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Artillery Row

Spring fever

Disinformation journalism circles the drain

This is a blatant case of a pot calling the kettle black but Marianna Spring needs to get off the Internet. 

The BBC’s “Disinformation & Social Media Correspondent” has been investigating trolls, bots, conspiracy theorists et cetera for several years in a self-centred style that one could summarise as being like gonzo journalism without the fun. Even when The New European, of all places, reported that Ms Spring’s CV had contained a bit of her own disinformation, it did nothing to slow her troll-baiting rise to the stop.

In his excellent review of Spring’s book Among the Trolls, Fred Skulthorp summarised the problem with her approach:

There’s an old Chinese proverb that comes to mind: when a wise man points at the moon, an idiot looks at his finger. In the last decade, it increasingly seems that the finger we are staring at as we try to come to terms with the ongoing upheaval across the West is social media. 

There are problems with liars and lunatics online, of course. It would be foolish to deny it. But to a great extent the weirdness on social media reflects the weirdness of the real world. A recent study found:

Public intellectuals and journalists frequently make sweeping claims about the effects of exposure to false content online that are inconsistent with much of the current empirical evidence.

Undaunted — and, to be fair, understandably so given her job title — Spring has been attempting to see the election through a “disinformation and social media” framework. “Young voters in key election battlegrounds are being recommended fake AI-generated videos featuring party leaders, misinformation, and clips littered with abusive comments,” she reported early in June. Some of her examples were a bit embarrassing:

Satirical, fake AI-generated clips show Rishi Sunak declaring, “Please don’t vote us out, we would be proper gutted!” and making unevidenced claims about how the Conservative leader is spending public money – including how he will send his “mates loads of dosh”.

Okay? If, as she acknowledged, such clips were parodies — and some were clearly labelled as parodies — what were they doing in an article about “misinformation”? “The comments suggest some users are confused about which claims are factual,” Spring wrote. I’m sure some people thought Brass Eye was a documentary. Some people think the Earth is flat. Some people are dim. Who cares?

The rise of Reform has galvanized Ms Spring. “Bot or not,” her new article is titled, “Are fake accounts swaying voters towards Reform UK?” I’ll ruin the mystery: Spring finds no evidence that fake accounts are swaying voters towards Reform UK. 

“Bots” are one of the most overhyped phenomena in politics. They do exist, of course — and in large numbers — and they do exert some influence on our discourse, but a 2021 study found that “bots are less central than verified accounts during contentious political events”. Indeed, a major source of misinformation is ageing centre leftists accusing people of being “bots” just for disagreeing with them.

Spring spends much of her article investigating an account with — and I’m not making this up — fewer than two hundred followers. “GenZbloomer”, who has since been suspended, was clearly a parody account or the product of mental illness, given that his one blogpost tells clearly made-up stories about “confronting a group of terror supporting immigrants in order to safeguard two attractive blond girls” and converting young voters who had “been misled to think belly dancing was British”. A sad — or funny — case, but why on Earth did Spring spend her time and resources on him?

Spring finds:

… more than 50 profiles that had the hallmarks of inauthentic accounts, posting in support of Reform UK across the different social media sites – although they could still have been genuine.

Wow! A whole fifty? And did they have fewer than two hundred followers as well or did they actually count for something? No doubt some of them were real human beings. If you’re an anonymous social media user, and you want to stay anonymous, it would be very silly to “prove [you are] authentic” to a BBC journalist.

Spring could have written an intriguing article about Anglo Twitter — the loose network of right-of-Tory anons and facelords who post and meme about the failings of the Conservatives and the need for a right-wing alternative. Reform seem to have taken inspiration from this social media sphere, with their slick humour-heavy media (their one-note letdown of a Party Political Broadcast aside). I’m not going to name any accounts, because I actually don’t want to encourage left-wing journalists to investigate them, but many of them have thousands of followers, while very obviously being real British humans, and it’s symptomatic of ignorance, laziness or both that BBC journalists are squandering their time investigating oddballs with less reach than your gran on her Facebook account.

I’m not at all opposed to journalism about disinformation (especially as the tools of large-scale lying become more sophisticated). But disinformation journalism is hopelessly mired in self-importance and boomer bait. It is, ironically, actively misleading people about the nature of modern political discourse. 

Please, Ms Spring — it’s summertime. Stop talking to “GenZbloomer” and go outside.

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