Perhaps you saw this article by Jonathan Haidt that came out in The Atlantic on Monday entitled, "Why the past 10 years of American life have been Particularly Stupid." It’s a brilliant (and long) article that is definitely worth the effort to dig into. Without fully attempting to synopsize the article here, he shines a spotlight on the social-psychological effects of social media, brilliantly relates some of our techno-democratic optimism to the biblical story of Babel, and ultimately makes an urgent plea to make the changes necessary to preserve any functional democracy. There is plenty to reflect on in this article, like the need for caution when finding utopic hopes in technological developments (a reminder many of us need as we turn our eyes to Web3), or the deeply problematic algorithmic architecture of our centralized systems that extract value from and manipulate users (a reason many of us are excited about with the possibilities presented by Web3). For the purposes of this article, we bring it up to highlight one of the suggestions he made and to introduce a Web3 project that is in deep agreement with him and building an example of what might make his suggestion possible without compromising decentralization, self-sovereignty, privacy, or accessibility.
Below are two paragraphs taken from the article, the first for context of the call, and the second is one of his suggestions:
We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. The norms, institutions, and forms of political participation that developed during the long era of mass communication are not going to work well now that technology has made everything so much faster and more multidirectional, and when bypassing professional gatekeepers is so easy. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.
Banks and other industries have “know your customer” rules so that they can’t do business with anonymous clients laundering money from criminal enterprises. Large social-media platforms should be required to do the same. That does not mean users would have to post under their real names; they could still use a pseudonym. It just means that before a platform spreads your words to millions of people, it has an obligation to verify (perhaps through a third party or nonprofit) that you are a real human being, in a particular country, and are old enough to be using the platform. This one change would wipe out most of the hundreds of millions of bots and fake accounts that currently pollute the major platforms. It would also likely reduce the frequency of death threats, rape threats, racist nastiness, and trolling more generally. Research shows that antisocial behavior becomes more common online when people feel that their identity is unknown and untraceable.
There seems to be a real need to solve the online identity issue as more and more of our lives transition into digital space. Haidt references KYC rules that banks must abide by and as the digital economy emerges we will find that the same kinds of criminal behavior will make new protocols necessary. Of course his parenthetical “perhaps by a third party” highlights the challenge of trust and legitimacy with centralized institutions. Identity legitimization is typically accomplished by traditional centralized institutions, national IDs, and KYC providers. While centralized financial institutions might need every last detail of your identity specifics, Jonathan’s suggestion seems to be aimed at avoiding bots and verifying unique individual humans. Decentralized networks have had the same need as they might otherwise be vulnerable to what’s called a Sybil attack, basically a swarm of bots, virtual personas that effectively take over a digital democracy by sheer volume. Many peer-to-peer networks, in an effort to avoid exactly that problem, which is not dissimilar to the exact problem Jonathan Haidt is describing in our Web2 social networks, often use such legitimacy verifying agencies to guard their own networks of such attacks.
With the rise of blockchain technology, there’s been a surge in networked protocols that make use of subjective inputs such as voting, vouching, and interpreting, to arrive at a decentralized and sybil-resistant consensus for identity. Democracy.Earth for example has been working hard at some very valuable projects that might in turn provide a solution to many other Web3 projects who will inevitably benefit by having a utility like their Proof of Humanity
Proof of Humanity is a system combining social verification with video submission in order to create a Sybil-proof list of humans. It is meant to be used by individuals as a point-of-entry to a myriad of new use cases that require users to prove they are real humans and not duplicate/fake/bot accounts. It will be plugged into a variety of existing and new applications in need for such identity systems.
While Government Ids are simple and easy to scale, they are vulnerable to the stability and strength of the nation-state, are subject to repression and censoring of identities, and are also often vulnerable to duplication and counterfeiting. Verifying humanity by way of CAPTCHA has been a great solution but as artificial intelligence continues to improve so rapidly it is becoming more vulnerable every day, so while proof of humanity is far more complex, it seems the trade off offers a decentralized, AI-resistant, and an economically incentivized system. It is economically incentivized by offering a Universal Basic Income to all registered human individuals in the form of their UBI token which stream to each user's wallets with every new block added to the block-chain!
Haidt’s article seemed like a great prompt to introduce our readers to this incredible project. Democracy.Earth is doing some really impressive work and we encourage you to look more into them. There are a few white papers on their site that offer an in-depth look into the thinking behind their work. Who Watches the Watchmen? A Review of Subjective Approaches for Sybil-resistance in Proof of Personhood Protocols, is their most recent paper which covers the need and the efforts from so many angles, one potential use case mentioned in the paper is worth quoting here as it seems to directly address Haidt’s suggestion:
Social Media. Social media signaling methods (impressions, likes, upvotes, etc.) have become key to societal debates, but are prone to manipulation by bots (Ferrara et al. 2016). Strong Sybil protection of social media accounts could help address the spread of fake news and fake impressions, as well as digital advertisement related frauds.