Join the BBC’s Marianna Spring on a trip to Conspiracyland

A protest against Covid-19 vaccines and their supposed 5G links in Melbourne in 2020
A protest against Covid-19 vaccines and their supposed 5G links in Melbourne in 2020 - EFE

On a cold winter day in 2020, the journalist Marianna Spring sets out to join an anti-lockdown rally in Brighton. She’s there to speak to people who view journalists as the “enemy of the people”, and the BBC as “Satan’s advocates”. Many of them hate her personally. For not only is Spring a successful young and female journalist – which in itself makes her a target for online trolls – but to those inhabiting “Conspiracyland”, as Spring calls it, she has one of the most controversial jobs in the world: she is the BBC’s first “disinformation and social-media correspondent”.

Among the Trolls, Spring’s first book, takes the reader on a journey to that land, which, she explains, “might seem a faraway place to some of us”. It investigates both what conspiracy theorists believe and why, and it offers a powerful account of the connections between online and offline harms. The digital world is complex and challenging enough to navigate, but Spring also goes outdoors to mingle with conspiracy theorists at demonstrations, to confront propagandists and to interview victims of disinformation. Not only is her book an excellent piece of investigative journalism, but it may be the first extensive ethnography of trolls.

The personification of “evil” is one of those trolls’ principal tactics. Just as Bill Gates has served the anti-vaccine movement as the “great villain”, and Greta Thunberg has become the lead target of anti-environmentalist hate, Spring has in certain quarters become the face of the demonised “mainstream media”. The hate she experiences from people denouncing, discrediting and abusing her will give even the most thick-skinned reader goosebumps. In the first half of 2023, she tells us, 80 per cent of the 14,488 abusive messages escalated in the BBC’s hate-tracking system were directed at her personally. She had a stalker waiting for her outside the BBC building to harass her every day. It isn’t surprising that the book is dedicated to those whom she loves but cannot name.

Spring distinguishes between two types of trolls: the “true believers”, who show deep ideological involvement, and the “non-believers”, who are driven by a desire to feel intellectual superiority, to achieve fame and power, or to benefit financially. Both types, it seems, have multiplied since the Covid-19 pandemic. “For many of the believers I’ve met,” Spring writes, “the pandemic totally altered their world view and left them vulnerable to a whole range of conspiracy theories.” She mentions a recent study by King’s College London that showed that, for many Britons, the pandemic has been a gateway to darker conspiracy theories.

Among the Trolls is the first book by the young journalist Marianna Spring
Among the Trolls is the first book by the young journalist Marianna Spring - Atlantic/BBC

Spring also confronts those who make money at the expense of the most vulnerable, such as victims of terrorism or war crimes. “Conspiracy theories are essentially an industry,” Spring explains. “Those in charge can gain profit and fame, power and agency”. One of her most remarkable encounters is with Richard D Hall, who claims that the Manchester Arena attack was fabricated. He earns money by selling books and DVDs, imitating the tactics of the American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Can the trend be reversed? Despite all the misanthropy Spring witnesses, she doesn’t lose hope. Among the Trolls provides some examples of individuals who managed to leave behind their radical past: for example, Brent Lee, a Briton who ended up apologising to a survivor of the 7/7 bombings for spreading conspiracy theories about the attack. For all the abuse she receives, you never find Spring demonising or humiliating conspiracy theorists; instead she highlights their inner struggles, fears and desires. She doesn’t tap into the same black-and-white fallacies to which so many of her interviewees are prone. (“You believe all people are good. I believe almost everyone is bad,” an anti-lockdown protester told her at that 2020 Brighton demonstration.)

Spring concludes that real human interaction is one of the most effective remedies against hate, as it rehumanises both the offender and the victim. She writes of the shame and stigma attached to conspiracy theories, and the lack of forgiveness on both sides that makes it hard to escape Conspiracyland. Former conspiracy theorists can also help those caught up in the rabbit holes to climb out again.

Yet, while Among the Trolls is comprehensive on the need to hold influencers and social-media platforms accountable, one dimension it misses is how Western politicians give ammunition to the spread of disinformation. The recent mass protests in Germany against the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland are a good example: several leading political figures have claimed that the pictures of the protests were manipulated or AI-generated.

Among the Trolls is worth your time, whether someone you love is a permanent resident in Conspiracyland or you’ve never heard of the place but feel courageous enough to visit. It would be most rewarding for those who crossed the borders during the pandemic, but now seek to escape. Spring is offering a perspective for conspiracy refugees.


Julia Ebner’s books include Going Mainstream: How Extremists are Taking Over and Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists. Among the Trolls is published by Atlantic at £18.99. To order your copy for £15.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books