Why Do You Hate Me? The BBC’s disinformation correspondent descends into the world of online trolls

Podcast review: Why do people churn out bile online, post abusive comments or threaten people they have to real connection with?

What’s with the trolls? Why do so many people appear either oblivious or brazenly indifferent to the impact of their online actions, blithely trafficking in bile and hatred, fomenting harmful theories, posting abusive comments or making violent threats to people they have never met?

That’s the question taken up by Why Do You Hate Me?, a timely new podcast from the BBC. Its host, Marianna Spring, is the BBC’s first disinformation and social-media correspondent, and the podcast dropped its first episode in the same week that the chief executives of some of the biggest social-media corporations were being questioned by US legislators about the harm their platforms are causing.

The first episode explores the case of Julia Wandelt, a young Polish woman behind a number of social-media accounts all titled I Am Madeleine McCann, active in the early part of last year, in which she claimed she might be the missing daughter of Gerry and Kate McCann. Madeleine was kidnapped in 2007 from a holiday apartment in Portugal, in an unsolved case that still fires up the internet regularly. Spring tells us that this is the first time Wandelt has spoken to a journalist about her motives for and regrets about an online presence that made her, in Spring’s words, “a lightning rod for online hate”.

Wandelt is clearly troubled, and it is elucidating to hear her complicated story about being sexually abused as a child, discovering gaps in her memory, and becoming convinced that she was not her parents’ child. When a photograph of a person of interest in the McCann case convinced her she was looking at her own abuser, she made a leap that led her to the police, whom she begged to investigate her claims. When the police wouldn’t listen, she turned to social media to find out if people would listen there.


She ended up with more than a million listeners in the form of Instagram followers, many of whom sent her gifts and positive messages. But she also became a target for vitriol and death threats; one person even put a bounty on her head. (There’s someone I wish Spring could have spoken with.) We hear Wandelt grappling, defensively, with the impact her behaviour may have had on the McCanns. But it’s Dr John Synnott, an Irish psychologist who has studied the McCann case, who makes sense of the polarising behaviour around this still-unsolved case.

In episode two, Spring introduces us to Stuart McCormick, who survived the deadliest mass shooting in US history, in Las Vegas in 2017, but fell down a conspiracist rabbit hole online and became convinced for a time that the entire thing had been elaborately orchestrated by the US government. She tracks down the man behind the online account that ultimately convinced him thus, and puts the two of them together in a cottage in Northern Ireland.

McCormick now understands he was misled, but Joel – that’s the conspiracy theorist’s real name – is not the raving fabulist one might have expected, but an affable sort of chap who says he was only trying to fill in the gaps in a story that many of us struggle to understand. There’s an echo of Wandelt, who says she only ever wanted to fill in the gaps in her own memory and find out the truth.

But why is it that our quest for truth can lead us in so many wrong directions? Spring can’t answer that fully in two short episodes, but I’m keen to keep listening, as episode three promises to investigate an audio deep fake that ignited social unrest in London. What I’m hoping Why Do You Hate Me? will help us understand is whether the online world created the trolls or just gave them a new bridge to live under.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast