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Spiders caught in a web of internet lies

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Frederique Mazerolle* examines what fake news about spiders can teach us about the global spread of misinformation.


It’s not a secret that the internet and social media fuel the widespread spread of misinformation in many areas of life.

A collective of researchers, including Catherine Scott, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University’s Lyman Lab, have explored this phenomenon as it applies to spider stories.

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

“The quality of information on spiders in the world press is rather poor – errors and sensationalism are commonplace,” says Stefano Mammola of the National Research Council, Verbania Pallanza, Italy, and the Finnish Museum of Natural History in the University of Helsinki.

“News about spiders in the press circulates through a highly interconnected global network, and the spread of misinformation is driven by a limited number of key factors, with the sensationalist tone of a story being particularly important.”

Mammola says he was inspired to do the study initially based on general disappointment with the quality of spider-related newspaper articles in Italy.

“Many articles about spiders in the Italian press are full of errors, alarmist, even false information, or a combination of these,” he says.

So he and dozens of colleagues wanted to see if this was a global problem.

Their team collected all the data, representing 41 languages ​​and 81 countries.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the project also offered a way to explore globally important questions from home when spider fieldwork was not possible.

Their findings appear in the journal Current biology.

“We’ve found that the level of sensationalism and misinformation decreases when the ‘right’ expert – namely a spider expert rather than a doctor or other professional – is consulted by the journalists who write,” says Mammola.

“This result is actually very encouraging, as it suggests that there is a solution to this problem,” says Catherine Scott, postdoctoral fellow at McGill University’s Lyman Lab.

The authors plan to create a global database of arachnologists willing to speak to journalists and they are working on a set of guidelines for journalists covering stories about spiders.

The data they collected also shows the importance of local events and news coverage, as stories from small towns can quickly make international headlines.

“I was particularly surprised by the fact that even very local events – say the story of a farmer bitten by a spider in a remote village in Australia – published by a regional newspaper can quickly be broadcast widely internationally,” explains Mammola.

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

Misinformation about spiders has many real-world implications.

Some notable cases have led to school closures due to alarmist responses to bogus “widow invasions”, they report.

In another case, a man set his house on fire while blowtorching (harmless) cobwebs from his garden.

The tone and quality of spider ‘news’ shapes people’s perceptions and ideas about them, with implications for them and for spider conservation.

As for next steps, the researchers now want to further explore how poor information about spiders relates to the persistence of arachnophobic feelings in the population.

They also want to better understand how differences in cultural, social and other factors influence differences in how spiders are depicted and talked about in various countries and regions.


* Frederique Mazerolle
Media Relations, McGill University

This article first appeared on mcgill.ca.