Solve Fake News with Digital Identity

Solve Fake News With Digital Identity
5 min read

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.

Comments 20

  1. Great thought-provoking article for a problem that needs to be solved.

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  2. Your preposition under “the solution to fake news” seems to imply that the creation of fake news is generally either done by fake accounts or some figure who is bound to also commit a crime. This is not the case.

    Also what are these court orders going after? Crimes or fake news? “Fake news” is a very broad term but is also (sadly) in most cases not a crime. Mis-information laws are commonly thought to be tricky and usually popular in autocracies.

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      Great name! 🙂

      I’m primarily thinking about anonymous accounts that do not feel accountability for sharing content because they have no reputation to uphold.

      A fake news piece may or may not be a crime, that is up to the judiciary power to decide. But we need to hand the authorities the tools to enforce more effective legislation online. It’s messy right now.

  3. Beste Niels, ik ben het helemaal eens met het goedgeschreven en doordachte artikel.
    Maar, als gebruikelijk, zijn er wel de nodige kanttekeningen.
    Ik zal het bij één laten. Je schrijft: only when a crime is committed could the authorities conduct a retroactive investigation. De Nederlandse overheid en overigens ook de EU zijn niet erg goed in onderzoek en sanctionering. Ik zou zelfs willen zeggen: ze hebben er geen zin in. Het interesseert ze niet. Niet gezocht, is niet gevonden en niet gevonden, is niets aan de hand. Dus eens met jouw gedachtengang, maar hoe nu verder?

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      Ha Hans!

      Dank voor het lezen en de aardige woorden!

      Ik denk dat het antwoord op je vraag tweedelig is:

      1. Wij leven in een democratie. Dus als we vinden dat het beleid van de regering tekortschiet kunnen we dit uitten middels een stem.

      2. Het gebrek aan motivatie om te onderzoeken en sanctioneren is naar mijn inziens een economische kwestie. Als we dit systeem wetsovertredingen herleidbaar maakt en dat proces wordt gestroomlijnd, kan het zelfs een hele interessante inkomstenbron worden voor de overheid. Net zoals door rood licht rijden ;-).

      Ben benieuwd naar je reactie!

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  4. Beste Niels,

    We leven inderdaad in een democratie, alleen werkt die niet altijd even goed. Ik ken in ieder geval niet één partij met voldoende kennis en motivatie om dit aan te kunnen. Het is vrij treurig gesteld met het kennisniveau van ICT, social media, internet, etc. van onze parlementariërs. Ik denk dat ze mentaal zo’n dertig jaar achter lopen en jij wil graag dat ze vooruit denken. Wordt lastig.
    Zeker, er valt geld mee te verdienen. Maar dat geldt ook voor controle op belastingontwijking, mestfraude, diefstal van zorggeld, inbeslagname van crimineel geld en een efficiënter ambtenarensysteem, en zo kan ik nog wel even doorgaan. Als je dit wilt veranderen, dan zul je zelf aan de slag moeten, helaas. 

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      Helemaal mee eens Hans! Ik heb al het een en ander in the works. Maar probeer middels deze artikelen wat meer bewustwording te creeëren en wat gelijkgezinden aan te trekken die me kunnen helpen.

      Als je het interessant vindt, kan ik je er wel eens doorheen lopen?


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      1. Goed om te weten n.a.v. het artikel van Kees Verhoeven: jaren geleden zijn de techbedrijven erin geslaagd om zich juist niet als ‘uitgevers’ door de overheid te laten beoordelen, maar alleen als doorgeefluik. Daarmee zijn ze niet langer op de content aan te spreken. Uitgevers zijn dat wel. De beruchte US ‘Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act’ moet van tafel.

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          Ja sectie 230 zou van tafel moeten, maar enkel in de huidige structuur!

          Beter zou zijn om 230 te handhaven en deze bedrijven daadwerkelijk een doorgeefluik te maken: Elke gebruiker beheert (en is verantwoordelijk) voor zijn eigen informatie/data, de dienst is enkel een interface om de data te kunnen zien en uit te wisselen met andere gebruikers.

  5. Goed stuk, Niels. Wel een vraag: je schrijft dat de huidige omvang van het internet het in feite onmogelijk maakt om wetgeving (voor zover aanwezig) te handhaven. Denk je niet dat dit probleem zich blijft voordoen? Zie jij het OM in staat om al die ‘court orders’ te verzamelen? Ik niet. Wat niet wil zeggen dat het door jou voorgestelde systeem niet verre te prefereren is boven de huidige praktijk, mede door de verschuiving van privaat (Google c.s.) naar publiek (overheid). Maar er hoort wel een grote (en competente!) taskforce bij. En om die taskforce te helpen zou je misschien een online brievenbus voor klachten moeten introduceren; daar kleven ook allerlei praktische bezwaren aan, maar het scheelt allicht een deel van het initiële speurwerk bij de taskforce.

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      Dankje Iris!

      Het is inderdaad nu te veel informatie om succesvol te kunnen controleren door algoritmen. En dit zal inderdaad altijd het geval blijven (hoewel de verantwoordelijkheid voor deze taak beter in handen is bij de overheid dan bij commerciële organisaties met onvoldoende accountability).

      Mijn punt gaat om accountability. Het gaat namelijk niet daadwerkelijk om het handhaven van álle gevallen. Dat hoeft ook niet in de offline wereld. Je maakt een voorbeeld uit een aantal gevallen en vormt daarmee een cultuur. Mensen gaan zich meer accountable voelen online en hun gedrag fantsoeneren.

      Los daarvan hoeft de overheid natuurlijk niet zelf de arbeid te verrichten. Je stelt organisaties aan om dit te reguleren, en deze organisaties kunnen elkaar ook weer controleren op exact dezelfde manier: Pseudonyme publieke verifieerbaarheid van acties waarbij je enkel een identiteit van een specifieke fout kan achterhalen. Met dat mechanime kan je de huidige monopolisten zichzelf en elkaar laten reguleren met accountability aan de autoriteiten.

  6. It is commonly thought that Identity is enough to stop various bad things happening, but this is a fallacy. Instead what is required is “holding to account.” The presence of some useful identity information only helps in so far as “holding to account” would work based on that identity.

    In practice, holding to account based on police/courts is a blunt weapon and a localised one at that. It is only suitable for the largest and most obvious of harms, and it doesn’t work well over borders. Something like “false information” is highly subjective, interpretable, not “large” in criminal terms, and works perfectly across borders. It’s almost perfectly misaligned with the courts.

    To address fake news, you’ve got to get to the core of the integrity of the post. Why would a poster put that up? What can stop that person doing it? The answer to that is something local, something dear, something important. The key then isn’t the real name of the person posting, it’s that the person posting is part of something local, controlling and integral.

    Such a thing isn’t a country, that’s too big and has only blunt weapons like courts/police. It’s a lot more local like a village, a club, a society, a school. Something with 100 people or less (cf Robin Dunbar). Get the person’s affiliation, prove it, and check that organisation for some code of conduct. You won’t need the name, and you won’t need much effort to pin the organisation to any harm.

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      Thanks for your thoughts, Ian!

      Totally agree that you do not need a name specifically, hence the pseudonym. But adding traceability online ensures users are ‘real people’ that can be held to account. I’ve put down some points to respond to your in-depth comment (thank you!):

      – I think the fallacy is thinking that technology ever is bulletproof. And I think you agree with that. But if we have traceability online, we can let every jurisdiction enforce their own laws. Just like the offline world.
      – I still don’t get why identity (!= name) will not enable ‘holding to account’. If there is a chance you will be sanctioned by the authorities. Isn’t that what keeps us in check in the offline world? Doesn’t that form a culture?
      – Why would the police be too blunt? Don’t you expect the police to enforce law online? In the case misinformation is not viable for the police. Governments could indeed take a more qualitative approach and spin up organisations that help users and cultural groups on a local level.

      Take care,

  7. Accountability online is also about NOT being able to delete entire discussion threads if someone manages to expose your bias bubble and this displeases you greatly.

    Ego dents and reputation damage are no excuse to use the delete button.

    If you are very sorry you wrote it and would like to retract your words, it would be good to be able to express this. Its time for a new retraction icon: “the author recants this article”. This formalisation of retraction frees the author from being referred to it later. Couple this with the impossibility to delete or delete only after a certain period.

    This + the online identity will force everyone to think carefully about what they write online. Because words are not free. Words drive actions. And actions demand responsibility.

    The above has happened to me too often, remarkably twice by university professors. >

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      Thanks for sharing Gerald and I completely agree with most of what you say!

      One point I do want to share is that under freedom of speech, you are free to say whatever you want in your OWN space, whether that is your living room or LinkedIn account.

      BUT once the content goes into the public space, you are responsible for the information. Currently, this is still vague online, one reason why the EU Commission has commanded social media platforms to alter their algorithms to only promote fact-checked content on its public newsfeed.

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