Fake News

What If Widespread Disinformation Is the Solution to Fake News?

It may be time to hire a libel service.


What if disinformation, defamation, and deep fakes aren't the central problem of "fake news," either on the internet or in other media? What if they're actually part of the solution?

These questions get raised in an early chapter of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, and the author's answers are eerily persuasive. They're also a weird echo of creative thinking pioneered by the cypherpunks more than 20 years ago—a group that Stephenson, then working on his encryption-centric opus Cryptonomicon, frequently hung out with and consulted.  (Cypherpunk creativity, which nowadays deserves credit for things like cryptocurrency, is a gift that keeps on giving.)

I confess I haven't yet finished Stephenson's latest 800-plus-page tome, which so far might be characterized, although not necessarily captured, by the term "near-future dystopia."  But when I came across Stephenson's depiction of how automated disinformation could actually remedy the damage that internet-based "doxxing" and fake news inflict on an innocent private individual, I paused my reading and jumped down the rabbit hole of tracing this idea to its 1990s roots. 

What caught me was a passage about the character Maeve, an Australian who becomes involved with Corvallis, a cloud-computing engineer who's quasi-famous. When both appear in video news coverage of a presidential speech, they become obsessional objects of internet gossip, which Stephenson refers to with some justice as "Crazytown": "For he had been identified by name, on national television, by the president of the United States, and had been a reasonably well-known person to begin with. And she had been standing next to him."

The result, per Stephenson, is predictable:

"Crazytown was repelled by facts and knowledge, as oil fled from water, but was fascinated by the absence of hard facts, since it provided vacant space in which to construct elaborate edifices of speculation. Toward power it felt some combination of fear and admiration, and Corvallis was powerful. Toward vulnerability it was drawn, in the same way that predators would converge on the isolated and straggling. Within a week, Maeve—who suffered from the fatal combination of being mysterious, vulnerable, and female—had been doxxed."

All that could have happened yesterday, or anytime in the last decade. But then Corvallis's friend Pluto shows up, joins Corvallis and Maeve on a private jet flight to Australia, and offers Maeve a solution:

"It came to my attention that you were being abused on the Internet," Pluto said, "and so I am here to destroy it."

"Destroy what?" Corvallis inquired.

"The Internet," Pluto said. "Or what Dodge referred to as the Miasma. Does your jet have Wi-Fi?"

"Yes, but it doesn't work over the Pacific Ocean."

Pluto sighed. "Then it will have to wait until we have reached Australia."

"I didn't like your friend at first," Maeve said, "but I'm warming up to him."

"That is convenient, Maeve, if I may take the liberty of addressing the lady by her Christian name, because I will require your permission. Your complicity in utterly destroying your reputation."

"It's already destroyed, haven't you seen a bloody thing?"

"It is not sufficiently destroyed yet," Pluto said. He glanced at the screen of his laptop. 

"The total number of unique slanderous and defamatory statements that have been made about you, on all of the blogs, boards, and social media networks being tracked by my bots, currently stands at a little more than seventy-three thousand."

Pluto's solution is to release a troop of bots designed to defame a person randomly.

"This kind of thing has to be gone about in a systematic way, so that nothing is missed," he said, now staring out the window at a fuel truck. "Partly through direct study of dictionaries, thesauri, and so on, and partly through brute-forcing archives of defamatory Miasma postings, I have compiled what I think is a pretty comprehensive ontology of execration. A mere lexicon doesn't get us anywhere because it's language-specific. Both in the sense of relating to only one language, such as English, and in the sense that it only covers defamation in a textual format. But many defamatory posts are now made in the form of images or videos. For example, if you want to call someone a slut—"

"We don't need to go there right now," Corvallis said.

"'Slut,' 'bitch,' 'hag,' 'fatty,' all the bases need to be covered [but if] it's all skewed toward, say, 'feminazi,' then the impression will be created in the minds of many casual users that the subject is indeed a feminazi. But if an equal amount of traffic denounces the subject as a slut, a bitch, a whore, an attention seeker, a gold digger, an idiot […] then even the most credulous user will be inoculated with so many differing, and in many cases contradictory, characterizations as to raise doubts in their mind as to the veracity of any one characterization, and hence the reliability of the Miasma as a whole."

Later, Pluto explains how Maeve would take advantage of the disinformation efforts:

"It's an open campaign. We would announce it. Publish statistics on how it's going. You could do press interviews, if you wanted. The sheer magnitude of it would make it obvious, even to the most credulous user of the Miasma, that it was all a bunch of nonsense. Afterward, no one in their right mind would ever believe anything negative about you that had ever been posted on the Miasma. But because it is all technically slanderous, you would have to promise not to sue me."

Maeve asks him how this particular campaign would "destroy the Internet," and Pluto explains that he's going to "open-source all the tools" and combine them with "an easy-to-use graphical interface."

This whole chapter rang many bells for me, not least because it paralleled a discussion I had with a law professor at a conference last year when I pitched the idea of a "libel service." Basically, you'd hire a "libel service" to randomly defame you on the internet, so that whenever anyone says something bad about you on Twitter or Facebook, or in the comments area of some newspaper, you could just say "that's probably my libel service." No one would know whether the defamatory statements were true or not, and people would be predisposed to doubt anything too terrible that's said about you. 

The professor was skeptical—why would anyone actively seek to be defamed?—but I said, wait, the cypherpunks were talking about this idea 25 years ago, and there's no reason to think it wouldn't work. I'd first heard the notion explained by Eric Hughes—a mathematician and programmer who, along with John Gilmore and Tim May, was a founding member of the cypherpunks movement—at some conference or other back in the mid-1990s. Hughes's idea, as he spelled it out back then, was remarkably like Pluto's exposition in Stephenson's novel, except that Stephenson, of course, turned the idea's volume up to 11.

Did Stephenson get the idea from Hughes? I hadn't spoken to Hughes in at least ten years, but I'm in contact with Stephenson from time to time—I've reviewed him and interviewed him for Reason—so I sent him a query about it. At the same time, I asked around to see if anyone I know had contact information for Hughes; it turns out he's now in Salt Lake City, the principal of a contract-programming company. Hughes got back to me first.

I asked him if he remembered the conversation we had in the early 1990s about the libel service. Was it his idea?

"It could have been mine," Hughes told me. "I know I talked about it to different people, but the idea of a disinformation service to protect people from damaged reputations was in the air. It's possible I came up with it and then Neal heard it from someone who heard it from me."

Stephenson got back to me next, and I asked him if he'd gotten his character's deliberate-defamation scheme from Hughes. "It's linked in my mind with Matt [Blaze] and Encyclopedia Disinformatica," Stephenson said, "but now that you mention it, I do remember Eric talking about similar ideas around the same time."

I know Matt Blaze, but I didn't remember Encyclopedia Disinformatica, so I had to query him about that idea and its connection to Stephenson's novel. (It bears mentioning that, like me, neither Hughes nor Blaze has finished the novel, but both recognized the cypherpunk roots of Pluto's disinformation scheme.)

The theoretical encyclopedia in question is one that, as Blaze describes it, would have lots of true information in it but also plenty of false information in it, too. Its function would be to demonstrate that even content that sometimes appears to be mostly true needs to be questioned and independently verified. Blaze's idea was that this would be a kind of perverse media-education project, one that (one hopes) would seed some skepticism about what we encounter on the internet and elsewhere. But it's not quite the same as the project that appears in Stephenson's novel.

In tracing this idea back to its roots, I realized there was an early recognition, at least among people who were thinking about the implications of a wide-open internet, that disinformation—sometimes computer-assisted or computer-enhanced—was going to be a problem we'd need to think about before it became, well, a problem.

But Stephenson's new book adds another takeaway: In the novel, Pluto's automated-defamation scheme does actually work for some high percentage of the population, who learn to think more critically about stuff they came across on the internet and elsewhere in our media culture. (In the near future, they hire their own editors to cull the digital information overload for them.) But there's also an irreducible fraction of people who continue to cherry-pick narratives, whether true or false, solely on the criterion of whether the narratives confirm their cherished beliefs. They won't be newly sophisticated media skeptics or discriminating news consumers—instead they'll commit to the path of confirmation bias, which Cato's Julian Sanchez described a few years back as "epistemic closure." (And, yes, these people will hire their own editors too, picked to serve up content that confirms their biases rather than challenging them.)

In the novel, we see a far more fragmented United States, in which different populations use their digital tools and networked devices to protect themselves from other American subcultures. It will be weird and dangerous, and even successful cypherpunk hacks like Pluto's defamation scheme ultimately will be only stopgap measures. The problem isn't disinformation, defamation, or deep fakes—it's self-deception, a deep-rooted and likely ineradicable human vice. All this sounds like a near-future dystopia, all right, but right now I'm only at page 200. I've got to drive on to page 883 to find out if that's a fair assessment after all.

NEXT: Incensed by Warrantless Border Searches of Americans' Tech Devices? These Senators Have the Cure.

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  1. Hmmm…Mr. Godwin, you know who else ran a systematic disinformation campaign?

    1. Vladimir Putin?


    2. Pope John Paul II?

    3. I see Eddy is invoking Godwin’s Second Law.

    4. Mike Hihn?

    5. Colonel Tom Parker?

    6. Better we go back to rounding up communists and impisoning them. or blacklisting them as t destroy their lives. They tend to be unstable, so pushed hard enough they may consider self harm and then the problem will work itself out.

  2. I have made the same argument about deep fakes — they may actually improve privacy because they will allow anyone accused of having embarrassing videos posted on line to claim “it’s just a deep fake” and no one will know for sure. It’s like the privacy created by anonymity in the middle of a crowd.

    1. It’s also similar to the “Friends of Privacy” in some of the Vernor Vinge novels (Rainbow’s End) … people who spread random erroneous information about everyone on the internet, so all the “real” information about people is lost in the effluvia.

    2. It’s like the privacy created by anonymity in the middle of a crowd.

      Anonymity =/= privacy, one doesn’t intrinsically create the other, and, if they did, privacy would intrinsically create anonymity not the other way around.

  3. The 24 hour news networks have done a good job on blurring the line between news and opinion. People loving listening to an Op Ed show (Maddow, Hannity) to get their news. People should learn the difference between opinion and news.

    1. People should learn the difference between opinion and news.

      News is boring. Opinion swells you up with righteous anger and fills you with energy.

      1. People should learn the difference between opinion and news.

        Especially the ones writing the “news”.

      2. It won’t work. Too many people will believe _all_ of it, no matter how contradictory.

        Consider the UVA/Rolling Stone rape hoax. A student claimed that she was gang-raped on broken glass – and did not seek medical treatment. And a reporter, the entire editorial staff of a major magazine, and more than half of their readers believed this! These people weren’t low IQ, but they didn’t _bother_ to think.

    2. Eh, long before the 24 hour news cycle was a thing Paul Harvey used to do “news and commentary”. Or as my dad put it “emphasis on the commentary”.

  4. I confess I haven’t yet finished Stephenson’s latest 800-plus-page tome

    It’s ok, few others have either.

  5. I only believe that which fortifies my preconceived notions anyway. I discard the rest.

    1. Go with the lovescontroll69 belief system:

      Everything I agree with is news, everything else is propaganda.

      1. MAGA!

    2. I only believe that which fortifies my preconceived notions anyway. I discard the rest.

      FYI, I don’t know that the marshmallows in Lucky Charms are fortified. I think it’s just the oats.

      1. The marshmallows have all the vitamins.

      2. But are they really magically delicious?

  6. Hey y’all… If’n you-all lust for ever more and more and more “fake news”, there is now a web site with AI that will custom-generate your fake news for you! Written in your favorite style even!

    See https://grover.allenai.org/ Fake-News Generator…

    This one is for real, it ain’t sci-fi!!!

  7. You don’t have to actually prove anything to discredit someone, just accuse them. The internet just makes it easier.

    Even if the allegations are proven false the damage is already done.

    No matter what you do about it people believe what they want to believe.

  8. I’m extremely surprised to find Mike Godwin reviewing a Neal Stephenson novel on Reason, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

    Stephenson can sometimes be a bit dense for me. The only two books I’ve read of his are Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age, and it’s often a bit of work to claw your way through the world-building that’s necessary to understand the narrative. What’s worse is that this destroys the re-readability of his books (at least to my mind), since once you understand what’s going on with the world-building, reading the thousands of words required to construct his universe just become tedious.

    1. Mike is O.G.
      Back in the day, when the Internet was small, and most people were just discovering AOL, authors like Bruce Sterling used to come to hacker conferences. We never knew who we’d run into at one event or another, or what completely weird thought-provoking question they’d fling out. So it doesn’t surprise me that he knows Neal Stephenson.

      If you ever want a kick, find the video where they ask William Gibson about his first experience with a microcomputer. He wrote his books on a typewriter and experienced crushing disappointment with certain aspects of PCs when he finally sat in front of one.

    2. I feel like Snow Crash was a good balance. The world building flowed pretty well and the story was quite good, however it is now just a bit dated…

  9. I paused my reading and jumped down the rabbit hole of tracing this idea to its 1990s roots.

    Pics or it didn’t happen.

    1. +1 can i haz cheezburger?

  10. Basically, you’d hire a “libel service” to randomly defame you on the internet, so that whenever anyone says something bad about you on Twitter or Facebook, or in the comments area of some newspaper, you could just say “that’s probably my libel service.”

    Mmmyeah, if there’s one thing the internet is really…really good at, is figuring out this kind of shit and I’m guessing this just wouldn’t work for any extended period of time.

    People on the internet have uncanny ways of figuring out the source of comments and material posted to the web, otherwise reporters wouldn’t keep getting busted for posting positive reviews about their own shit.

    1. Not to slight Stephenson, but the lack of thought and intro-/retrospection is hilarious.

      Old timey truisms like ‘don’t build your house on a foundation of sand’, ‘to thine own self be true’, ‘phenomenal claims require phenomenal evidence’, and ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’? Nah! All those negative remarks are probably just my paid libel service working overtime for the same pay. Yeah, that’s the ticket! More of that!

  11. I certainly know a steady diet of extensive and contradictory BS has been key to developing my own skepticism about any particular pile of it.

  12. Mike, this warmed my heart. I’m glad to hear you got in touch with Eric. I’ve been wondering how he was doing. He always was ahead of his time. (We worked together on something that arguably addressed many of core capabilities now addressed with blockchains, but with different math, in an application on which Eric had patents.)

    I kind of miss those days and the Cypherpunks list. There may be more than one idea from there worthy of dusting off these days.

    This was refreshing, and a pleasant distraction from the zeitgeist, despite the topic. Thank you.

  13. In some ways, this fake news glut has long since convinced me to not trust a word from any government, but especially the US federal government. They have lied so often and about such petty stuff that I don’t credit anything they say as either true or false. it is just words.

    Take the ship attacks in the Gulf of Oman. I was glad to see the Japanese say they wanted more proof before believing that it was the Iranians. I wouldn’t put it past Bolton and his fellow chicken hawks to either do it themselves with Extra Special Forces, or to hire local talent who would probably be glad to do it anyway. I also believe the Iranian government is in the same boat. They must have their own chicken hawks who would love a good war and don’t think the current :civilian” leadership is hawkish enough, and I could easily believe they’d have no qualms about hiring some local talent on the down low.

    It’s all the same thing with celebrities. Who cares which rumors about the UK royals are true, or the Hollywood gossip, or NY politicians? There’s too much of it and it all has too flimsy a background to believe any of it as either true or false.

    1. Hey, if you can’t go through an article and seperate the facts from the spin to construct the most logical/likely picture of what really happened… that’s on you

  14. Heh. That’s exactly the chapter I read last night. So far, what’s disturbing me is the depiction of everything between the coasts as cross-burning crazies. But maybe Stephenson will lighten up on the bulk of America in subsequent chapters. The other thing I’m scratching my head over is how the denizens of “Ameristan” are both 1.) grindingly poor, and 2.) firing zillions of bullets at bridges and such. Uh… ammo is pretty expensive in my world…

    1. The other thing I’m scratching my head over is how the denizens of “Ameristan” are both 1.) grindingly poor, and 2.) firing zillions of bullets at bridges and such. Uh… ammo is pretty expensive in my world…

      Oh Jesus not Stephenson too! If I have to slog through another Sci-Fi novel where the post-apocalyptic future is better than the pre-apocalyptic present I’m going to vomit. Here’s hoping that it’s part of the narrative (departure/initiation/crossing the threshold) and that he avoids other idiotic ‘moralizing’ claptrap like vilifying megacorporations simply for making life a ‘living hell’ by giving everyone exactly what they want, when they want it, at low-low prices.

  15. My default is now that if I read it in the Washington Post, I’m at least skeptical.

    1. You’re still being generous.

      Just stay away from their comment section
      Fucking animals

  16. I must say, I’ve been thinking about the disinformationsphere for a while, that this seems to be old news.

    Much published material has been untrue for a long time. Now you can watch the bot driven version in real-time.

    I notice that, when I watch, I can see people urinating into the river (upstream), like this.

  17. Would something like this work? I have to say this intrigues me. I feel like the internet is really good at figuring these things out, but if everyone is doing it, does that help its effectiveness? I don’t have the technical knowledge.

  18. Is there nothing here at Reason about the Google news? Deploying AI and taking all measures interfere in elections and stop the “Trump situation” from ever happening again. Labeling Prager U and others as “Nazis.”

    1. Of course not.
      Progress uber alles

  19. The MSM have been purveyors of propaganda for decades.

    The internet scares the shit out of them because Americans are ignoring the MSM more and more. This threatens the Socialist movement and must be stopped.

  20. Three billion very dedicated monkeys are already doing this. Turns out an infinite number is only needed if you want something specific.

  21. Long before the Cypherpunks, Bob Dylan made it a point to give disinformation to the media every time he talked to them. He’s still doing it as evidenced by all the fabrications in the latest story about him on Netflix..

    1. Some of that misinformation that worked out well for him: “Bob Dylan is a good folk musician.”

    2. That’s been my plan if ever become famous, going on a decade now.

      All bullshit, all the time

  22. Interesting Theory

    Dose put new meaning to the phrase “There is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

    1. “There is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

      Also, a key point of L. Ron Hubbard’s fiction…and possibly scientology (not sure). I’m afraid none of this is a new concept. This is a tool that people have used to great effect for a very long time.

  23. […] DESTROYING THE INTERNET. On reason.com, Mike Godwin of the R Street Institute, in “What If Widespread Disinformation Is the Solution to Fake News?” interviews Neal Stephenson about his idea, expressed in Fall, that the solution to fake news on the […]

  24. Long before the Cypherpunks, Bob Dylan made it a point to give disinformation to the media every time he talked to them. He’s still doing it as evidenced by all the fabrications in the latest story about him on Netflix…………………………….gocash7.com++
    Don’t copy “++ ” with web address

  25. Long before the Cypherpunks, Bob Dylan made it a point to give disinformation to the media every time he talked to them. He’s still doing it as evidenced by all the fabrications in the latest story about him on Netflix…………………………….gocash7.com++

  26. […] reason.com, 25 czerwca 2019 r. Co jeśli dezinformacja, zniesławienie i technologia deepfake nie są głównym problemem „fałszywych wiadomości” w Internecie lub w innych mediach? Co jeśli faktycznie są częścią rozwiązania problemu? Te pytania pojawiają się w nowej powieści Neala Stephensona „Fall” lub „Dodge in Hell”, a odpowiedzi autora są niezwykle przekonujące. Warto bliżej zapoznać się z opisem Stephensona, w jaki sposób zautomatyzowana dezinformacja rzeczywiście może zaradzić szkodom, jakie fałszywe wiadomości wyrządzają niewinnej osobie. Rozwiązanie może okazać się zaskakujące. Czytaj więcej… […]

  27. Could people not look at the time stamps on a flurry of personal attacks on someone, and conclude that the very first one was likely real, and the others were designed to bury it in a sea of contradictions? Maybe not, real time stamps often aren’t available, and internal dates included in web pages can be backdated. But forum posts, and certainly emails, do generally have reliable time/date stamps.

  28. While I found Stephenson’s description of how the miasma was taken down by spamming it beyond all trust prescient, I found what happens next to be even more telling: The vast majority of users are force to recognize what we already know. You can’t trust what’s on the Internet without vetting it. So everyone acquires “editors” whose job is to filter and vet material for their stream.
    It’s interesting to note that a whole new industry is created by the opportunity thus presented. We may not have a Moab event or the doxxing of Maeve to cement the unreliability of the Internet in everyone’s eyes, but we’ve plenty of indications that people are creating false narratives all the time.

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