Fact-Based Browsing: What If the Internet Could Not Tell a Lie?

The Internet is all shadows and mirrors—but what if it were the central source of truth? Thanks to Blockchain technology, it's a future that's possible.

Brian Behlendorf: So, the question is: can distributed ledger technology, can blockchain technology be used to fight fake news? And you know it’s funny, I view distributed ledger technology as the closest thing we have in the technology field to being able to say something is a fact. If we’ve recorded a Bitcoin transaction, essentially we have an entire network witnessing that I’ve sent you some number of Bitcoin or some number of a digital asset, a huge number. And now I can't deny that I made that transaction and you can't deny that I made that transaction and that is a really powerful thing. In a way it's kind of like Wikipedia when somebody puts something in there and everyone has seen that and if it's wrong it gets removed, that’s something as well that’s coming to be accepted as factual. So I think the possibility of using distributed ledgers to record data that is of really high quality because it’s being recorded when it happens, it's being witnessed by a large number of people and thus made undeniable, immutable, in this ledger. We have a chance of creating a body of data that can come to be trusted in a way that data normally can’t. Think about the debate over climate change; there’s not only been attacks on, 'Do you have the right weather model? Are you really showing this?' but attacks on the fundamental collection of that data in the first place. Imagine if instead of debating whether you had the right data or I had the right data or a piece of data goes missing or an entire dataset goes missing when there’s a change in political administration, let’s say, instead of that imagine if instead we had weather sensors and air quality sensors on a hundred rooftops in every major capital around the world collecting this data and publishing it to a public ledger. That data would never go away. It would only go away if every single server in this network were to disappear one day. And that permanence, that history and the integrity of that data, because it’s signed and it’s validated as part of this distributed ledger, would turn it into an immutable set of facts really. It was this temperature in New Delhi on that date at that time as witnessed by a hundred different witnesses there. So that’s one way in which distributed ledger technology might help us make sure that we’re operating from a foundation of common sense, common factual evidence.

The next tier up though, which is really what people talk about when they think about fake news, is analysis, interpretation, claims, but also rumor. When somebody hears a rumor of something very scurrilous happening and it correlates with what they want to believe, chances are they’ll believe it and they’ll pass it off to their friends. And so you start to see companies like Facebook and Google and others starting to implement systems that when you forward a link to a friend that comes from a source that is known to be of questionable quality, they’ll pop up a little warning that says, 'According to Snopes.com or according to the AP or somebody this article might not be factual.' That’s something you can do when you’re a central provider like Facebook or like Google, but wouldn’t it be great to do that in a decentralized way? When somebody sends you a news link to a website you’ve never heard of before, not The New York Times, not AP or Fox News or whatever, where you have some context, but it’s some other link somewhere else, how much should you trust that? Well a lot of folks have talked about building a distributed ledger system for recording thrust in media sources. So here’s a website, here’s people that we recognize, like Snopes, as authorities on whether something is true or not, but why not you be able to publish something to that chain as well, or me, that says, 'This does seem to be right to me or this doesn’t seem to be right.' And then just like on Twitter where you can choose who you follow, you could choose what are the sources of authority that you trust as to whether something is true or not. That may turn out to be an answer to the fake news problem, or it may turn out to make the different worlds that we all live in and the bubbles we live in even more bubblelicious. I think there are many who hope that is one way in which we can try to fight the rumor mongering and fake news floods that are happening on the Internet today.

Imagine a world where facts rule the Internet, and lies and rumors are stripped of their disguises before they can do damage. That's actually possible, explains tech expert Brian Behlendorf, the executive director of the Hyperledger Project (who was also a primary developer of the Apache HTTP Server, the most widely used web server in the world). Although a completely truthful Internet might be dull, and a little totalitarian, it would be sweet relief for all digital citizens if someone could end fake news. Distributed ledger technology like Blockchain could do that, says Behlendorf, by changing the way organizations collect and store data. If data were decentralized or transparent on an unmodifiable Blockchain, it would be almost impossible to attack the source or integrity of someone's data on that open ledger. "I view distributed ledger technology as the closest thing we have in the technology field to being able to say something is a fact," says Behlendorf. A distributed ledger system could also be used to help us check our confirmation biases in response to fake news. Currently, central providers like Facebook and Google can alert you to news sources that may be less than factual, but imagine a decentralized version, like a Yelp for news media, with experts who score platforms on their integrity, as well as crowd-contributed ratings. In the future, what if the Internet helped resolve controversy instead of cranking the rumor mill?

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Image: Abel Suyok
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