Among the Trolls by Marianna Spring review – into the cesspit of online hatred

<span>Protesters at an anti-lockdown march in London, May 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters</span>
Protesters at an anti-lockdown march in London, May 2021.Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Marianna Spring is the BBC’s first disinformation and social media correspondent, a post best described as prolonged recumbence on a bed of very sharp nails. She is also a plucky and dogged investigative reporter who has repeatedly dived into the cesspit of online hatred and misinformation with the aim of trying to understand, rather than merely ridicule or condemn it. For her pains, Spring has already received – and deserved – some professional awards. But she has also been the target of some of the most vicious targeted attacks that any journalist has had to face: of the 14,488 social media posts targeting staff that the BBC logged between January and June 2023, for example, 11,771 related to her. Any journalist who can endure such an onslaught and remain sane deserves respect.

Among the Trolls is her compelling account of what the dark underbelly of contemporary liberal democracies looks like now. Much of it involves conspiracy theories – those who believe them and those who profit from them. But Spring’s gaze widens into an exploration of the collateral damage such theories cause, not only to individual believers and their families but in the way they undermine the deliberative capacity of democracies. She looks at the way technology has created a world in which, as Jonathan Swift famously put it, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” – but one in which even blatant falsehoods endure long past their sell-by date because the internet never forgets. And she recounts, in graphic and depressing detail, the unspeakable things that people do and say online. But she also makes some heroic attempts to contact the trolls behind the slurs, sometimes with really interesting results.

Instead of browbeating a supposedly deluded believer with facts, why not try understanding how they came to believe the things they do?

All in all, this is a compelling guided tour of a dystopian underworld that most sensible people would prefer to ignore. It also suggests why such wilful blindness would be terminally unwise. If we needed a case study in the dangers that online-fuelled conspiracy theories can pose to society, then Covid-19 would be hard to beat. It was, Spring writes, “a gateway to more sinister conspiracies”: a third of respondents to a research survey said that the pandemic had made them more suspicious of official explanations of terrorist attacks. The number of avoidable deaths resulting from misinformation and anti-vaccination campaigning, for example, is uncountable, but it’s significant. Misinformation costs lives. And even today we are having to cope with outbreaks of diseases such as measles that were until recently avoidable.

The temptation du jour is to conclude that many of the ills of the modern world can be ascribed to social media. HL Mencken long ago nailed that misconception. “For every complex problem,” he wrote, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Close reading of Spring’s conversations with believers in conspiracy theories and trolls gives a hint of what underpins their behaviour and convictions. Many of them felt threatened or insecure because of what had happened to them in life. They felt undervalued or unappreciated by their peers, patronised by those in power and baffled by the inexplicable things that were happening in wider society.

What’s striking about Spring’s approach is her empathic capacity to try to understand what the legal scholar Cass Sunstein disdainfully called the “crippled epistemology” of conspiracy theorists. Given the abuse to which she has been subjected, this is remarkable. But, although Spring doesn’t spell this out, it also provides a clue to why liberal democracies are being undermined by conspiracy theories. The people she has been talking to are often living proof of what it’s like trying to get by in a society increasingly shaped by an economic ideology in which inequality is a feature, not a bug: it’s what neoliberalism is designed to do. The terrifying levels of social exclusion in modern “prosperous” democracies bear testimony to that. And the widespread popularity of conspiracy theories is a symptom of it.

Related: BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring: ‘My approach to fear is to try to make sense of it’

What this means is that we need to acknowledge that networked technology is not the cause of our current ills. It’s a necessary factor but not a sufficient explanation for the mess democracies are in. And tackling it requires a frank admission that our politics are probably the main driving force of public disaffection. Which is the last thing that politicians fixated on the next election are likely to concede.

So our current reflex reactions to the problem – incredulity or disdain – won’t work. If people’s sense of identity is tied up with their beliefs, then they’re unlikely to be persuaded that most vaccines are not dangerous. Just as (Mencken again) it’s impossible to get someone to understand a proposition if his or her wealth depends on not understanding it. Many conspiracy theories are “self-sealing” – ie, impervious to facts. If there is a single cheery thought to emerge from this fine piece of journalism it is that, sometimes, empathy works. Instead of browbeating a supposedly deluded believer with facts, why not try understanding how they came to believe the things they do? Which is what Marianna Spring has tried to do. And it needn’t be futile. The pity is that, as they say in Silicon Valley, empathy doesn’t scale.

• Among the Trolls: My Journey Through Conspiracyland by Marianna Spring is published by Atlantic Books (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply