Spiders: Question What You Read…

It’s no secret that the internet and social media fuel a rampant spread of (mis)information in many areas of life. Now, researchers have explored this phenomenon as it applies to news about spiders.

The verdict? Don’t blindly trust anything you read online about these eight-legged arthropods – and always consider the source.

Dr Thomas Hesselberg, Director of Studies in Biological Sciences, took part in the study, which is published in the August 2022 issue of Current Biology. He joined a worldwide group of academic researchers who surveyed news coverage of spiders in the global press.

‘The quality of spider information in the global press is rather poor,’ said lead author Dr Stefano Mammola of the University of Helsinki’s Finnish Museum of Natural History. ‘Errors and sensationalism are rampant. Spider-related information in the press flows through a highly interconnected global network and the spread of misinformation is driven by a limited number of key factors, the sensationalistic tone of an article being particularly important.’

Dr Mammola was inspired to undertake the study initially based on general disappointment about the quality of spider-related newspaper articles in Italy. ‘Many articles on spiders in the Italian press are full of errors, or alarmistic, or even fake news, or a combination thereof,’ he said.

Researchers collected data representing 41 languages and 81 countries. Dr Hesselberg’s assignment was to cover news from Denmark and Norway.

‘There were relatively few mentions of spiders in Danish and Norwegian newspapers,’ said Dr Hesselberg, ‘and most of these were not sensational in nature. Of the few that were, the vast majority were translations or rewriting of foreign news on spider bites in other countries.’

Contrast this with the UK news (covered by another UK-based researcher on the team) where a high proportion of news contained sensationalism, including stories about the false widow spider in Britain.

‘Inaccurate reporting of this mostly harmless spider – a bite is less serious than a wasp sting – has led to school closures,’ said Dr Hesselberg.

Know your sources

The research team’s analyses found that the level of sensationalism and misinformation drops when the ‘right’ expert – an expert on spiders rather than a medical doctor or other professional – is consulted by journalists.

The data amassed by the research team also showed the importance of events and news coverage on a local scale, as small-town stories can quickly hit the international news.

One example highlighted how regional coverage of a farmer bitten by a spider in a remote village in Australia quickly become broadcast internationally.

‘This implies that improving the quality of the information produced in these local nodes could have a positive effect reverberating across the information network – a typical example of a ‘think globally, act locally’ management strategy,’ the report states.

Dr Hesselberg says, ‘The study is a good example of the power of using large and diverse research teams. The study includes several authors with affiliations in the global south – Indonesia, the Philippines, Botswana, Thailand, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria. It was also a very good idea to implement this study in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, as some experts had more available free time, while their primary research data collection and analysis was halted.’ 

The persistence of arachnophobia

Is fear of spiders innate or learned?

‘While there probably is some inbuilt fear of spiders, or unease due to how they move with their eight legs, the main reason for the persistence of arachnophobia is likely to be learned, i.e., through the influence of society – media and parents, for instance,’ said Dr Hesselberg. ‘Small children are generally more fascinated than scared of spiders. I believe sensationalism/fake news play a large part in perpetuating the irrational fears of spiders.‘

Misinformation about spiders has many real-world implications. In one instance, a man lit his house on fire while blowtorching harmless spiders webs from his backyard.

Importantly, the tone and quality of fake news stories about spiders has implications for spiders’ wildlife conservation. The research team now want to explore how poor-quality information on spiders relates to the persistence of arachnophobic sentiments in the population.

They also want to understand how differences in cultural, social, and other factors influence the way spiders are represented and talked about across various countries and regions.

Ultimately, they may even expand the work beyond spiders.

‘It would be nice to explore media representation of a broader selection of organisms, including animals that are venomous but not stigmatized in the same way, like bees – and also other feared venomous animals, such as snakes,’ Dr Mammola said. ‘A similar exercise would allow comparing whether the levels of misinformation and sensationalism are the same across a broad spectrum of taxa, testing the prediction if a negative framing by the traditional and social media translates to a lower chance of being prioritized for conservation, and vice versa.’

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Image credit: Dr Jagoba Malumbres-Olarte, University of the Azores (Instagram: jmalumbresolarte; Twitter: jago_MO).

Published 26 August 2022