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EthJourn: A framework for incentive-driven decentralized journalism network on Blockchain and P2P storage

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This paper presents a framework for incentive-driven decentralized journalism on top of Ethereum and IPFS. The framework allows the reader to tip the author of the post. The model is censorship-resistant and tamper-proof, and allows for off-chain storage using IPFS.
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EthJourn: A framework for incentive-driven
decentralized journalism network on Blockchain and
P2P storage
Abhinav Srivastava
Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore, Tamil Nadu
abhinavmir@protonmail.com
Abstract
This paper presents a framework for incentive-driven decentralized journalism on top of Ethereum and
IPFS. There has been considerable decentralization in Journalism since the mass-adoption of the Internet, but
the incentive models are by crowd-funding or advertisements, both of which might be corrupted. Centralized
models are vulnerable to tampering, which is not the case with a decentralized model.
1. INTRODUCTION
According to Oxford Dictionary, Journalism is the activity or profession of writing for newspapers, magazines
or news websites. Journalism presently is a controlled industry, where a few big corporations control the
majority of the market and act as gatekeepers. This is detrimental to a democratic society, since democracies
rely on freedom of the press to make a correct decision with regards to democratic rights [1]. In a decentralized
system, the press is free. There is an optional anonymity, the database is essentially tamper-proof [2], the
infrastructure requires objectively lesser maintenance [3], the portal is incentive-driven and the system mimics a
democratic ecosystem . There has also been a rise in para-journalism [4] by corporate news agencies. Presenting
a decentralized solution will by itself not solve all problems, but it will bring to perspective the idea of using a
decentralized, incentive driven system to tackle the following problems
1. High Pressure, Long Hours, Low Pay [5] of Journalists: Since journalists are employees of corporates,
they face the onslaught of lay-offs, pandering to the corporate’s bias, dealing with harassment by the
employer and other employees. The incentive-driven model allows for independence from a central
corporate.
2. Objectively more secure: Tamper-proof is a concept often discussed while discussing the need of
Blockchain in certain applications. By Tamper-proof, in this paper, the reference is to the fact that
committing “51% attacks”, or attacks where the majority of the computing power is controlled by a
single authority, is a hypothetical scenario. Efforts to mitigate this vulnerability have been done, most
notably by having a two-phase proof of work [6]. For further reading, refer to “Analysis of Security in
Blockchain: Case Study in 51%-Attack Detecting” [7].
3. Honest reporting, rather than para-journalism: As is the case, outliers will cause “Fake News”, and
protocols can be placed to deal with those cases. However, that is not the scope of this paper, this paper
provides a framework for decentralized, incentive-based journalism.
4. Lack of Transparency: Since data cannot be modified once published, and cannot be deleted either- it
allows for transparency.
5. Threat to life and property: The masses might retaliate with unpredictable vitriol.
The framework aims to serve as a supporting architecture for journalists, independent or otherwise, to use as a
platform for documenting news. While traditional journalism platforms have social reach, they don’t deal with
trustlessness. Social Networking websites Reddit, Twitter et al. struggle with finding a reliable framework for
dealing with false reporting, harassment and bullying. Individual journaling allows for funding from the crowd,
in the form of tips, instead of “likes/upvotes/et al.”. According to Ethical Journalism Network, there are certain
ethics to adhere to while journaling [8]. There have been attempts to provide a platform for decentralized
journalism, particularly Civil, which has closed operations presently [9], and a few others [10] [11], which is
further discussed in section 2, in Related Works. Traditional Web-centered journalism is an extension of
newspapers, distributed by physical supply chain, and with the rise of the internet, there was a rise in
independent journalism. These websites follow the server architecture of any other centralized systems. There
have been attempts to develop a secure, user-friendly DOSN, and there have been increased adoption rates over
the years, as is demonstrated by the example of Mastadon, an Open Source, Microblogging DOSN, with around
800,000 users, or the 700,000 users of Sola. From BitTorrent, Napster-style P2P networks, to Bitcoin, Ethereum
and Sapien-type Blockchain-based networks, there has been a lot of progress in the industry. There are existing
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security flaws and drawbacks of a distributed system resulting in a lower adoption rate than a centralized
system. But in use cases of lack of trust, need of lack of authority, providing an incentive to users and authors et
al., a modern DOSN is an optimal solution. To summarize, this paper -
1. Introduces Distributed Online Social Networks, related terminologies and motivation to develop such a
framework.
2. Review current efforts in building DOSNs, from peer-to-peer distributed systems that implement DHT,
to Blockchain-powered modern applications.
3. Propose an open-source, public Blockchain-based Journalism framework.
4. Discuss security concerns regarding Blockchain-based DOSNs
2. RELATED WORKS
2.1. Early Decentralized Online Social Networks
Journalism was one of the earliest forms of Social Networks, with writers reaching out to readers via physical
copies that were delivered via Supply Chains. This section discusses Decentralized Online Social Network
(DOSN), and establishes the framework as DOSN-type network.
With the advent of the internet, there has been an increase in usage of Social Media as a means of Social Media
consumption is rising by the day, and while there are benefits, There has been documented use of Social Media
as a means of influencing elections [12]. This serves as a motivation to consider decentralization as a means to
tackle issues of corruption, bias, lack of trust and unfair authority. Blockchains are a distributed ledger, which
are practically tamper-proof, implement consensus algorithms, mitigate spam via infrastructural tax and can be
incentive-driven. Ethereum presently has issues in scaling, thus we use Interplanetary File System (IPFS) for
off-chain data storage. Classically, a Social Media platform would be based on an HTTP Client-Server model.
Fig 1.a A centralized Journalism model
A decentralized social network would work differently. The paper aims to discuss and propose an architecture
for DOSNs (Decentralized Online Social
Networks). Decentralizing Social Networks hold immense potential: Lack of infrastructural cost, increased
security, optional anonymity, freedom of speech et al.. There is a rise in adoption of Social Media. In 2019,
there were a reported 3.48 billion social media users. With a 9% increase from 2018. Refer to Ortiz-Ospina,
2020 [13] and Social Media Users — DataReportal – Global Digital Insights, 2020 [14] A further breakdown
would be as given in fig. 1.b.
Social Media Platform
Number of Monthly
Active Users
2
Facebook
2.45 billion
YouTube
2.00 billion
Whatsapp
1.60 billion
WeChat
1.15 billion
Instagram
1.15 billion
TikTok
800 million
QQ
800 million
Sina Weibo
497 million
SnapChat
382 million
Twitter
340 million
Kuaishou
316 million
Reddit
430 million
Fig 1.b
Active Monthly Users
With such immense adoption rates, it is important to consider implementing new technologies to further
improve the experience. This paper discusses the comparisons between the centralized architecture of Social
network, decentralized solutions, and distributed ledgers and proposes an architecture for a Blockchain-based
DOSN. Sapien is one of the more notable examples [15]. Sapien offers an incentive in the form of a rewards
system [16]. BCOSN is a blockchain-powered decentralized social network [17], employing a three-layer
architecture for DOSNs. PeerSon [18] is another decentralized social media platform which is, in fact, one of the
first. It was developed on the premise of a two-level architecture, where the lower level consists of user and their
content, and the higher level provides querying functions and stores meta-data. Vis-´a-Vis is another
decentralized social network using Cloud Computing instead of personal nodes to capitalize on the consistent
availability of cloud services to make user services available as consistently as possible [19]. FETHR is another
proposed architecture for decentralized microblogging similar to Twitter [20]. FETHR only allows for
Read-Only. PrPI is another DOSN that proposed an architecture that enhanced the privacy control, provided an
API for development. SociaLite was built on top of PrPI and allowed users to query data from PrPI's proposed
Personal Cloud Butlers.[21]. From the above-stated works: PrPI, FETHR, Vis-´a-Vis, and PeerSon operate on
Distributed Hash Tables (DHTs).
Fig 2.a The anatomy of a Distributed Hash Table
[42]
3
Fig 2.b Merkle Tree
[41]
DHTs provide lookup services to Distributed Systems, analogous to Hash Tables providing lookup service to a
centralized system. Key-Value pairs are stored in a distributed hash table, and any participating node can fetch
the value for any given key. The keys are distributed with a deterministic algorithm. DHTs have been imperative
to distributed computing, some examples would be BTDigg, a BitTorrent DHT search engine [24], and
InterPlanetary File System, a protocol and a peer-to-peer network, for storing and sharing data across a
distributed file system [25]. Merkle Tree is a binary tree data structure in which every leaf node is labeled with
the hash of a data block. Figure 2.b is a schematic representation of a Merkle Tree.
There has been discussion of
Merkle Tree Based File Systems [17], and Merkle trees have the potential for lookup, in O (log (n) ) time, as
mentioned in fig 2.c.
Operation
Complexity
Space
O ( n )
Searching
O (log (n) )
Insertion
O (log (n) )
Deletion
O (log (n) )
Synchronization
O (log (n) )
Fig 2.c Average Time Complexity for Merkle Tree operations
A Blockchain is a cryptographically linked chain of blocks, and each block contains an array of transactions.
Block Headers commit to a Merkle tree of the transactions in them, Older DOSNs like PrPI, FETHR,
Vis-´a-Vis, and PeerSon employed DHTs as a Control Mechanism, but newer DOSN like STEEMIT and Sapien
use Blockchain, which needs an external indexing system in case lookup is intended. Such services are provided
by a third party. Such systems create a data file or store data committed in a database for quicker lookups. The
fundamental difference between older Peer-to-Peer systems (the kind that powers PrPI, FETHR, Vis-´a-Vis, and
PeerSon) and Blockchain is that older some of the peer-to-peer systems implemented DHT because they had
data partitioned and stored on separate nodes, while in Blockchain, all participating nodes have a copy of the
transaction ledger. This allows for tamper-proofing. There have been attempts at developing a DHT-based
Blockchain [21] but the topic is out of scope for this paper. In a review study from 2014 [22], Chowdhury et al.
discuss the potential and attempts of decentralizing OSN. The discussed techniques talk about peer-to-peer
systems.
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Ethereum is an Open Source, Public, Blockchain-based distributed computing platform and operating system,
featuring Smart Contracts [23]. With the start of transition from Proof of Work to Proof of Stake, there is an
increased adoption rate with developers. The proposed architecture employs Ethereum and IPFS to decentralize
social networks. The next section discusses the background and related terminologies.
2.2. Steem, Civil and other decentralized platforms
Steemit is a decentralized Social Network that runs on a custom Blockchain network. Steemit implements a
consensus algorithm it refers to as “Proof of Brain”. Steemit has incentives for content creators (with the
cryptocurrency called STEEM) [26]. STEEM cryptocurrency is minted by the network on a consistent basis and
distributed to the actors who curate the content on the platform. STEEM has three different currency units--
1. STEEM
: The units which can be exchanged on Cryptocurrency exchanges.
2. STEEM Power
: A long-term investment that cannot be sold for a stipulated amount of time. It allows
the holder to have a higher ownership in the network, thus as the system grows, so does the share of the
holder.
3. STEEM Dollars: These are Steemit currency that are pegged 1:1 with the US Dollar.
For further reading, refer to "The concept and criticisms of Steemit." [27].
Civil, which has since shut operations, was an Ethereum-based Journalism solution with customizable models
[28]. Civil had 3 services to offer -
1. Newsrooms
: This service allowed the citizens to pool funding to support coverage for a specific topic.
This incentivized the journalists to cover that certain topic.
2. Stations
: This service allowed journalists to price their work on multiple models, eg. Recurring Tips,
Funding et al.. This was provided to allow journalists to curate a community.
3. Fact-Checking as a Service
:A collaborative service that allowed users of the service to improve the
content, and prevent libel, plagiarism, falsehoods et al..
Civil operates with the CVL token. For further reading, refer to “The Civic Cryptoeconomic white paper” [29].
Other famous modern DOSNs are Diaspora [30], Mastodon [31] and Cent [32] among many others. All these
networks use different methodologies in terms of architecture, incentive structure, social dynamics and
technologies.
3. BACKGROUND
3.1. Blockchain
Blockchain are blocks that are cryptographically linked to form a chain. A blockchain by design is
tamper-proof. As discussed in section 2, Blockchains employ a Merkle Tree, and Cryptographic linking. This
hash is a hash of the previous block, thus modification of the previous block results in the spawning of a new
block. Tampering with old blocks is resource-intensive. However, there have been documented cases of "51%
attacks", an attack that achieves consensus and causes misbehavior of the chain [33]. For further reading on
Blockchains, refer to “Blockchains beyond Bitcoin” [34].
3.2. Ethereum, Proof-of Work and Proof-of-Stake:
Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform that utilizes smart
contracts. The scripts for the Virtual Machine are Turing-Complete, which means it can emulate Turing
machines. For the purpose of the paper, Solidity is being used. Ethereum employs an internal mechanism to
mitigate spam and allocate resources to the network. Present the system is Proof-of-Work, but Ethereum 2.0
plans to move to Proof-of-Stake [35]. Proof of Work systems may result in a pseudo-centralized system over
time [36], which is not ideal for our scenario. Thus the user of the framework may refer to any Layer 2 solution
such as Matic in case Ethereum has not yet adopted the Proof-of-Stake algorithm. The architecture of the
algorithm will remain the same, since Layer 2 solutions build on top of Ethereum.
3.3. Smart Contracts and Solidity
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The idea of Smart Contracts was first put forth by Szabo [37].. A Smart Contract is a protocol that facilitates the
digital verification and/or enforcement of a Contract. Smart Contracts allow credible transactions to occur
without a third-party authority. We are using the language Solidity, which is a statically-typed, Object-Oriented
programming language for writing Smart Contracts on various Blockchain platforms, including our use case,
Ethereum. For us, we would develop a contract that would store the title of the content and the value of the hash
given by the IPFS network for a file. Other methods can be used to speed up discovery, such as storing the title
of the content, or complimenting the system with a database.
3.4 Interplanetary File System (IPFS)
Interplanetary File System is a protocol and a P2P network for storing and sharing data in a Distributed Network
[25]. IPFS uses content addressing. Content Addressable Storage is a method to store information so it can be
retrieved based on the content, and not the location [38] [39]. This can be used for rapid retrieval of content with
fixed content. The proposed framework promises fixed content (or tamper-proof content), thus using IPFS is
ideal.
IPFS allows the user to host files, thus as opposed to a centrally located server, an IPFS network cannot be
regulated. IPFS distributes content over the network thus promising a certain degree of tolerance to faulty nodes.
We use IPFS for off-chain storage since storing data on Ethereum is not cost-effective [40], and the gas fee is
dependent on size of content. Thus we optimize the cost by storing the content on the IPFS network, and the
hash of the content (referred to as Content ID or CID) on the Ethereum network.
3.5. Tamper-Proofing of Data in Distributed Systems
Blockchain are chains of a Blocks that are hashed and encoded into a Merkle Tree, a tree in which every leaf is
hashed with a cryptographic hash of the corresponding data block, and non-leaves are labelled with the hash of
the labels of its child nodes. In a Merkle Tree, A change in subsequent nodes results in a completely new
Branch. Blockchains are an implementation of Merkle Tree, thus making it practically tamper proof. To
historically change data on a Node in an Ethereum network, one must have the collusion of 51% of the ledger.
While in theory, this is possible, it is computationally hard to do so in practice. A Tamper-proof Distributed
Ledger secures the history of posts made, thus practically mitigating collusion and corruption.
4. FRAMEWORK
4.1. Centralized Models
Figure 4.a. Overview of the
Framework
Present centralized systems are a classic Client-Server mode, with a Database, A backend and frontend,
normally load balanced, but that does make the system tamper proof. A single administrator also makes the
system vulnerable to bias, and renders it non-meritocratic. In the system presented in the paper, the newsfeed is
curated by whoever gets the highest amount of tips. In Figure 3.a, an abstract diagram of centralized systems is
presented.
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4.2. Architecture of EthJourn
Figure 4.b. Overview of the Framework
This section aims to discuss the architecture of the portal. In Figure 3.a, an abstract overview of the project is
presented in the form of a rough diagram. The application uses Ethereum and IPFS.
When the Author attempts to push the content to the network, a file buffer is calculated. A File Buffer is an
object used to represent a fixed-length sequence of bytes. It is an image of the file provided. This Buffer is then
pushed to the IPFS network, where the IPFS network upon internal computation returns the hash.
This returned hash is then stored in a Smart Contract deployed to the Ethereum network and the IPFS network.
The hash of the content on the IPFS network is mapped to the Smart Contract on the Chain. The post counter is
increased by 1.
The user of the framework can now tip the Author, who is owner of the said Smart Contract. When the User
tips, the function is called that tips to the payable address of the Author.
The titles of the content are listed out by connecting the Client to the Smart Contract address of the deployed
Smart Contract via a remote procedure call to the Ethereum network to which the Smart Contract was deployed.
This forms the basic infrastructure of the framework, the next few subsections detail the different services of the
framework.
a. Upload to IPFS and Ethereum
Figure 4.a.1. Schematic of uploading to the network
The uploading to the Network works differently from how it would work on central database. On a
decentralized EthJourn framework, the methodology would be -
1. Calculate File Buffer.
2. Upload file to IPFS Network.
3. IPFS Network returns a hash value called the Content ID.
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4. Call the Smart Contract function to create the post and pass the title and the CID as parameters.
5. Increase the counter by 1, and add the value to an array of posts.
b. Fetching data from the network
Fetching from the network refers to contacting the Ethereum Network via RPCs and fetching the data at the stated
address. This would include -
1. Connecting to the Ethereum network.
2. Instantiating an object of the Smart Contract using ABI and Address of the Smart Contract.
3. Loop from 1 to the number of posts and call the post from the said array.
c. Tipping an Author
Tipping incentivizes the author to post, and there is no third-party involvement. The reader pays directly to the
author. The framework tips in ETH (Ether), the digital asset on Ethereum.
1. Declare an event in the Smart Contract that is triggered every time a new tip is created.
2. Declare a function in the Smart Contract that tips to the author and emits the event created in step , this
function is implemented via the transfer function. .
3. In the client, once connected to the network and once the Smart Contract object is instantiated, call the
function declared for tipping posts, pass the User’s account and value as parameters.
d. Demonstration
Figure 4.d.1. Web Client demonstration of the framework
The figure 4.d.1 demonstrates a web client of the framework that uses React JS, the frontend framework with
Web3 JS, an RPC tool for JavaScript. In the demonstration, the Smart Contract declares title, subtitle and
category along with hash of the content. This improves discoverability. When clicked upon, it redirects to the
IPFS gateway for that Content ID. Such systems can be set up for individual Journalists and launched to
personal servers. This reduces dependency, thus encourages individual thinking, which is imperative to
journalism.
e. Potential Threats
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1. 51% Attacks
: Malicious elements in the chain could gain majority control of the Blockchain, via
controlling the hashrate, and using that to perform double-spends and blocking miners from confirming
blocks [43].
2. Loss of identity
: A loss of private key could result in loss of account and no way of recovering it.
Consequently, Public and Private keys in Ethereum are asymmetrically encrypted via ECDSA (Elliptic
Curve Digital Signature Algorithm). There have been studies that conclude that ECSDA can be
inverted via Quantum Computing [25]. This results in a vulnerability.
Using an Ethereum network means that the framework utilizes the security measures that Ethereum offers.
Having a consensus algorithm means that DDoS attacks are expensive to commit. Selfish-mining attacks are
computationally impractical since the existing chain is well-established. The economic value of Ether makes it
viable as a digital currency.
f. Scope of improvement
This paper introduces a minimum viable framework, and to implement this in real-life scenarios, one would
need to make sure it is comfortable for the User, the discovery is not bottlenecked by the Ethereum network, the
client is secure enough to not leak sensitive information et al.. To make the experience faster, using an
intermediary database that mirrors the chain data is suggested. This would allow the application to load the
chain data faster. Consider modifying the framework to use a stable cryptocurrency such as DAI, which is
pegged 1:1 with the US Dollar [44] for tipping, since Ethereum could be volatile.
5. CONCLUSION
The paper proposes a framework “EthJourn” that incentivizes journalists to create personal platforms on top of
Ethereum and IPFS .A decentralized system mitigates potential corruption by creating a tamper-proof.
6. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The Author(s) would like to Mr. Lakshman Sankar (Currently at Ethereum Foundation), Prof. Balakrishnan P
(VIT, Vellore), for their inputs and contributions.
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