Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Marianna Spring Who is the Conspiracyland author coming to Sheffield?

Elim Lau delves into Spring’s work in Conspiracyland exploring online hate and disinformation, ahead of Spring’s appearance at Festival of Debate in May. 

A head shot of a young woman with her hair in a ponytail who's smiling at the camera.

Marianna Spring

Robert Timothy

Marianna Spring is an award-winning journalist and the BBC’s first Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent. In 2021, she started working for the current affairs documentary programme Panorama and was selected by Forbes as one of its ‘30 Under 30’ in media and marketing. This year, she published her debut book, Among the Trolls: My Journey Through Conspiracyland.

Spring is known for her podcasts such as Why Do You Hate Me? and Marianna in Conspiracyland, as well as her reporting on everything from spotting fake news to Kate Middleton body double conspiracies.

However, her success has come at a personal cost, in the form of prolific online hate targeted at her.

“Between January and June 2023, I received 11,771 of the 14,484 abusive messages escalated in the BBC’s own system designed to detect hate,” Spring writes in her book. This has, understandably, caused alarm for Spring. She told The Times, “I have to be aware of my physical safety in a way that I never was before. That is the thing I really don’t like”, but the journalist describes herself as “resilient”.

Despite being bombarded with thousands of hateful comments, she spends her days investigating online hate and disinformation, meeting conspiracy theorists, trolls, and victims to uncover the causes and consequences of the problem.

Conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation are closely linked but have different definitions. Spring explains misinformation as “the spread of misleading claims, crucially, intention isn’t required.” Disinformation, by contrast, refers to the “deliberate dissemination of false information.”

The pandemic and conspiracy theories

During the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories and misinformation flourished, as people tend to believe in them during times of crisis.

Dr Karen Douglas explains that they “tend to prosper in times of crisis as people look for ways to cope with difficult and uncertain circumstances”.

As the pandemic eased, Spring started her investigation into anti-vaccine conspiracy theories because the people who had become embroiled in them did not admit they had lost sight of the truth, which deepened the fault lines.

Once the believers had fallen into the traps of conspiracy theories, their worldview was altered, and it was difficult to turn back.

Starting the investigation, Spring joined a rally in Brighton in 2020, organised on Facebook by grassroots groups opposing restrictions and the vaccine. She talked to a man named Denis, who held a poster with Bill Gates’ face on it. At the time, Gates had become the bogeyman for the Covid-19 conspiracy movement, alleging that he planned to depopulate the world by injecting them with a killer vaccine. Spring quizzed Denis about it and wanted to know what his allegations were based on. However, Denis answered: “You believe all people are good,” and “I believe almost everyone is bad.”

After interviewing Denis, Spring believed that his lack of faith in humanity had accumulated from his personal experience; the pandemic had just ignited his deepest fear, making him prone to conspiracies.

Since conspiracy theories rely heavily on unproven allegations of complicated, sinister plots, for example, Denis genuinely thought Gates was a bad person. It becomes difficult to disprove them.

It’s easy to think of conspiracy theorists as brainwashed and lonely, but Spring suggests that those true believers are not foolish and nasty. Instead, they lack trust in systems and institutions, while those drawn to pseudoscience and conspiracy also tend to believe spirituality rather than fact, making them vulnerable to misinformation. In fact, they care about people and are often hyper-curious; in a way, they are looking for a sense of control over this chaotic world.

Marianna Spring, now 28, continues to delve into the world of disinformation, trolls, and algorithms. Her book, Among the Trolls: My Journey Through Conspiracyland, sheds light on the scale of the problem of conspiracy theories and how their harm has manifested.

Given the abuse she has gone through, her empathic capacity to try to understand how the conspiracy theorists came to believe the things they do is striking and addresses the challenges of our time.

Learn more

Marianna Spring comes to Festival of Debate on Saturday 18 May, 7pm at the Showroom Workstation. Tickets are free but registration is required.

More News & Views

Can Sheffield end new HIV transmissions by 2030?

In anticipation of next week’s Festival of Debate panel, Rei Takver speaks with Sheffield doctor and HIV specialist Dr Claire Dewsnap about what the city still needs to do to tackle the virus.

More News & Views