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31 January 2024

The journalist vs the trolls

In Marianna Spring’s series Why Do You Hate Me?, the BBC social media correspondent finds fellowship and reconciliation amid the torrent of online abuse.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Marianna Spring is one of the BBC’s most trolled correspondents. She has “learned first-hand that the online world can be a breeding ground for hate” – not that it’s all that hard to spot. Venture just a virtual inch or two down the rabbit holes of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, TikTok and the even darker corners of the internet, and stuff starts to get very weird, very quickly.

Nearly a quarter of Americans believe at least some of the core tenets of QAnon (the worryingly widespread conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is fighting a deep state controlled by a shadowy cabal of cannibalistic paedophiles). Three years ago, that belief prompted 2,000 people to storm the US Capitol. The list of incidents of real-world violence sparked by online hate and misguided hoaxes is growing. So what’s going on?

Following the success of her last project, Marianna in Conspiracyland, the BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent has set out to meet the people “at the heart of these conflicts”. Spring’s online prominence might lead her to be viciously trolled (“Why do you hate me?” isn’t just the title of the show, but a question Spring is genuinely asking, given the vitriol she receives from strangers), but it has an unexpected silver lining: some truly fascinating people have got in touch with her to share their experiences. And this podcast is full of them.

It starts with a 22-year-old Polish woman who claimed to be the missing child Madeleine McCann. Disturbing? Just you wait. A survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting ended up convinced the attack he’d lived through was a government plot. And what would drive someone to create and then spread a deepfake audio of the London mayor, Sadiq Khan?

Spring also wants to talk about reconciliation. The Polish woman apologises to the McCanns; the Las Vegas survivor meets the conspiracy theorist who warped his mind. Sadly, most stories of online hate don’t have happy endings. It’s a fascinating series, but will the people who need the lesson most bother listening? I doubt it. They’re too busy trolling.  

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Why Do You Hate Me?
BBC Radio 4, 31 January, 11am; available on catch-up

[See also: Do you know how to read the news?]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State