We live in a world full of spiders. And the fear of spiders. They crawl around our minds as much as they crawl around our tanks, which reduces the number of insects that would bother us. Is that in the corner, spinning his web relentlessly, poisonous? Are you going to attack me? Should I kill him? It could be – no, it can’t – but, it might be – a Black Widow?
Catherine Scott, an arachnologist at McGill University, is familiar with bad rap spiders. When she tells people what she does, she is often shown the “Once upon a time a spider bit me” story. The thing is, she says, if you don’t see a shriveled spider near you, or you don’t see one on your body, the sting mark on your skin is likely caused by something else. There are more than 50,000 known species of spiders in the world, and only a few of them can harm humans.
“Even medical professionals don’t always have the best information, and they often misdiagnose bites,” said Dr. Scott.
It turns out that these fears and misunderstandings of our eight-legged friends are Reflected in the news. Recently, more than 60 researchers from around the world, including Dr. Scott, collected 5,348 spider bite news stories, published online from 2010 through 2020 from 81 countries in 40 languages. They read each story, noting if there were errors in the facts or emotionally charged language. Percentage of articles they rated as exciting: 43 percent. Percentage of articles with errors of fact: 47 percent.
these results, Posted on Monday In the journal Current Biology, he uncovers a vast and interconnected web of disinformation. Bugs, which tend to congregate in thrillers, have been spreading across the globe in days, from India to China to Poland to Argentina to the United States. This often starts at the regional level, where the story is amplified by national and international news outlets. According to disinformation scholars, this is a hallmark of modern disinformation: the amplification of small errors that support a given narrative. It’s found in both spider news and political news.
“Even a very local event, such as a farm exposure in a small village in Australia, can quickly become a news article in newspapers around the world,” said Stefano Mammola, an ecologist at Italy’s National Research Council. led search.
“I think this really speaks to the myths and fascination that people have with spiders, and that comes with fear,” Dr. Scott said. “And the lack of good information around them.”
To gauge the story’s thrill, the group looked for frequent use of emotional words, including “devil,” “murderer,” “bad,” “nightmare,” and “horror.” Then they counted the errors in the story. Did people call spiders insects? (They are spiders.) Were they exaggerating the danger of a particular spider? Did they miss the basic spider anatomy?
Many of the results, while stark, did not shock most scientists, who are used to this kind of spider news. Whether the pervasive fear of spiders came before the arachnid excitement, or vice versa, both undoubtedly feed on each other. “Given certain topics, we would naturally be prone to excitement,” said Dr. Mamula.
However, there were surprising results in the details of the group analysis. Coverage of spiders varied widely by country, so spider news in Mexico was considered almost entirely sensational while spider news in Finland was fully approved. In the United States, spider coverage was mixed – publications with an international or national audience were more inclined to tease spider news than regional ones. There was no clear explanation for these differences.
For example, Australia is home to more dangerous spiders than almost any other country in the world, yet spider news in Australian publications is consistently accurate, rarely charged with emotions. On the other hand, Britain has been the source of the greatest amount of spider misinformation, even though there are very few seriously venomous spider species.
“They have had to close schools, many times, due to reports of this false black widow,” said Dr. Mamula, noting that black widows are hardly found in Britain and are confused with the noble false widow, which has a much less venomous bite. “There have been cases of people burning their homes because of spiders,” he added.
It has been suggested in some cases that this is because the rarity of spiders in an area can make the animal appear more dangerous, while the abundance can make them normal in some sort of group exposure therapy.
Gavin West, an information scientist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the spider study, noted the parallels between the spread of sensational spider news and the circulation of disinformation in the 2020 US election. Many of the most popular articles in 2020 were chosen by national publications, TV shows, and social media reporters Social from regional news sources. “A lot of amplification was done by these big influencers, but they weren’t necessarily creating the content; the content was coming locally.” “And it turns out that this is a really effective strategy.”
Research has shown that Americans often trust local publications more than national ones. Readers may think that many local media outlets exist to inform people of the most relevant events in their communities. But, Dr. West said, when this information gets national attention, factual errors can end up adding to the narrative of misinformation.
This is true of both the imagined electoral fraud and the specter of killer spiders.
The researchers are still working on how to interpret this new data set, and where to go next. How is spider misinformation related to the spread of arachnophobia? Are there ways to prevent bad spider news? As Dr. Scott put it: “Is this how world news and information spreads, and it doesn’t matter what the topic is? Or is there something special about spiders?”
At the moment, there are only hints of answers to these questions, as the web of information and misinformation continues to be woven.
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