Blockchain is often hailed by technological evangelists as a revolutionary technology that will usher in a new Internet era termed Web3.
At its core, blockchain is a technology used for securely recording and verifying information. Traditionally, it has been used for storing records about cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (aka NFTs) - such as who owns what and how much. The security and transparency of the blockchain has the potential to revolutionise how information is stored and communicated on the Internet.
Using blockchain to communicate information trustworthiness
But whether we like it or not, it seems that blockchain technology is here to stay. It is expected to play a crucial role in the EU’s implementation of Digital Product Passports (DPPs), which will provide key product-related information to consumers and other stakeholders. This is already being done is some capacity to verify product sustainability claims and the authenticity of luxury goods. Blockchain can also be used to check who produced online content and how it has changed over time – which is especially useful in an era when mis- and disinformation are rife.
This is all well and good in theory. But does using blockchain actually increase consumers’ beliefs that the information is truthful and credible? And if so, in what other ways can we use blockchain to communicate information authenticity?
Driven by these two questions, I recently tested if using blockchain to communicate advertising authenticity could increase consumer trust. Despite much evidence (for instance, here and here and here and here), fake advertising as a form of disinformation is often overlooked in scientific research. It is also difficult to tackle in practice.
Instead, I decided to address the problem in reverse: by using blockchain technology to label real advertising. When information is added to the blockchain, it is “timestamped” with additional meta-data, such as who created the record and when. This can help consumers determine whether an ad is real by allowing them to check which brand is behind the advertising.
To test this assumption, I conducted two experiments – one with Instagram ads and one with Google search ads. And… nothing happened. Overall, consumers did not find blockchain-timestamped ads to be any more credible or likeable than non-timestamped ads.
So, what does this mean in practice?
This is just one study in one context – and the disclaimer must be made that more research is necessary to draw any definitive conclusions.
That being said, the results suggest that using blockchain does not help increase trustworthiness or credibility of online information. This could be explained by the general distrust towards blockchain mentioned earlier. It could also help explain why some companies using blockchain shy away from using blockchain terminology on their websites and products.
But it also has implications for the EU’s DPPs, raising the questions: Will they be effective at transparently informing consumers about product-related information? And will they be trusted by consumers?
Only time will tell.
Dasha Antsipava is a PhD candidate at ASCoR (Amsterdam School of Communication Research) at University of Amsterdam. In her research she investigates the opportunities and challenges of blockchain applications to help consumers cope with fake advertising. More specifically, she focuses on effects and boundary conditions of timestamps, as a specific form of blockchain technology applied for disclosures of authenticity, on consumer trust in advertising and media.