Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Marianna Spring "It's only when we take stuff offline that we seem to be able to have a conversation"

Speaking before her talk at Festival of Debate 2024, the BBC's Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent told Kathryn Schoon about her new book, Among the Trolls: My Journey to Conspiracyland.

Marianna Spring credit Robert Timothy 2024 03 05 141331 wyai
Robert Timothy

As Festival of Debate 2024 drew to a close, I was delighted to sit down with one of the country’s finest new journalists. Between hiking up Kinder Scout and watching Spurs batter Sheffield United, Marianna Spring made her way down to the Workstation to discuss the endeavors and exertions which led her to write her new book, Among the Trolls: My Journey to Conspiracyland.

With a new role carved out for her as the BBC’s Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent, Spring has quickly moved to the forefront of the ever-evolving sphere of digital politics, solidifying her niche through podcasts and Panorama investigations looking at online abuse, fake news and the world of conspiracies.

Marianna has an unusual reputation within the field. Graduating from Oxford only eight years ago, she could never have predicted becoming one of the most hated journalists, with 80% of online abuse towards BBC journalists being targeted at her. Being ‘among the trolls’ has become an ordinary part of her life, but rather than fuel any sense of vengeance, it seems to have only deepened her compassion.

Marianna tells me that it’s a common misconception that Conspiracy Land is “somewhere really far away”. Actually, these people can be any of us, she says, and we can find ourselves there unexpectedly. Even if you’re not a “committed inhabitant,” it’s easy to slip further and further down the rabbit hole. “Once you believe it one time […] then everything becomes a lie [...] For them, this is like a whole new universe that they’ve unlocked.”

Many conspiracy theories stem from legitimate concerns, sometimes with innocent beginnings and good intentions. Marianna makes it clear that most are rooted in fear more than delusion. Often believers are alarmed by the way society is changing and are worried about their position in the world. Conspiracy theories help people to make sense of what’s happening and regain some agency.

London’s ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) demonstrates this grey area between legitimate concern and harmful disinformation. Some business owners and residents are worried about the impact on their local area and the costs of getting a compliant vehicle, while at the same time online discourse has been spreading disinformation and stirring up hate without any evidence. Closer to home, Sheffield’s Clean Air Zone has prompted similar responses. The culture war frenzy around ‘15-minute cities’ was also felt deeply here in South Yorkshire when Tory Doncaster MP Nick Fletcher cried out in parliament that they were an “international socialist plot”.

Marinanna thinks that “no matter what event it is, it will always unfold in the same way.” Any big news story or policy announcement has a ready-made, one-size-fits-all conspiracy, almost always with the same undertones of ‘they are trying to control our lives and limit our freedom’. “It almost doesn’t matter what the conspiracy is now – it’s that same template or playbook applied to every single scenario.”

Last November, London Mayor Sadiq Khan was the victim of disinformation spread by artificial intelligence (AI) when deep-fake audio of him went viral. It sounded like he was calling off Armistice Day parades to make way for a pro-Palestine march. Marianna believes that for the time being, AI images and videos are easy enough to spot because often “they’ve got six fingers or three arms,” but that as the technology behind it advances, things will only get messier. But she also points out that “a lot of really harmful disinformation and conspiracy theories still spread in really simple ways: newspapers, memes, videos - you don’t actually need AI.”

On her journey into Conspiracy Land, Marianna has also uncovered much darker conspiracies, ones that question the integrity of terror attack victims and tragedies of war. One of the most sinister, she explains, was “people falsely suggesting that Palestinian children, and Israeli children killed in the 7th October attacks, were dolls, or they weren’t real.”

Trying to understand why people believe and spread this stuff is exactly what Marianna investigates. We often jump to the conclusion that these people spend too much time online, or must have serious mental health problems. Whilst both can be factors at play, she thinks there’s actually a lot more going on. “I think it's wrong to always dismiss them as people who must have mental health problems because a lot of them don’t […] but I think some of them are feeling anxious, or are feeling perhaps quite low, and that leaves them quite vulnerable to these conspiracy theories.”

Among the trolls cover 2

We turn our attention to some of the bigger structures which have allowed conspiracies to proliferate online. One of the strongest pulls towards conspiracy groups is their sense of community, and the lack thereof in the real world. For people who feel lonely, excluded and powerless in everyday life, standing up for their version of the truth gives them a purpose they’ve been searching for. “What I can say is, looking at the situation there are certain things that make people more vulnerable to this stuff. Some of them are things like being hyper engaged on social media […] but a lot of that comes from an absence of activity or community”.

As a representative of the BBC, Marianna doesn’t delve into the political causes of the current conditions, but she does agree that the “absence of support, absence of community – they do just factually appear to contribute to the proliferation of conspiracy theories.”

“What’s hard is to isolate [conspiracies] entirely from their context[ …] We have this massive, unprecedented pandemic […] and then other external factors: the impact on the economy, then the cost of living crisis etc, and some of those things are to do with political decisions that politicians make, and some of them are to do with external factors outside of our control.”

It could be argued that neoliberalism has made this an inevitability, as it ripped community spirit at the seams and caked over it with individualism. Since the Thatcher-Raegan era, neoliberal logic has polarised and divided. Right to Buy led to the dispersion of working-class communities and council estate solidarity; pit villages deteriorated into a no-man's land of unemployment; and the roll back of the state meant everybody started to become individually-minded.

Austerity policies have been a toxic extension of this into today’s complex society. The erosion of communities is a direct result of the dwindling amount of affordable, accessible and good quality ‘third spaces’ for communities to gather, collaborate and talk. Third spaces – parks, pubs, cafes – are places to let go of work and family-life responsibilities, and help communities build and retain a sense of cohesion.

Marianna thinks that “without a real town square or a religious building, a place where they can go meet with other people and get that purpose from, they turn to social media in that way.

“All of these people are connecting, who just wouldn’t have before, and I think that people wouldn’t be seeking out those connections if they felt like they had them in their day-to-day lives.”

These gatherings occur on internet forums and in social media groups instead. Hate and abuse is allowed to fester and infinite screen time means there’s no reminder of reality. Social media allows us to control our own news stream, giving us “agency that people didn’t feel like they had 20-30 years ago.”

Of course, a huge problem is the lack of accountability and transparency at big media companies like X and Meta. But it’s also due to the lack of availability of those real-life community spaces. Pubs and restaurants are barely affordable anymore, and creative spaces have been drained of funding.

“Actually, it’s only when we take stuff offline that we seem to be able to have a conversation, because people become so dehumanised,” Marianna says.

She reiterates: “I’m an investigative reporter, I’m not a campaigner, so I can’t always come up with the solutions [...] I’ve actually given evidence to politicians at select committees, where I talk through investigations and say, ‘This is what they reveal’. It’s their job to go off and say, ‘This is how we could fix it’ – or not.

“A lot of people benefit from the breakdown of social cohesion [...] Conspiracy theories succeed in undermining this concept of a shared reality.” This is something that “political figures in different stripes can benefit from,” but ultimately it’s social media companies who gain the most.

“Solutions are very expensive for social media companies because they stop [their platforms] being as addictive [...] So there’s quite a lot of winners in Conspiracy Land – but I don't think any of them are us.”

Marianna’s compassionate style of journalism has been able to shine a light on the complexities of Conspiracy Land, showing that empathy can actually get you a long way. She thinks sometimes there’s “a kind of ickiness about empathy,” that it’s seen as “weak” or “not rigorous, investigative journalism”. But she dives head first into the pond of trolls who abuse her online every day, and ultimately they open up to her.

Not much can change until Musk and Meta take – or are made to take – some accountability. Social media giants have consistently rejected Marianna’s requests to talk, so it’s unlikely that the issues of harmful algorithms and hate speech will be properly addressed any time soon. But many of us are getting savvier at spotting the use of AI in pictures or videos and we’re starting to interrogate online sources with more vigour. Slowly but surely, perhaps we are all becoming our own disinformation reporters.

Filed under: 

More News & Views

More News & Views