Lucid Interview: BBC Disinformation Reporter Marianna Spring
How to overcome the disinformation divide; living with threats from trolls
Hello to everyone! To accompany today’s interview, here is a video I made to clarify how propaganda can guide people to see violence as necessary to “save the nation.” https://youtu.be/yn1DazDgVMQ
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I am pleased to bring you this interview with Marianna Spring, who is the BBC's first dedicated disinformation and social media reporter. She was chosen by Forbes for their 2021 “30 Under 30” list. Her book, Among the Trolls: Notes from the Disinformation Wars will be published by Atlantic Books in 2023. Our conversation, which took place on June 10, 2021, has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): What in your opinion is uniquely dangerous about social media as a carrier of disinformation, as opposed to legacy media such as radio and television?
Marianna Spring (MS): Social media turbocharges the way in which conspiracy theories and myths spread, because it relies on interaction. It relies on people engaging with stuff, sharing it with their friends, asking their friends questions, forwarding it on WhatsApp, or posting it on their Instagram story. And the ease of which they can do that on social media is huge compared to if they were just reading something in a newspaper.
Social media also allows communities to form, as we've seen during the pandemic, but during recent elections some people in those communities have sought to spread conspiracy theories, either because they have fallen victim to disinformation or for personal or political gain. Social media allows people to gather in forums in a way that would have been almost impossible 20, 30 years ago. You'd have to walk down your road and knock on everyone's door and ask them whether they thought the pandemic was a hoax, and the likelihood of finding all the other people that thought the same was probably pretty slim.
RBG: Which sectors of society are most vulnerable to disinformation? The elderly? Or young people, who are online so much?
MS: Age isn't a factor in the way that people often think it is. There is the misconception that older people are more vulnerable to disinformation on social media, because they're less used to using it and perhaps aren't as good at spotting stuff that might be untrue or misleading. Whereas young people use social media a lot. They are hyper exposed to it. And as a consequence, they fall victim to it, particularly conspiracy networks that thrive on Instagram and TikTok. Young people also consume media and information in a totally different way. If they go to Instagram or Twitter to hear about what's going on, they might see stuff from trusted and reliable news outlets and stuff from conspiracy networks or misleading claims and statements all mingled together.
That said, there are certain characteristics and traits shared by people who fall victim to this stuff. First and foremost, distrust of and deep cynicism about structures of authority. People who have not benefited from the system and as a consequence do not trust it. And that makes a lot of sense. They often have very legitimate grievances against those in power or they've experienced racism or have grown up in poverty and they've had a really hard time. And so they're very susceptible to a lot of these conspiracies that exploit and play on that distrust.
RBG: I read your article about Sebastian, whose mother, Kate Shemirani, became a one-woman factory of disinformation about coronavirus and now he can't get through to her. How does one talk to people who have fallen for untruths?
MS: So many people reach out to me, telling me about how their cousin or auntie or best friend or partner has fallen for these conspiracies online, particularly surrounding the pandemic, but also about QAnon and the U.S. election. How you respond can depend on exactly which conspiracy theory the person that you care about has fallen for, and how and why.
Some of the best bits of advice from experts I've interviewed center on expressing empathy, as opposed to being dismissive: trying to really understand why someone has turned to this stuff and what they are actually worried about. Is there a legitimate concern that lies at the heart of this? You might not be able to resolve that concern, but questioning people can often be much more effective than just presenting evidence, because they don't trust the evidence you're giving them. They don't believe the news outlets or the public health experts you are relying on.
RBG: We know that disinformation is a carrier of misogyny and female journalists are getting more and more threats, especially those who, like you, work on topics dear to the far right. Can you talk about the experience of being a young woman reporter and encountering attempts to silence you through intimidation?
MS: It's something I've experienced a lot. I love doing my job and I'm the first specialist disinformation reporter at the BBC. I think there couldn't be a more important time to be investigating the real-world impact of online conspiracy theories and abuse. But you're right. The committed conspiracy activists who spread this stuff seek to discredit and silence me by sending me abuse and spreading disinformation about me, such as claims that I am not a real person but actually some kind of robot.
But the stuff that I find the most difficult are the really threatening messages. I've had a lot of those, a number of which I've escalated within the BBC, but also with the police. I've had a few incidents of people following me to my work and stuff like that. I find it really scary. I think people don't realize how much that affects your day-to-day life when you have to be hyper alert all the time.
And obviously, women who are Black or south Asian or east Asian or lesbian or bisexual experience a whole range of abuse far worse than I do. I am lucky. I am supported by my brilliant teams at the BBC and by also my editor who's covered the far right. I'm working on a big investigation about this issue at the moment, and I find that really empowering. It's important to be able to speak about this issue because otherwise no one really realizes the scale of the problem.
The other thing that always strikes me, which comes back to that point about empathy, is that if I do reach out to someone --not the people sending me horrific death threats, but the people who have sent me unkind remarks-- saying I don't really understand why you've said this, and it's not very nice, they tend to respond very favorably. It reminds me of a report I did a year ago now, which brought together a political activist with her troll who had posted loads of really awful misogynistic and racist stuff. He ended up being incredibly apologetic, they had a really nice conversation and they're still in touch with each other. It always strikes me how disinhibited people become on social media, and they often don't really even realize the impact of what they're doing.
RBG: Has doing this work kind of changed your view of human nature?
MS: It's reaffirmed my belief that most people are good and that people can be misled. People can be radicalized and fall into some really nasty stuff. Then you interview them and you are real human beings having a conversation, talking about something that's really quite average, like what you're having for supper. And then you'll start talking about all of these quite extreme conspiracy theories.
RBG: You're a journalist, with an "always on" life. What do you do to keep perspective and stay serene?
MS: If my editor were here, he would be screaming, "she's never switched off!" But I do try to do things with my friends and family, outside of work, and I find that hugely helpful to stay really grounded. I do find my job rewarding and the interactions that I have with people who tell me about their experiences really stay with me and go on to inspire investigations. And that makes it easy to close my laptop and turn my phone off and feel like I've done something good for the world.