount of wealth these media platforms have amassed, in addition to the political tension it can create.
A key reason that these solutions are not effective to combat fake news is that they do not tackle the underlying issue: the fact that authors have no accountability because they can be anonymous online.
The solution for fake news
To tackle fake news effectively, a system is needed that registers activities of individuals online to create an ‘evidence trail’, but without endangering privacy, and guaranteeing pseudonymity. Only when a crime is committed could the authorities conduct a retroactive investigation targeted on a very specific piece of content to find out the identity of the author with a court order.
This would not mean that the authorities could retroactively retrieve all information about a suspect from such a system – each logged activity (think comments, likes, posts, articles published) has a separate pseudonym and thus requires a new court order from the police to access it. This in turn will ensure accountability from the police; Trias Politica in the digital age. Compare this to a thief being caught in a supermarket: the police can get the identity of the thief, but they cannot ask in which supermarkets they have been in the last 5 years. That is separate data that the police cannot see nor receive via a court order.
Now the key question is: who manages this system that records every activity of every online entity under pseudonyms? Currently, online activity is recorded and managed by Big Tech companies such as Google. However, this is problematic as it is privately owned by companies with commercial motives, and as the administrators of these databases, it is possible for this information to be manipulated or deleted.
In contrast, if we would build that activity-logging system on a distributed system and store the information there, no individual or organization would control it, and due to the nature of technology, data cannot be manipulated or deleted. With a system like this, untraceable fake accounts would be a thing of the past.
Unifying the online with the offline world
When an online activity is stored immutably on a distributed database, actions are traceable yet pseudonymous. A court order can link a specific action back to the individual, ensuring accountability, and resulting in the same system that we have always relied upon in the offline world.