In computer science there is a concept known as Sybil attack. In a Sybil attack, the attacker creates multiple fake identities in order to subvert a reputation system (which can be any peer-to-peer network). A basic example would be a sub reddit where someone create multiple users in order to control the prevalent narrative.
In this note, I would like to propose a very simple rule of thumb, which may have important implications for how we think about truth in the Information Age:
If an idea has any ideological or economic value, it will be Sybil attacked.
My view relies on the idea that Sybil attacks are not limited to computer networks, but are in fact present everywhere in society in one form or another. Take an insurance company for example, their role is to make you believe that their insurance products are the best, and perhaps they are, or perhaps the CEO truly thinks they are, but the company has thousands of employees, including salesmen who are paid to send the message that their products are the best. It does not matter what they believe, they will follow the narrative because they are paid to do so. They will attempt to get their voices heard and make everyone think they are the best. Unlike the sub reddit example, here the people are real, not fake identities, but the ideas are fake. The result is the same: thousands of fake voices parroting the same message. The reason people who attack peer to peer networks use Sybil is not because it’s a new and sophisticated strategy, it’s simply that it mimics the way information is processed in the real world.
Advertising is largely one big Sybil attack, which uses actors (say, an incredibly attractive couple) to deliver a message, and use repetition (air the add over and over) to get the message across. Again, the outcome is the same as in previous examples: a multitude of fake inputs into a broader information system.
Governments and government agencies are expert Sybil attackers, as are religious groups and charities. The term “Sybil attacker” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re trying to hurt people, some may use Sybil attacks to fight for good causes, to help others or to protect provable truths against disinformation. Anyone who deals with information at scale relies on Sybil attacks.
Some forms of human communications are not at risk of Sybil attacks. Examples would include the discussion that a newlywed couple is having while strolling along the beach, talking about life and love. Another example might involve a group of old friends having a beer and joking about their high school days. This is communication without information, human communication in its purest, most enjoyable form (there is a reason people love to talk about the weather). These exchanges have no economic or ideological value to anyone, and are therefore safe from attacks.
Humans act mainly for economic and ideological reasons, and will look for opportunities to advance their cause at every chance they get. A 50-dollar bill left on a sidewalk will eventually be picked up by someone, it may not be instant, some passerby may be too ashamed or feel too guilty to pick it up (honest actors), but by the end of the day someone will grab it and shove it in their pocket, and that’s all that matters: by the end of the day the bill is gone, it had too much economic value to someone.
Information works the same way, if it’s worth anything, somebody will use it for their benefit, and the main tool they will use is the broadly defined Sybil attack I described here.
In the age of information, “truth” is largely an outcome-based position defined by the relative success of various Sybil attacks on multiple fronts. The most successful attacker is awarded the prize of truth, leaving other views behind. Fragmentation of views and opinions occurs when different attacks reach sufficient scale to become sustainable, and coexist with other narratives. Again, conducting or winning a Sybil attack in this context isn’t always nefarious, it doesn’t mean you are trying to hide a truth. The outcome of an attack may be that the truth prevails. What we don’t know today is just how efficient this process really is at distinguishing truth from lies, facts from fictions. Judging by the ongoing drama surrounding fake news and censorship, one may conclude that Sybil attacks are an inefficient process. What is missing is a better alternative.