The global spread of misinformation on spiders

This post is a summary of a recently-published paper (and related open-access dataset) that was a very fun collaboration led by Stefano Mammola, Angela Chuang, Jagoba Malumbres-Olarte and 61 other arachnologist colleagues* from around the world.

Illustration of a person holding a medaphone and a newspaper with the headline "panic!!" He is standing on top of a map of the world, and a woman with an afro, wearing a white lab coat, and holding a spider biology textbook is correcting a misleading image on the newspaper with a red pen. White figures around the works are reading the news.
Summary illustration of the paper by coauthor Jagoba Malumbres-Olarte.

This study was largely motivated by our collective frustration at the often inaccurate and sensational way that spiders are portrayed in the media. But just how bad is the quality of reporting on spiders, and why is it so pervasive?

To answer these questions and understand how misinformation about spiders flows at the global scale, we amassed a team of experts from all over the world to analyze 10 years of online news stories about human-spider encounters. We first searched Google News (using variations on the search term “spider AND bite”) to find more than 5000 news articles from 81 countries published in 40 languages. We then read each paper to collect data including the date and location of each reported event, whether the story described a human-spider encounter (but not a biting event) or a “bite” or “deadly bite” (spoiler: articles rarely included evidence of an actual spider bite), and checked each news item for errors (e.g., misidentified spiders in photos, incorrect information about spider biology or venom) and sensationalism (somewhat subjective**, but often based on the inclusion of words like “horror”, “terrifying”, and “deadly” ). We also recorded whether the article quoted an expert, and whether they were a medical professional, a spider expert (usually an arachnologist or entomologist), or “other” (e.g., a pest management professional). All of this data, detailed methods, and a summary of what we found broken down by continent is freely available online here.

A large spider clings to a tree above floodwaters. Caption: The massive spider rescued from the Queensland flood seemed too horrifying to be real. Additional text below photo reads: It really does sound like something from a horror movie: a giant spider larger than a man's hand, which makes loud hissing sounds and has powerful long venomous fangs.
An example of sensationalist reporting on a human-spider encounter in Australia.

Overall, the quality of the reporting was poor: 47% of all articles contained one or more errors and 43% were sensationalist. Stories with photos of spiders or alleged bites were more likely to be sensationalized, as were stories that contained errors. Whereas quotes from medical or other experts were unrelated to sensationalism, stories that contained quotes from spider experts were much LESS likely to be sensationalized.

Drivers of sensationalism in media articles about spiders. Odds ratios to the left (right) of the dotted line indicate a decrease (increase) in the likelihood of sensationalism. Figure from Mammola et al. 2022.

One of our plans for the future is to create a global database of arachnological experts to make it easier for journalists to identify and contact arachnologists in their region who are willing to be interviewed and provide factual information about spiders. We are also already working on a paper outlining guidelines for journalists covering spider news stories, which we hope will help to prevent some of the most common errors we saw and improve the overall quality of reporting.

We next conducted an analysis to describe the flow of spider news stories around the world and to get at what may be driving the spread of (mis)information about spiders online. Unsurprisingly, countries with shared languages and with higher proportions of internet users were more likely to be connected in the global network. The number of medically important spider species present (i.e., those capable of harming and potentially killing humans) also increased the connectedness of individual countries within the network. Most notably, we identified sensationalism as a key factor underlying the spread of (mis)information.

Global distribution of news articles about on human-spider encounters showing links between countries (pies; n = 79) with each spider-related event reported by the press (dots, n = 2,644). The size of each pie chart represents the number of news articles published in the country between 2010 and 2020. Figure from Mammola et al. 2022

This study provides insight into what drives the global flow of information about spiders in particular, but can also teach us some more general lessons. Our results make us optimistic because they suggest a way to improve reporting on spiders, and in turn, to shift the quality and spread of online information more broadly. News stories are less sensationalized when they consult appropriate experts, and reducing sensationalism can help decrease spread of misinformation. We found that even local-scale events published by regional news outlets can quickly become broadcast internationally, which means improving news quality at the local scale can have positive effects that travel through the global network.

*Full author list: Stefano Mammola, Jagoba Malumbres-Olarte, Ingi Agnarsson, Valeria Arabesky, Diego Alejandro Barrales-Alcalá, Aimee Lynn Barrion-Dupo, Marco Antonio Benamú, Tharina Bird, Maria Bogolomova, Pedro Cardoso, Maria Chatzaki, Ren-Chung Cheng, Tien-Ai Chu, Naufal Urfi Dhiya’ulhaq, André-Philippe Drapeau Picard, Hisham K. El-Hennawy, Mert Elverici, Caroline S. Fukushima, Zeana Ganem, Efrat Gavish-Regev, Naledi Gonnye, Axel Hacala, Charles Haddad, Thomas Hesselberg, Tammy Ai Tian Ho, Thanakorn Into, Marco Isaia, Dharmaraj Jayaraman, Nanguei Karuaera, Rajashree Khalap, Kiran Khalap, Dongyoung Kim, Tuuli Korhonen, Simona Kralj-Fišer, Heidi Land, Shou-Wang Li, Sarah Loboda, Elizabeth Lowe, Yael Lubin, Marija Miličić, Alejandro Martínez, Zingisile Mbo, Grace Mwende Kioko, Veronica Nanni, Daniel Nwankwo, Yusoff Norma-Rashid, Christina Painting, Aleck Pang, Paolo Pantini, Martina Pavlek, Richard Pearce, Booppa Petcharad, Julien Pétillon, Onjaherizo Christian Raberahona, Joni A. Saarinen, Laura Segura-Hernández, Lenka Sentenská, Gabriele Uhl, Leilani Walker, Charles M. Warui, Konrad Wiśniewski, Alireza Zamani, Angela Chuang, Catherine Scott.

**For the news in English, Spanish, French, and Italian we checked to see how closely scores aligned for different collaborators assessing the same article, and we were pretty consistent.