Marianna Spring, the BBC’s first specialist disinformation and social media reporter, offered the masterclass in journalism.
At just 25, she has reported on conspiracy theories and online abuse for the BBC’s news programmes, Newsnight and Panorama.
“I was one of those slightly weird kids that, aged eight, [watched] BBC World News on holiday because it was the only channel in English,” Spring recalled. At school, university (Oxford, studying French and Russian) and during a year of study abroad, she wrote for local and student papers, and, post-university, worked shifts at the Guardian.
Yet, she was rejected by the BBC’s graduate training scheme. Encouraged by Guardian journalist Alexandra Topping, Spring wrote to people she admired at the corporation. Newsnight anchor Emily Maitlis replied and she was offered some shifts on the programme, giving her a foothold at the BBC.
“It’s really good to find something you care about and you can offer in a way that doesn’t exit at the time. The BBC was getting to grips with social media investigations at that time.”
The student audience watched Spring’s Newsnight report on the return of Woolworths to the high street, fake news that spread quickly from Twitter to gullible national newspapers. The Twitter account had been created by a 17 year-old “who wanted to test how much brand recognition counts and how people who are nostalgic for something will share it online, and he very much proved his case,” she recalled.
Spring covered social media disinformation during the UK 2019 and US 2020 elections – and has suffered online abuse, often on account of her youth, from conspiracy theorists and misogynists. “Social media has been a part of [my] life growing up… investigating and understanding it is intuitive,” she said.
The masterclass in journalism was chaired by Steve Anderson.