Unraveling the misinformation web

24 August 2022

Fake news about spiders can teach us a lot about the global spread of (mis)information

An international study into the web of online information about spiders shows how the internet can fuel the dangerous spread of misinformation, says University of Waikato behavioural ecologist Dr Chrissie Painting.

Dr Painting, a Senior Lecturer at Te Aka Mātuatua - School of Science, was one of a team of international experts who analysed more than 5000 online news stories from 81 countries about human-spider encounters from across the world. Together they assessed how yarns about arachnids could spin out of control into sometimes rampant sensationalism.

“People have such a strong emotional reaction to spiders it makes them a good model for looking at the spread of information across the internet,” says Dr Painting.

The study, led by Dr Stefano Mammola of the National Research Council, Verbania Pallanza, Italy, showed how spider-related information in the media flowed through a highly interconnected global network.

The study, published in Current Biology, covered 41 languages, New Zealand’s contribution including 122 spider encounter stories, many on the much-feared white-tailed spider and some on the rare native Katipo Spider.

“The web provides a network to keep us all connected, but as we’ve seen in times of Covid it can also be used as a platform to share more serious disinformation and lead to threats of violence.”

The study used network analysis to trace how spider stories from small media outlets could very quickly get picked up by national and international media and spread around the world.

Dr Painting says they found almost half of the spider stories analysed had errors and about 40 percent were sensationalistic using words like horror, disgusting, or terrifying or referring to flesh-eating wounds.

“The number of errors and sensational language used was alarming,” says Dr Painting.

Researchers found if a spider expert was interviewed for the story the level of error was much lower, but even in cases where medical experts or pest control experts were interviewed the level of misinformation could still be high.

“They may be experts, but they are not experts in arachnids. It really highlights the importance of journalists getting the correct information and speaking to the right people.”

Dr Painting says how spiders are presented shapes our perception of them and has implications for spider wildlife conservation.

“We found several stories reporting white-tailed spider bites in New Zealand, but there was rarely evidence that these bites were indeed from these highly misunderstood species,” says Dr Painting.

They also found stories about Katipo spider bites in the New Zealand sample.

“These are incredibly rare. Katipo spiders in New Zealand are on our highly threatened list, we need to be protecting them because we are slowly losing the dune ecosystems where they live,” says Dr Painting.

Alongside participating in the international study, Dr Painting is currently researching the behavioural ecology of New Zealand water and nursery-web spiders (Dolomedes), one species of which is only found on remote predator-free islands in the Chatham archipelago.

“Spiders are an incredibly important component of our ecosystems as key predators of other invertebrates. We need them around and how we shape people’s perceptions of them is also connected to their conservation,” says Dr Painting.

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