Technology has done great things for us. But it has also brought us some unforeseen problems. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. As the controversy over social media’s role in the propagation of fake news continues to breed mistrust and disenfranchisement with governments and authority figures, new players are stepping up to try and solve the problem, using technology. One of these is Melbourne-based non-profit, Rhizome, a group working on a strategy using a public blockchain to create a verified, objective source of news and an exposition of the actions of leaders at both local and global levels.
I spoke to Isco, one of the team at Rhizome, to find out more about the concept and how it is being put into effect.
Let’s start with a little about who you are and how you got started on the Rhizome project…
We are a group of five professionals from social science and artists. We’ve been working on this project for between four and five years or so. The concept arose from a discussion of the wealth of information that is available on the internet. Everything is related to users. Data is being widely gathered and used by brands, retail stores, and so on, with information on everyone, everywhere. But when you are talking about politics and politicians, it’s a different story.
From the studies that we’ve been doing all these years, we have realised that there is a lot of information related to politics on websites and in newspapers, where there is a constant, frequent influx of news about politicians around the world. But there is no one place that can actually gather all the political information about politicians, their associates or the connections that they have around locally and globally.
So we began thinking about how we could create a project addressing these issues. At the same time, we face a really complex scenario in that, if we wanted to create this database, then it had to be centralised and that means a lot of things. Particularly, such things as the governance of the database, the possibility of attacks and so on.
When the blockchain came up, it provided us with the answer on how we can create this decentralised database based on high levels of security, encourage users’ empowerment, deal with fault tolerance resistance to attacks and increase the transparency of the information, so people can fill it up and manage it from all over the world. At the same time, citizens can start to expose political behaviour based on facts and trustworthy information. With access to that information on an easy to use, simple interface, they can then make their own decision about who they want to support and why, where the final and ultimate decision is on the hand of the voters.
We are expecting, in our theory of change, that people can realise who are the good actors and who are maybe not quite such good ones. According to that, democracies and political systems around the world can start to change at the moment of election.
Obviously, the blockchain works on the premise that all verifiers need to agree that the information is true before it is given a verified, permanent block.
There is a three-part process that we are working on. Firstly, we are addressing how we are going to gather and collect information, how that information is going to be shared and exposed to the users, and where the users can validate this information to a consensus mechanism. The second stage is once that protocol is actioned and the information is validated by users, the block gets attached to this political information that is the public blockchain. The third stage will be how we are going to visualise this information. So users, through their phone or their computer, can – in a very simple and easy way – access this information. They can, therefore, get the concept and meaning on channels of information that the system provides.
How do you ascertain the objective truth?
Politics is related to everything. There are so many things in life that are political. So, it’s a very good question. We have put a lot of thought into the question of objective truth, and as part of our studies, we came upon the theoretical perspective of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher from the 1900s. His perspective, basically, is that the truth ( which is a relation between) power, knowledge and people taking place in a different moment in history.
You can see this in the history of the world. History is told by the winners and the loser. Everyone has their own truth. They create the information that they want to show. But in this case, with Rhizome, it’s not so much like that. Because in this specific moment of history, we do not want fake news, ‘alternative facts’; the alt-right, or anyone who basically think that they have the truth, to create the big impacts that we are witnessing right now around the world. What we want is to grab the facts, in regards to what is actually being done. For example, at a local level, things such as a new highway for cyclists, some renewable energy project in the community, a better recycling process for the garbage, and so on.
Those types of facts can be proven to be the reality. Those are the facts that will be attached to Rhizome’s blockchain. There is also the matter of facts related to how the politicians vote when they are in parliament. The laws that they vote for – that’s a fact. It shows which laws and policies they are specifically supporting. This information will be on the blockchain as well.
We have two main facts at this moment that we are gathering from journalists around the world that have already been proven and validated. These are the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers regarding bad behaviours from politicians around the world. That is information that is already a fact. This is the information we are gathering, collecting, and will expose in Rhizome. People can then start to feed us other corruption cases based on facts, too. Corruption cases take place in many countries, but they are not in one place to be exposed, and that is what we can show with Rhizome as well.
The facts we are seeking to demonstrate through Rhizome are related to corruption cases, conflicts of interest, and the facts in regards to exactly what politicians have done in the community or the country that they represent and the effects in those political systems and the well-being of their citizens.
So the truth must essentially boil down to figures and data?
Exactly. It is about something that can be proven, that already exists. This is what the community ultimately has to decide about. Equally, there is a process for that. The community and users, regardless of the place in the world that they are in, they have to – according to the consensual mechanism we are working on – decide if the information is true or not. They have to decide whether the source is the right one, if the information provided is correct.
They have to decide also through the consensus mechanism if a video or photograph has been released along with that news, and as such whether that media is authentic or not.
That is the process that the users around the world will use to validate that information, which is very complex and not easy at all. But once that information is validated, it is going to be attached to the blockchain and also to the profile of the politician so everyone can know about that information.
So where are the users that are validating the information sourced from?
They are volunteers, people whose objective is to contribute to an open, free project. The blockchain will be a public blockchain. At the beginning, we need to establish a certain type of control over it before moving to full governance, as with most of the blockchain projects that are happening right now, because you need to actually see how the blockchain is working, how the nodes are behaving, you need to track what information is being gathered and exposed.
We are a not-for-profit project, and that is very important to know because if it were a ‘for profit’ organisation, it would lose all sense in terms of exposing political behaviour and improving democracies because many questions will arise about the independence of this project. As a not-for-profit project, we must depend on volunteers. If we create this foundation, we depend on volunteers as the ones who are going to help us gather and assess information, to validate it and to expose it and we can be as independent and unbiased as possible.
What about rogue actors with the agenda of disrupting the consensus posing as objective validators?
We are working on this. It’s an issue that blockchain as a whole is trying to address. For this, there is a range of protocols that allows to deal and manage those rogue actors, for example, the Byzantine Tolerance protocol and a number of others, that are being put in place to prevent those actors from taking control of the information or of the blockchain itself. We are working with a mixture of protocols including the proof of identity and the proof of activity to reach that goal.
To do so, we are working on how we are going to enact this consensus mechanism with the Rhizome platform, to prevent rogue actors trying to expose their own political agenda, as has been happening in Russia, in China, and the United States. This is something we are considering as a keystone in this project to try to work on how we combat this.
Invariably, these people are going to be in the system anyway, and will try to manipulate information regardless of what we are actually trying to do. But the blockchain protocol will allow us to diminish the possibility of these people gaining control of the network and the information that’s being exposed. We are, however, still working on how we are going to gather the information and how that information is going to be validated.
This is something, actually, that’s been awesome to work on, because everything in the blockchain is at a pretty early stage. There is nothing that is 100% secure in the blockchain at the moment. There’s Bitcoin, but that’s only related to currency.
We have to consider the existence of many actors in the blockchain industry already that are corrupt. There are projects being worked on which are not validated by the community. There are so many projects out there where you cannot know which are legitimate and which are not. We are in that early a stage on everything and that’s something that we want to at least lend a hand with.
One of the biggest problems with the blockchain at the moment is ascertaining the identity of the people who are producing the blockchain. Some people are working on a proof of identity concept, aiming to be able to make sure that someone is using the blockchain with their own identity and not as part of some DDoS attack or even a Sybil attack.
As I say, we’re at an early stage, with these issues still being worked on. But what we are trying to do is to spread the voice, the message that this project can work. We need more brainpower to work with us and financiation, of course, because it is not a cheap thing to do.
What can people do if they want to get involved at this stage?
The best place to start is probably to visit our website and use the contact form to drop us a line. This is for anyone who wants to help, get involved or assist in any way.
This project is not just for one country. We want it to be a worldwide project, so we need people from across the globe who are keen to help and to basically change the political system around the world to work together because, with the current political system everywhere, it can be done
Basically, politics has always been a changing thing. In the 21st century, we are in a very different stage to any that has ever been before, look 10, 20 or 30 years ago, politics were so different than now. We can do something about that. We have the power of information, of data. We have the technology and the knowledge and dedication from people from around the world who want to change things. People are dissatisfied and disengaged from the political system and this is because there is something going on. We want to change that, to allow people to decide the political situation of their own countries, with better information, but at the same time trying to help and assist other countries with other information that they might possess and use the power of sharing, exposing and validating the information, create that change at home and beyond.
Once the information is fed in and validated, how is it then published for public consumption?
We are working on a user interface that will be applied to a map. The information will be visualised on that map in a simple-to-navigate way. From here, you can start to discover the politicians in different suburbs or countries and then gain access to that information by simply clicking on the politicians or persons that are in the map. You can then discover the connections that those people have with other organisations in the map, how they are involved and the consequences that brings for politics.
We want to keep it simple, very entertaining and intuitive. We want to do it in a way that people can find the information and know it as quickly and easily as possible based on facts We want people to trust the independence of this project and to believe that the information in there is trustworthy so they can make a more informed decision at the moment of voting. The first step in the improvement of the political system.
I imagine that this will be a particularly valuable resource for journalists, too?
Yes, definitely. The journalists are very important to this project. They are the ones creating the information and providing it to the public. They are the fourth power in any democracy.
If this project works, the possibilities for improving democracies and political systems are enormous. If we can allow people to share information regarding the politicians that are managing their lives, we can allow people access to this decentralised, free database. If we can create this momentum at a time when people are so dissatisfied and disengaged with what is going on around the world, we can have better political leaders in all the political spheres from councils, the house of representatives, ministries and more. But this is not just in terms of political corruption and conflicts of interest. It’s also to expose the good people.
There are good politicians and there are people who want to do good things in the world. These people need exposure because they don’t have the political machinery behind them, the economic support, the connections or a party to represent. This could be a platform where they can show what they’ve been doing and the good things they have been supporting. People can then decide who they really want to support for the next term. I think it’s entirely possible for us to create change with the tools we have today because blockchain is been used for everything, but nothing related to politics. And we want to do that.
Many thanks, Isco, for taking the time to talk about this exciting project. To see the good work that blockchain technology can facilitate, beyond the widely-reported cryptocurrency angle, is inspiring. It is a reminder that the technology being built has the potential for making real changes and positively influencing the future.
If you would like to learn more about Rhizome or to get involved, please visit their website. Rhizome will launch a social media campaign on the 05/08/2018 and you can follow it on the following links: