Has Spring fallen down the rabbit hole? Royal Television Society

March 7, 2024   6 mins

In 1999, Glenn Hoddle, the then England football manager, told The Times’s Matt Dickinson that he thought people with disabilities had done bad things in a previous life. Hoddle had spoken before about his spiritual beliefs, and it was a matter of public record that he had used a faith healer called Eileen Drewery. “You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains,” he said, clarifying: “Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime.” Hoddle was duly fired and the purification ritual that followed — he was potently vilified as a heartless crank — was a premonition of cancellation culture.

If the same incident replayed today — let’s imagine that the spirit of Glenn has possessed the mind of Gareth — the purification ritual would be just as intense, but its rhetorical architecture would be different. The manager would be called out for disseminating dangerous misinformation. Anti-hate NGOs and think-tanks would conduct rapid-reaction research on how many social media accounts “liked” and shared the manager’s hateful narrative. And Marianna Spring, the BBC’s indefatigable disinformation journalist, would no doubt launch a special investigation to expose all the harm caused, especially to women and minorities with disabilities.

Misinformation, or whatever you want to call it, has always existed. The difference today, as Spring explains in her book, Among the Trolls: My Journey Through Conspiracyland, is that it’s now “turbocharged”, spreading at a rate and volume hitherto unprecedented, thanks to the internet and social media. At the same time, an entire industry of journalists, academics and experts has arisen to hunt down, track and police misinformation. In some ways, this industry is just as creepy and alarming as the conspiracy culture it gorges on, mirroring its familiar pathologies of distortion and hyperbole.

Spring’s book shines a vivid light onto the assumptions and biases of those who toil away in it. This isn’t, of course, the book’s purpose. Spring’s aim, rather, is to journey into conspiracyland and to speak to its inhabitants in order to better understand who they are and how they got there. Her intention is also to show that what goes on in conspiracyland can cause suffering far beyond it. Often, she steps into the centre of her own story, relaying all the voluminous hate that she herself has received as a result of her reporting. She even reaches out to several of her trolls to understand their motives.

“In some ways, this industry is just as creepy and alarming as the conspiracy culture it engorges on”

Spring argues that disinformation (i.e. deliberate lying) doesn’t just cause harm to private citizens and journalists like herself, but threatens the very fabric of democracy. She cites the January 6 storming of the US Capitol as a primary example, even though democracy didn’t in fact die in darkness on that day — and the chance of Trump’s motley crew of mostly unarmed supporters seizing power was almost zero.

One side-effect of hate, Spring observes, is that it intimidates people and makes them fearful to speak out. She’s right, of course: many people, for example, are afraid to criticise or mock Islam because they’re worried that some Muslim believers might murder them for it, as happened to Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 and in Paris in 2015 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where 12 people were coldly executed by brothers SaĂŻd Kouachi and ChĂ©rif Kouachi. Many, too, are afraid to criticise the political claims and activities of Islamists, believing — with some warrant — that to do so will incur the damaging and sometimes dangerous charge of “Islamophobia”. This point holds with even greater vehemence within the Islamic fold, where Muslims have been murdered after hateful accusations of blasphemy and apostasy have been levelled against them.

However, Spring doesn’t discuss these examples, intuiting perhaps that were she to do so it wouldn’t be good for business or her personal safety. (“How I Confronted My Jihadi Troll” isn’t happening anytime soon over at BBC Sounds.) Nor does she show any curiosity about the huge, roiling global conspiracy theory called jihadism that has directly led to the deaths of hundreds of British civilians over the last decade and a half — to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Muslims and other minorities it has killed elsewhere across the globe.

The book goes on to argue that because hate undermines free speech it should be censored and that social media companies should be more vigorously pressured by governments to eradicate hate from their platforms. This is a weak and incoherent argument: even controversial ideas, such as the view that some women make poor football pundits, deserve to be protected from censorship. Of course, there are limits to free speech and there are laws that punish speech which causes direct and serious harms, such as incitement to violence, fraud, perjury and defamation. But the kinds of limits Spring has in mind are far more expansive than this and would permit the prohibition of a vast swathe of speech that is offensive but not dangerous. At no point does she consider that prohibiting such speech would itself cause serious harm to the very democratic values she claims to uphold.

Indeed, Among the Trolls is a somewhat repetitive and predictable book written in the tone of a concerned school mistress whose reprimands are more in sorrow than in anger. The conspiracy theorists Spring meets are more banal than demonic, the tech companies she presses for comment are cold and unresponsive bureaucracies, and the ordinary normies who are harassed by conspiracy theorists are all very lovely and relatable.

These clichĂ©s of thought are dutifully recorded in clichĂ©s of prose. Popular conspiracy theories, we’re informed seven times, “spread like wildfire”, while the people who believe in them have “fallen down the rabbit hole”. One prominent conspiracy theorist, it turns out, “seemed to have gone off the deep end”, while a long-suffering son of another “had reached his wits’ end”.

Spring seems to have fallen down a “rabbit hole” herself. Recent research by academic Sacha Altay and his colleagues shows that, contrary to Spring’s narrative, the internet is not saturated with misinformation, but with memes and entertainment; that falsehoods don’t spread faster than the truth; that people don’t believe everything they see online; that they’re more likely to be uninformed than misinformed; and that the influence of misinformation is exaggerated since it often “preaches to the choir”.

Many of the popular misconceptions identified by Altay inform the overarching narrative of Among the Trolls, and while Spring tries to be non-judgmental toward the conspiracy theorists she meets, especially the “true believers”, her approach is deterministic and a little patronising. Many, she thinks, “are misguided and misled, vulnerable to the worst liars and lies”. Indeed, Spring often suggests that were it not for some wound in their lives they would have never journeyed to conspiracyland.

“Conspiracies can be engaging and fun and thrillingly transgressive.”

What this account fails to capture is not only the agency of those in conspiracyland, but also its intrinsic appeal to those who jump towards it. Conspiracy culture, for those who are part of it, offers a profound spiritual enlargement of the world, imbuing it with hidden meanings, mysteries and secrets. Conspiracies can be engaging and fun and thrillingly transgressive. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Among the Trolls.

Anyone who touts themself as a disinformation journalist will inevitability be accused of purveying disinformation. Spring’s online critics have said the same about her, and when it transpired that she had once told a lie to advance her career — she’d made something up on her CV — many sought to make a great deal of hay out of it. There are no lies in Among the Trolls, as far as I could tell, but there are several instances when Spring trades in what she herself would call misinformation. One of these concerns the racist abuse targeted at England’s black players after the Euro 2021 final against Italy, which England lost on penalties. She writes that “a mural that honoured [Marcus] Rashford in Withington, the suburb of Manchester where he’d grown up, was defaced”, strongly implying that this was motivated by racism. It wasn’t.

But the deeper problem with Among the Trolls relates to its sins of omission. It is here that the inherent political bias of Spring’s wider enterprise reveals itself. “I’m driven by exposing disinformation, hate and polarisation that cause serious harm and often reach a significant number of people,” she writes. Yet only insofar as it has a Right-wing valence, for Spring has little interest in conspiracy theories or misinformation that lean Left. This reflects a broader selectivity bias among disinformation journalists, for whom, as the statistician and writer Nate Silver has observed, the “term ‘misinformation’ nearly always signifies conservative arguments (which may or may not be actual misinfo)”.

There isn’t much self-awareness or self-doubt in Among the Trolls. Spring notes that conspiracy theories thrive because of a distrust of mainstream media. This is surely true, but she doesn’t recognise that the kind of politicised journalism she engages in helps deepen that distrust. On a few occasions when she meets the denizens of conspiracyland, she pushes them to defend their beliefs with evidence and then gently chides them when they cannot. Yet it never seems to occur to her that she, too, has beliefs or that those beliefs, which closely adhere to the official consensus that now underpins all elite institutions, require any kind of defence. Rather, she just assumes that they are true — and that any deviation from them amounts to misinformation.

Despite the best efforts of disinformation journalists, conspiracyland is here to stay: the demand for it is just too great. People want and like conspiracies — and nobody more so than those who make a lucrative and celebrated career out of finding and exposing them.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.