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Review of "Among the Trolls" by Marianna Spring - Exploring the Depths of Online Hostility.

Review of “Among the Trolls” by Marianna Spring – Exploring the Depths of Online Hostility.


Arianna Spring holds the role of being the BBC’s initial correspondent for disinformation and social media. It can be likened to lying on a bed of sharp nails for an extended period of time. She is a determined and persistent investigative journalist who continuously immerses herself in the realm of online hatred and misinformation, aiming to understand it rather than simply mock or condemn it. She has received well-deserved professional accolades for her hard work. Unfortunately, with this also comes being a target for some of the most merciless attacks aimed at any journalist. From January to June 2023, the BBC recorded 14,488 social media posts targeting their staff, with 11,771 being directed at Spring. To withstand such an intense and malicious barrage and maintain one’s sanity is admirable and worthy of 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.

Overall, this is a powerful tour of a dark and dystopian world that most reasonable individuals would choose to ignore. It also emphasizes why such deliberate blindness is incredibly unwise. If we were to examine the dangers of online-fueled conspiracy theories on society, it would be hard to find a better example than Covid-19. As stated by Spring, it served as a “gateway” to more sinister conspiracies, with one-third of surveyed individuals admitting that the pandemic increased their suspicion towards official explanations of terrorist attacks. The impact of misinformation and anti-vaccination campaigns is immeasurable but significant, leading to countless preventable deaths. Misinformation causes harm, and we continue to face strains of diseases like measles that were previously preventable.

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.

One notable aspect of Spring’s approach is her ability to sympathize and attempt to understand the “crippled epistemology” of conspiracy theorists, as derisively labeled by legal scholar Cass Sunstein. This is especially remarkable given the criticism and mistreatment she has faced. However, even though Spring does not explicitly state it, her observations shed light on the reason why liberal democracies are being undermined by conspiracy theories. The individuals she has spoken to often serve as evidence of the difficulties faced in a society that is increasingly influenced by an economic ideology that promotes inequality as a deliberate aspect, rather than an unintentional flaw. The alarming levels of social exclusion present in supposedly “prosperous” democracies serve as a testament to this, and the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories can be seen as a symptom of this issue.

The key point here is that we must recognize that networked technology is not solely responsible for the issues we currently face. While it is a contributing factor, it is not the sole reason for the problems democracies are experiencing. To address these issues, we must honestly acknowledge that our political landscape is likely the primary driver of public discontent. However, this is something that politicians focused on winning the next election are unlikely to admit.

Our typical reactions to the issue – disbelief or disdain – are ineffective. When an individual’s identity is closely linked to their beliefs, it is unlikely that they will be convinced that most vaccines are not harmful. As H.L. Mencken once stated, it is impossible to persuade someone if their financial interests are tied to not understanding a concept. Many conspiracy theories are “self-sealing” and resistant to evidence. However, there is a glimmer of hope in this well-written article – empathy can sometimes be effective. Rather than aggressively imposing facts on someone, why not make an effort to understand how they formed their beliefs? This is precisely what Marianna Spring has done, and it can lead to success. Unfortunately, as they say in Silicon Valley, empathy cannot be easily replicated on a large scale.

Source: theguardian.com