That ‘killer’ spider story you read online? Fake news, most probably

That ‘killer’ spider story you read online? Fake news, most probably

The prevalence of political and scientific misinformation in the media is a hot-button topic these days, and rightfully so — it has serious negative consequences for society. Emerging research shows that not even the animal kingdom is safe from the dangers of misinformation: a new study has quantified the global spread of misinformation about spiders, yielding clues about how to stem the flow of falsehoods.

The research, posted as a pre-print and currently under peer review, is the product of a massive effort by more than 60 scientists around the world led by ecologist Stefano Mammola of the Italian National Research Council. They compiled a database of 5,348 news articles about human-spider encounters from 81 countries and written in 41 languages.

Mammola and his colleagues analyzed each article in the database, recording whether they contained factual errors about spiders and whether they used sensationalistic language and/or images, such as the words “killer,” “terror” and “nightmare,” to describe the encounters. They found the articles were rife with misinformation: nearly half (47%) of the total news articles contained factual errors, and 43% were sensationalistic.

According to Mammola, spiders are a perfect focal organism for examining scientific misinformation in the media because they arouse a lot of emotion — much of it fear — in humans. Media outlets capitalize on these strong emotions to get readers to click on their articles.

Study co-author Catherine Scott, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lyman Entomological Museum at McGill University in Canada, agrees. “People love to hate spiders. They occupy this place in our minds, and I think it has something to do with how different they are from us. They’re almost alien … they have eight legs, they have lots of eyes, they move in an erratic way,” they explained, noting that even some entomologists, scientists who study insects (which have six legs), are afraid of the eight-legged animals.

Lead Image: A wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi). Image by Krzysztof Niewolny via Unsplash. 

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