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Should we trust everything we read about spiders?

Oct 24th 2022
Should we trust everything we read about spiders?

Photo: Ronny Overhate, Pixabay

It is no secret that the Internet and social media encourage the rampant dissemination of both vast amounts of useful information and misinformation from all spheres of life. An international research team, including Croatian researchers from the Ruđer Bošković Institute (IRB) and the Croatian Biospeleological Society, studied how this phenomenon affects news about spiders. This new study confirmed people should not blindly trust anything they read online about these eight-legged arthropods and always consider the source!

Spiders are animals that many people fear, so they are an ideal model for studying the process of spreading (mis)information. Even more so since the misinformation about spiders has many real-world implications. Some notable cases have led to school closures due to alarmist responses to false widow 'invasions'. In another instance, a man lit his house on fire while blowtorching (harmless) spider webs from his backyard. The tone and quality of 'news' stories about spiders shape our perception and ideas about them, with implications for us and for spiders' wildlife conservation.

The international research team, including Croatian researchers from Croatian Biospelogical society and Martina Pavlek from the Ruđer Bošković Institute (RBI), studied the global spread of (mis-) information on spiders using a high-resolution global database of online newspaper articles on the spider–human interactions, covering stories of spider–human encounters and biting events published from 2010–2020. The team studied 5,348 news items from 81 countries and 40 languages for their analysis.

They found that 47% of articles contained errors and 43% were sensationalist. The research confirmed that the level of sensationalism and misinformation decreases when journalists consult a spider expert for their article rather than a medical doctor or an expert from another field. These results were published in Current Biology.

In addition, the data collected by the scientists pointed to the importance of truthful reporting by the media at the local level, as small-town stories can quickly hit the international news.

In further research, the scientists will analyse how low-quality information about spiders is linked to developing arachnophobic sentiments in the population. They will also examine how cultural, social, and other factors affect differences in how spiders are portrayed to the public and how they influence how they are talked about in different countries and regions.

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