We live in a world filled with spiders. And fear of spiders. They crawl around our minds as much as they crawl around our closets, reducing the population of insects that would otherwise bug us. Is that one in the corner, unassumingly spinning its web, venomous? Will it attack me? Should I kill it? Could it be — no, it can’t be — but, maybe it is — a black widow?
Catherine Scott, an arachnologist at McGill University, is familiar with the bad rap spiders get. When she tells people what she does, she is often presented with a story about “that one time a spider bit me.” The thing is, she says, if you don’t see a crushed up spider near you, or see one on your body, it’s likely that the bite mark on your skin came from something else. There are more than 50,000 known species of spiders in the world, and only a few can harm humans.
“Even medical professionals don’t always have the best information, and they very often misdiagnose bites,” Dr. Scott said.
It turns out that these fears and misunderstandings of our eight-legged friends are reflected in the news. Recently, more than 60 researchers from around the world, including Dr. Scott, collected 5,348 news stories about spider bites, published online from 2010 through 2020 from 81 countries in 40 languages. They read through each story, noting whether any had factual errors or emotionally fraught language. The percentage of articles they rated sensationalistic: 43 percent. The percentage of articles that had factual errors: 47 percent.
These findings, published on Monday in the journal Current Biology, revealed a vast and interconnected web of misinformation. Errors, which tended to cluster in sensationalized stories, would shoot around the world in days, from India to China to Poland to Argentina to the United States. This would often start on a regional level, where a story would be amplified by national and international news outlets. According to misinformation scientists, this is a defining characteristic of modern misinformation: the magnification of small errors that support a certain narrative. It is there in both spider news and political news.
“Even a very local event, like a farmer that is bitten in a small village in Australia, can quickly become a news article that is published in newspapers around the world,” said Stefano Mammola, an ecologist at the National Research Council of Italy who led the research.
“I think this really speaks to the mythology and fascination that people have with spiders, that comes with fear,” Dr. Scott said. “And the lack of good information around them.”
To measure the sensationalism of a story, the group looked for frequent use of emotional words, including “devil,” “killer,” “nasty,” “nightmare” and “terror.” They then counted the errors in the story. Were people calling spiders insects? (They’re arachnids.) Were they exaggerating the danger of a particular spider? Did they get basic spider anatomy wrong?
Many of the results, while stark, didn’t shock most of the scientists, who had grown accustomed to this kind of spider news. Whether the widespread fear of spiders came before arachnid sensationalism, or vice versa, the two undoubtedly feed off each other. “Given certain topics, we’d naturally be prone to sensationalism,” Dr. Mammola said.
There were surprising findings in the details of the group’s analysis, though. Coverage of spiders differed widely by country, so that spider news in Mexico was deemed almost entirely sensational while spider news in Finland was wholly arachnologist-approved. In the United States, spider coverage was mixed — publications with an international or national audience were more likely to sensationalize spider news than regional ones. There wasn’t a clear explanation for these differences.
For instance, Australia is home to more dangerous spiders than almost every other country in the world, and yet spider news in Australian publications is consistently accurate, rarely charged with emotion. On the other hand, Britain was the source of the greatest amount of spider misinformation, despite having very few dangerously venomous spider species.
“They’ve had to close schools, many times, because of reports of this false black widow,” Dr. Mammola said, noting that black widows are almost never found in Britain and are confused with the noble false widow, which has a much less venomous bite. “There were cases where people were burning down their houses because of spiders,” he added.
Maybe in some cases, he suggested, this is because a scarcity of spiders in an area can make the animal seem more dangerous, while an abundance can normalize them in a kind of communal exposure therapy.
Jevin West, an information scientist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the spider study, noted the parallels between the spread of sensationalized spider news and the circulation of misinformation in the 2020 American election. Many of the most circulated articles in 2020 were picked up by national publications, television shows and social media communicators from regional news sources. “A lot of the amplification was being done by these big influencers, but they weren’t necessarily creating the content; the content was coming on a local level,” he said. “And that turned out to be a really effective strategy.”
Research shows that Americans often have more trust in local publications than in national ones. Many local outlets are there, readers may believe, to inform people about the most relevant events in their communities. But, Dr. West said, when this information gets national attention, factual errors can end up adding to a narrative of misinformation.
This is true for both imagined election fraud and the specter of killer spiders.
The researchers are still working out how to interpret this new data set, and where to go next. How is spider misinformation related to the prevalence of arachnophobia? Are there ways to prevent bad spider news? As Dr. Scott said: “Is this just how global news and information spreads, and it doesn’t matter what the topic is? Or is there something special about spiders?”
For now, there are only hints of answers to these questions, as the web of information and misinformation continues to be spun.
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