What if widespread disinformation is the solution to fake news?

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.