Photo by Peter Dazeley
Artillery Row

Abolish the disinformation reporter

Disinformation reporting is becoming activist journalism

On the eve of the French Revolution, a centuries old rumour — that members of the aristocracy were kidnapping and murdering children in their chateaus — once again spread through the streets of Paris. 

Of course, it had its foundation in some truth (see the works of De Sade if you can stomach it). Still, one can’t help but imagine how different history might have been had a team of BBC Disinformation Reporters been stationed around the Bastille in 1789. Perhaps their debunking of such rumours, or a robust fact checking of the actual price of bread, might have quelled the violence and saved Louis XVI’s head. 

A few weeks ago, Brazil had its own revolution cosplay. Alas, the storming of the Bastille this was not. The scenes were indeed embarrassing, another one of those “attacks on democracy” we have these days. Like the Reichsburger coup (remember that?), it fell into the lap of the BBC’s Disinformation reporter Marianna Spring. Had you tuned into the Today programme that morning you would have found Spring telling you, once again, that “disinformation” spread on social media was largely to blame. 

The rest of her take, like some human-chat GPT hybrid, I managed to generate just by glimpsing the news headline. Predictably, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter came under fire, accompanied by the shocking scoop that a few members of the Twitter Team in Brazil had been asked to clear their desks. Gone were the gatekeepers of truth. Let cry the dogs of disinformation. (Disappointingly, one of Spring’s followers spoiled the fun by pointing out that it was Whatsapp, not Twitter that was more likely to have played a role — something later confirmed by sources from the country.)

Rumours, conspiracy and disinformation are of course nothing new in history. All the past’s discontents have at their vanguard an element of fantasy, even downright lies — from the Bastille to Brazil. The scenes in Brazil are rooted in a long term populist upheaval, which, you know, is only one of the biggest stories of our time. It preoccupies think tanks, analysts and intellectuals from Washington to Westminster: the rise of populism, the mistrust in elite institutions, the breakdown of the globalised liberal consensus that emerged out of the cold war with its eyes dead set on the end of history. 

What exactly is a disinformation reporter?

Who cares about any of that. Don’t you get it? This is the age of Musk, Brexit, Trump, the spreading of harmful disinformation online. These people are crazy, insane, and they’re out there now, behind their computer screens, plotting the downfall of society. 

At least we have Marianna Spring — always at hand to reassuringly remind us that all there is to blame is “disinformation and social media. The target is so clear cut that it makes the beefed up Online Safety Bill, even the “content moderation” of the old Twitter regime, seem like the logical conclusion to tackling the world of online hate and falsehoods. Marianna has even tantalisingly offered to put Musk in his place by challenging him to an interview via a Twitter poll. 

Moderate, block, speak truth to power. This is how to regain the trust of the public.

Except it’s not. In fact, it’s making the endemic decline of trust in news media worse. At the apex of this is the disinformation reporter itself — a role invented this decade to help us navigate the increasingly confusing online space of news media. What exactly is a disinformation reporter? Well, they, erm, tell you the truth. They separate fact from fiction. They read up on things and try to explain what’s really going on. 

Isn’t that what a journalist is supposed to do anyway? No, you see, they also report the bad stuff. They fact check it, debunk it, help you jump over to the right side of the biblical sized fissure between truth and lies that has appeared in society ever since information went online.

Sounds impressive. How does this all work? Well, it’s a curious process I have inadvertently witnessed myself. In a leaked recorded conversation sent to me between one of Spring’s disinformation colleagues and a member of the public, I listened to an excruciatingly awkward ten minute call in which a BBC journalist questioned a member of the public as to why they were posting certain information to their small following on Twitter. Fine. Perhaps what he posted was rubbish. Why on earth is that a story? Why is a BBC news journalist phoning up a member of the public to talk about what they’ve been posting on social media? Incredibly, the subject of contention in this phone call, Dr Aseem Malhotra, was later invited onto the BBC and allowed to “spread” this precise information unchallenged. The, erm, job that disinformation reporter should have been doing in the first place. 

What a complete mess. As I’ve previously written, there are those within the BBC who also feel despair at the way the unit conducts itself. Shortly after I wrote about this discomfort felt towards the “disinformation unit” during the pandemic within the beeb, a disgruntled former editor of “BBC Trending reached out. He took issue with a line (given to me by a senior BBC News journalist) that the unit had become a de facto mouthpiece for the government during the pandemic. Did I have any actual evidence the unit had foregone their competence as reporters and unduly promoted government policy?

Their work starts to resemble a curious conspiracy theory

As it turns out, I did. There was a notable instance where the unit had claimed to havefact checked an NHS doctor who had challenged the proposed vaccine mandate for healthcare staff. As I pointed out in my response, there was nothing wrong with what the reporter wrote. She, like the doctor in question, was drawing on a set of evidence and trying to reach a conclusion regarding government policy. The problem came with the implication by both the title of the article and the correspondent, that the doctor had been debunked, fact checked and consigned to the dustbin of nonsense. Instead, the doctor’s initial argument regarding the long term efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine versus natural immunity, in relation to the proposed mandate, has since gained significant traction with the medical establishment. Funnily enough, the editor had nothing to say in response to this. 

“There is no bright line category called misinformation,” wrote Scott Alexander in a recent essay. Instead, he writes, it is an absence of context, or the prioritising of one piece of information over another which at best misleads rather than outright lies. This is brought into sharp focus by the above story. In this case, both sides could be guilty of misleading, particularly at a time when a large amount of different studies were emerging all over the world regarding the efficacy of the vaccine and natural immunity. In light of this, the arrogance to slap “fact checked” on the headline of an article was an extraordinary feat.

Not all fact checkers mislead or get things wrong. When they do, and inevitably they will, it is quite rightly latched onto. Such expectation only sets up reporters for failure. Even worse, as with Spring, their role becomes a vehicle that blesses them with a veneer of respectability to push through their own lazy worldview. Nuance, emerging context, the inevitable progression of scientific consensus aren’t of much interest to a disinformation reporter. All this only serves to undermine the epistemological certainty enshrined into their role. As such they find themselves forced to focus on the extremes, the nutters and the lunatics, which only serve to vindicate their proclamations of truth. 

At this point their work starts to resemble a curious conspiracy theory in itself. Defined above all by its narrow mindedness, this attitude involves a refusal to engage with the fact that science, truth and the course of history are susceptible to the ever fluctuating circumstances of context and new information. Fine if you want a career as an activist journalist on Twitter. Hopeless if you’re a member of the public who wants your national broadcaster to go beyond the pitfalls of telling you time and time again that “disinformation is at fault.

Lies, rumours and falsehoods have always been a feature of history. Social media has accelerated their spread, but it is worth reminding those eager to put the genie back in its bottle that such erroneous information has so far implicated everyone from the Twitter troll to Capitol Hill. Evidently we are all in this together. 

For the disinformation reporter, this is besides the point. Their work now has a moral component. The pursuit of truth in journalism appears to have been replaced by the drive to accuse the other side of spreading the more egregious lies. The other side is responsible for the biggest erosion of faith in democracy, science, truth and even morality in our age of discord. For the viewer and reader, there’s now little option but to choose your side. You can only double down on your worldview, your moral assumption. On we go, further and further into the era of post-journalism, where outlets survive not on the accuracy and honesty of their reporting but on the appeal of their narrative. The BBC, and we the public, deserve better than that. 

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