In an internet landscape where conversations on election results and global warming are riddled with misleading claims, researchers have found that not even spiders have escaped this web of misinformation.
In a paper published last week in the journal Current Biology, scientists show that articles about spider bites are often false. They analyzed over 5,300 news stories from around the world and found that 43% contained sensational language, while 47% contained factual errors, according to the New York Times' Oliver Whang.
“The vast majority of the spider content out there is about them being scary and hurting people,” Catherine Scott, a spider scientist at McGill University in Canada and one of the paper’s authors, tells Science News' Betsy Mason. But “spiders almost never bite people,” they say.
While there are around 50,000 known spider species, very few are dangerous to humans, per Science News. Instead, many play an important ecological role by preying on household and agricultural pests, wrote Mongabay's Cassie Freund in May, when the paper was still under peer review and released as a pre-print.
To identify sensationalism in the news articles, all published between 2010 and 2020, the researchers looked for the use of words such as “devil,” “killer,” “terror,” “nasty” and “nightmare.”
They also flagged factual errors, including mistakes about spider anatomy and exaggerations of how dangerous a spider is, per the Times. Some stories attributed bites to spiders that don’t live nearby, while others reported symptoms that wouldn’t be caused by spider bites, according to Science News.
“So many stories about spider bites included no evidence whatsoever that there was any spider involved,” Scott tells Science News.
Spider-related misinformation was more common in articles that relied on interviews with pest control and medical professionals instead of spider experts, per Mongabay. “Even medical professionals don’t always have the best information, and they very often misdiagnose bites,” Scott tells the Times.
The analysis also revealed that sensationalized stories would often originate in regional outlets before being amplified by national and international publications and spreading around the globe, per the Times. “A single spider event occurring in a small town in Michigan can be taken up by the global press, which for me was quite amazing,” Stefano Mammola, lead author of the paper and an ecologist with the Italian National Research Council, told Mongabay.
This pattern of misinformation circulation from local to national outlets has parallels to how misinformation about the 2020 presidential election spread, Jevin West, an information scientist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the spider research, tells the Times.
The study can serve as a lesson on how to avoid spreading misinformation, notes Mongabay: Journalists can source from subject matter experts, and readers can be wary of stories with overly emotional language.
Being more mindful of internet sensationalism might have benefits for spiders and other animals, researchers say. If there was less misinformation about spiders, people might less frequently try to kill them with pesticides harmful to humans and other species, Scott tells Science News.
“Spiders are kind of unique in that they seem to be really good at capturing people’s attention,” Lisa Taylor, an arachnologist at the University of Florida who was not involved in the study, tells Science News. “If that attention is paired with real information about how fascinating they are, rather than sensationalistic misinformation, then I think spiders are well-suited to serve as tiny ambassadors for wildlife in general.”