By Sam Gordon Webb 

‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ goes a famous playground taunt. Lies are given a name and called out on the school swings, but the same can’t always be said in the real world – far from it. At best, the truth is doubted. At worst, removed. Only last week did the Chinese writer, Fang Fang – widely regarded as a ‘truth-teller’ for exposing the negative consequences of the country’s controversial ‘zero-Covid’ response to the pandemic – tell The Sunday Times about her plight as a ‘virtual prisoner’ in her own home. 

Many lies go unnoticed, and with the aid of the Internet, they can travel too fast to disprove. Worse still, disproving a lie requires more than just hard evidence, partly because of the upsurge in the desire to link mistruths with personal identity. In this context, critiquing a lie becomes a criticism of the individual spreading it, a personal attack for those who identified as anti-vaxers.  

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The BBC’s first Misinformation and Social Media Correspondent, Marianna Spring, is being driven to work when we connect by phone. “I’m ready when you are,” she says. Settled for the ride, we dive headfirst into the murky world of online disinformation.

The reality of disinformation is stark: 253 Republican political candidates believed the 2020 US election was ‘rigged’, despite analysis concluding that being struck by lightning is a more likely scenario than committing in-person voter impersonation fraud. Many still do. Right-wing documentarist Dinesh D’Souza’s new film, ‘2,000 mules’, claims to have the facts to back up the claims, despite widespread debunking and condemnation elsewhere. Though persuading a Trump loyalist otherwise is a pointless endeavor. “That ship has probably already sailed”, she tells me. A more valid effort would be to prevent fake news from spreading to those yet to be fully convinced either way – in her words, the “people in the middle”.

She explains, “often, it’s about asking the simple questions. At a protest, I confronted a man who believed that Bill Gates intended on microchipping humanity under the guise of the Covid-19 vaccine. I asked him who he trusts. He said no one.” She laughs tentatively. “It’s very difficult to come back from that. It’s hard enough changing the minds of those who trust very few people, let alone no one at all”.

And here lies the million-dollar question; if proving the falseness of a lie isn’t enough, whatever next? After the death of 22-year-old Iranian student Mahsa Amini by the country’s morality police, civil unrest followed. A report suggested the region’s hardline politicians voted in favour of the death penalty for 15,000 protestors. A meme quickly spread on Instagram, shared with millions through the official accounts of celebrities and activists. Even the Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau, fell for the fakery. “Misinformation often spreads more rapidly when it confirms biases that we might already have,” she suggests. 

The original article – published by Newsweek – was later amended to reveal a different story: Iran’s Parliament had instead “issued a letter signed by the vast majority of members calling for harsh punishments of protesters.” An “own goal”, according to Marianna.  “Facts are boring. The truth is complex, and misinformation is often not complex, so people hang onto the most emotive narratives. They give people a sense of purpose.” 

So what’s the solution? “As journalists, we have to interrogate the information from all sides. People sharing the news in Iran weren’t sharing it as disinformation, they were sharing it as misinformation. They were upset, outraged and worried. One of my Iranian colleagues put it to me that we don’t need to make up stuff to make it look worse, because it’s already bad enough.”

Is it true that misinformation is a byproduct of societal dysfunction, born from resentment towards higher powers and loneliness in the context of social and economic turmoil? Marianna agrees – we’re all responsible.

“I think you’re spot on. It’s about humanising the truth in the same way they humanise fiction. To make the truth more appealing than a lie.” According to Marianna, “there is certainly not one bad actor who bares responsibility.” The mention of Putin, Trump, and Brexit fails to sway her perspective. “Disinformation comes from a variety of different people. It’s often very difficult to untangle whose responsible for what”. 

But it’s not impossible. Richard D. Hall – described as “Britain’s cruelest troll’ – suggested that those who were killed in Manchester Arena bombing are, in fact, still alive and living abroad. Marianna challenged Hall at a market stall he runs in the podcast series, ‘Disaster Trolls’. Hall’s response was limited. “You’re wrong”, he bit back to Marianna. “How am I wrong?”, she aptly responded. “You just are”.

The rise in unsubstantiated claims in the aftermath of UK terrorist attacks mirror comments made by alt-right US Talk Show Radio Host Alex Jones, who was ordered to pay $1.4 billion after falsely claiming that the parents of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting were “crisis actors” or never actually existed, leading to years of harassment and death threats. According to one father, trolls suggested that he killed and dismembered his son. 

“The rise of conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily connected in a linear way to bad actors, but they play into each other. Conspiracy theories are born from distrustful people living through great uncertainty. Social media turbocharges that and leaves people even more vulnerable”.

Marianna Spring is the BBC’s first dedicated Disinformation and Social Media correspondent.

Young people make easy prey. Pro-Russian TikTok accounts have already spread unverified reports of bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian links to Nazi extremists. 40% of Tiktok users are between the age of 18-24, whilst only 7% are 50 or above. The social media giant is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, a fact that has caused many to doubt the platform’s ability to resist interference from the Chinese Government. The swift removal of Hong Kong protest coverage on the platform was seen as evidence of such interference, and concerns grew after reports in April found that the company had scraped public accounts and duplicated them on Flipagram, a predecessor to TikTok. 

“The way that young people consume information can lead them quite vulnerable to misinformation. I’ve interviewed many young people who have fallen into pandemic conspiracy theories and are now questioning the reality of multiple things, including war. We need to be careful of suggesting that young people aren’t going to believe this stuff, and we need to be equally quick in combatting it.” 

Marianna is uncertain about what role the defence of truth plays in the future. But she seems certain on one thing. “The media have been squeamish in covering this stuff. If it covers, investigates and exposes it, they could be making the problem worse. But by exposing the harm it does, the people who are targeted become better protected.” 

For her, the answer is to change how we confront challenges posed in the tech age.  “It’s very easy to dismiss or tell people they’re wrong in a way that isn’t very helpful. If we can attempt to understand, ask the right questions and listen, then we’re able to better cover why it’s happening and why people believe what they do.” 

“Perfect timing,” Marianna jokingly remarks as the car pulls up at Broadcasting House. The car door slams shut and as we say our goodbyes I wish her good luck. Though luck alone isn’t enough – a quote attributed to Mark Twain states that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes”. Questions remain over who said it – if anyone ever did. We’ll likely never know for certain. The irony remains that the truth of anything is always in question – perhaps, even the truth itself.  

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Last Update: December 20, 2022