From Civil Society to Sybil Society

As AI and cryptography eat the world, we may transition from a Civil Society to a Sybil Society.

Sybil was the pseudonym of the psychiatric patient whose case study popularized multiple personality disorder. In computer networks, “Sybil Attack” is a security attack in which a single adversary creates multiple nodes to compromise a computer network. A paper by John R. Douceur demonstrated that, in the absence of a centralized authority to verify the identities of a network’s participants, there is no way to prevent someone from creating multiple accounts to command undue influence on a network.

Sybil attacks have been all over the news during the past year. From Russian Sybils manipulating Western public opinion, to “fake follower” factories enabling instant fame via the purchase of thousands of Sybils, social platforms are facing enormous pressure to deal with Sybil attacks. Advances in AI will only make Sybils more potent. The emergence of machine learning-based impersonation methods that produce uncanny reproductions of people’s voices, facial expressions, and so on, creates a near future in which Sybils become virtually indistinguishable from “real” people.

Looking ahead, there are roughly two ways for social networks to solve Sybil attacks:

The first is to aggressively enforce a real-name policy by requiring users to submit legal proof of identification to create accounts, thus guaranteeing that each account has a unique person behind it. This option necessitates placing even more trust in unaccountable technology companies and disadvantages marginalized groups that are harmed by real-name policies (e.g. political dissidents, LGBT activists, sex workers).

The other option is to allow everyone to have as many Sybils as they want but abandon the Civil Society notion of one person = one voice. One way of doing that, for instance, is by de-emphasizing one’s number of likes and followers; metrics that mean nothing in a network where creating new accounts is free. This option, while increasing freedom and reducing centralization, will force us to rethink fundamental aspects of social organization we’ve been taking for granted.

Would it be possible to create a robust Sybil Society, i.e. a society where everyone is allowed to create new identities?

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