Poor Marianna Spring. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, the BBC’s ludicrously titled ‘Disinformation Correspondent‘ has seen abuse targeted at her triple, according to research commissioned for her Panorama programme about Twitter that aired on BBC One last night.
Abuse on Twitter is nothing new for me – I’m a reporter who shares my coverage of disinformation, conspiracies and hate there. But throughout most of last year I noticed it steadily lessening across all of the social media sites. And then in November I realised it had got worse on Twitter again.
It turns out, I was right. A team from the International Center for Journalists and the University of Sheffield have been tracking the hate I receive, and their data revealed the abuse targeted at me on Twitter had more than tripled since Mr. Musk took over, compared with the same period in the year before.
Right, so in this sample of one average ‘disinformation correspondent’, might anything else have influenced the amount of abuse she received on Twitter? Such as her output, perhaps. Let’s see.
Here’s the chart the researchers produced showing Twitter abuse against her.
The researchers report that “while the abuse towards Spring was dramatically reduced by the end of 2021 after Twitter’s improved efforts to curb attacks, a comparable data sample from November 2022-January 2023 shows a tripling of abuse following Musk’s takeover”.
In fact though what we see is that Spring typically experiences no abuse each day. However, a large spike occurred in spring 2021, a small ripple occurred in late 2021, and then a modest spike in late 2022 (though typically still only one or zero tweets each day). Plus there’s a short sharp spike in early 2023.
- March 20th 2021: The Anti-Vax Files – World Service report countering vaccine ‘disinformation’
- November 13th 2021: The Denial Files – World Service episode coinciding with COP26 countering climate ‘disinformation’
- March 2022: Death by Conspiracy? – Radio 4 series blaming a Covid sceptic’s death from Covid on ‘misinformation’
- March-April 2022: War on Truth – Radio 4 series on ‘misinformation’ about Ukraine war
- October 31st 2022: Disaster Trolls – Radio 4 series on those who troll survivors of tragedies, including Alex Jones
So the spring 2021 spike appears to coincide with her Anti-Vax Files programme and the late 2021 ripple possibly with the Denial Files episode. There is notably nothing coinciding with her first two Radio 4 series (perhaps none of the trolls bothered to listen to them?) but the Disaster Trolls series, (including ‘I helped bring down Alex Jones’) seems to coincide with the modest spike in late 2022.
The big spike in January 2023 clearly coincides with Ms. Spring’s Twitter poll asking for an interview with Elon Musk for her Panorama programme, which was viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
I imagine a search of her Twitter history would give other clues as to why she might have been attracting some additional unpleasant attention in the periods shown in the chart (feel free to post any you find in the comments).
I’m not looking to ‘victim blame’ of course or excuse any abusive behaviour. But this research does not seem a very sophisticated way of finding out why Twitter trolls might have been messaging Ms. Spring more often on those occasions, and the jump to blame Musk would seem rather hasty.
As to the rest of the documentary, in her write-up of it Spring admits that “Twitter was a hotbed for trolling long before Mr Musk took over”. But she quotes Lisa Jennings Young, Twitter’s disaffected former Head of Content Design, who has claimed there is “no-one there to work on” safety features like the ‘harmful reply nudge’ since her team was laid off and she quit. So Spring and Young tested it to see if it would still work:
She suggested a tweet that she would have expected to trigger a nudge. “Twitter employees are lazy losers, jump off the Golden Gate bridge and die.” I shared it on a private profile in response to one of her tweets, but to Ms. Jennings Young’s surprise, no nudge was sent. Another tweet with offensive language we shared was picked up – but Lisa says the nudge should have picked up a message wishing death on a user, not just swear words.
It’s clearly still operational, then, even if not doing exactly what Young claims it should be.
Spring also cites the unhappy experience of rape victim Ellie Wilson.
Ellie Wilson, who lives in Glasgow, was raped while at university and began posting about that experience on social media last summer. At the time, she received a supportive response on Twitter.
But when she tweeted about her attacker in January after he was sentenced, she was subject to a wave of hateful messages. She received abusive and misogynistic replies – with some even telling her she deserved to be raped…
Her Twitter following was smaller before the takeover, but when I looked into accounts targeting her with hate this time around, I noticed the trolls’ profiles had become more active since the takeover, suggesting they’d been suspended previously and recently reinstated.
Abuse of a rape victim is of course deplorable. But there are other explanations as to why abuse may have been worse at that point, besides the malign influence of Mr. Musk. Ms. Wilson may have noticed it more. She had more followers, as Spring notes. After the trial the story would presumably have attracted more attention with more details made public. Again, I’m in no way excusing abuse. But if we’re looking at causes of changes in online behaviour we need to look at all the potential factors, not just blame it on Musk.
Spring notes that Musk has “lobbied against” Child Sexual Abuse and networks of bot accounts designed to mislead, but says insiders have told her it “isn’t being tackled as it was before”. She accepts that Twitter is removing hundreds of thousands of accounts each month, but quotes an insider ‘Rory’ saying the problem is they’re not being reported to the police.
It’s pretty weak stuff and seems like yet another hit job on Musk. But should we expect any better from the BBC ‘disinformation correspondent’ whose job is hardly designed to support free speech?
Concerns have been raised about 27 year-old Marianna Spring’s reporting before. Fred Skulthorp in the Critic noted in December her bizarre attempt to connect the German far-Right Heinrich XIII plot with COVID-19 ‘disinformation’. Spring told the News at Ten:
Whilst this group predates the pandemic, its audacious plot and its commitment to it perhaps goes hand in hand with the rise of disinformation about COVID-19 and the violent rhetoric that has accompanied that … The legacy [of the pandemic] and the conspiracy legacy that it leaves remains, and it can embolden these fringe groups in a way that just didn’t happen before and that’s really quite frightening.
The COVID-19 disinformation angle was a curious one in a story that has since emerged to be far more complex. Indeed, in deploying Marianna as the lead correspondent on the story, the BBC appeared to be the only ones especially keen to push it.
The group, unsurprisingly, believed some barmy things about not just the pandemic but pretty much everything else currently on the news agenda. Membership of the Reichsbürger, the dissident movement from which the coup emerged, had also risen by 4,500 to 21,000 since 2017.
The rest of her take was just bizarre — not least her implication that prior to the pandemic, mad people have never believed mad things and acted them out. At best, it was the sort of half-baked journalism hardly befitting the News at Ten. At worst, it was a tabloidy attempt to invoke a wider sense of paranoia about further violence in the wake of the “conspiracy legacy of the pandemic”.
I wasn’t surprised by the whole affair. I’ve followed Marianna Spring’s career at the BBC with acute frustration. I don’t doubt she has some talent as a reporter, but I have increasing concern about the way she has been managed at the corporation over the pandemic — and I am not alone.
The ‘Disinformation Unit’ she pioneered now has a deserved reputation both inside and outside the organisation for being a de facto mouthpiece for the Government during those years. Watching Spring assert on the evening news that the events in Germany were more or less a consequence of “pandemic disinformation” made for uncomfortable viewing. Not least because Marianna and her team’s definition of ‘disinformation’ has in the past appeared to implicate everyone from Peter Hitchens to an NHS doctor. What did she mean by it this time?
In light of the leak that revealed Peter Hitchens had been targeted by the 77th Brigade, perhaps questions should be asked about Spring’s connection with that covert U.K. military propaganda operation.
The media establishment and others opposed to free speech and the right to criticise mainstream narratives are determined that Musk’s Twitter should fail. Spring’s Panorama documentary is just the latest volley in that ongoing war.