Spiders Caught in a Web of Internet Lies | Writing

It’s no secret that the internet and social media fuel the widespread spread of misinformation in many areas of life. A group of researchers, including Catherine Scott, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University’s Lyman Lab, explored this phenomenon as it applies to spider news. 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.”

Start at the local level

Stefano Mammola said 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. They assembled an impressive team of experts to collect 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 at a time when spider fieldwork had been halted without leaving home to do so.

“We have 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”, explains Stefano Mammola.

“This result is actually very encouraging, because it suggests that there is a solution to this problem,” explains Catherine Scott. 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 collected also showed 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’ management strategy. locally”.

Blow things out of proportion

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 the conservation of spider wildlife.

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. Ultimately, they may even extend the work beyond spiders.


About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked among the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher education with research activities spanning three campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 study programs and over 39,000 students, including over 10,400 graduate students. McGill attracts students from more than 150 countries around the world, with its 12,000 international students representing 30% of the student body. More than half of McGill students report having a first language other than English, with approximately 20% of our students reporting French as their first language.