News stories have caught spiders in a web of misinformation

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Even spiders, it seems, have fallen victim to misinformation.

Media reports about people’s encounters with spiders tend to be full of falsehoods with a distinctly negative spin. An analysis of a decade’s worth of newspaper stories from dozens of countries finds that nearly half of the reports contain errors, arachnologist Catherine Scott and colleagues report August 22 in Current Biology.

“The vast majority of the spider content out there is about them being scary and hurting people,” says Scott, of McGill University in Montreal. In reality, they note, “spiders almost never bite people.”

Of the roughly 50,000 known spider species, vanishingly few are dangerous. Instead, many spiders benefit us by eating insects like mosquitoes that are harmful to people. Even with the rare exceptions like brown recluse and black widow spiders, bites are extremely uncommon, Scott says. Some stories about bites blamed spiders that don’t occur in the area, and others reported symptoms that don’t match symptoms of actual bites. “So many stories about spider bites included no evidence whatsoever that there was any spider involved,” they say.

To conduct the study, Scott and their colleagues analyzed over 5,000 online newspaper stories about humans and spiders from 2010 to 2020 across 81 countries. In addition to errors, the team determined that 43 percent of the stories were sensationalized, often using words like nasty, killer, agony and nightmare. International and national newspapers were more likely to sensationalize spiders than regional outlets. Stories that included a spider expert were less sensationalistic, though there was no such effect from other experts, including doctors.

If people knew the truth about spiders, they could spend less time blaming them for bites and killing them with pesticides that are toxic to many other species, including humans, Scott says. Clearing up the misinformation would be good for spiders, too — especially the one in your house that doesn’t get squashed out of fear. Spiders in general stand to benefit, the researchers conclude, because news helps shape public opinion, which can influence decisions about wildlife conservation.

“Spiders are kind of unique in that they seem to be really good at capturing people’s attention,” says arachnologist Lisa Taylor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the study. “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.” 

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