The quality of information about spiders in the world press is rather poor: errors and sensationalism are commonplace", according to the paper's first author Stefano Mammola (National Research Council, Italy/Verbania Pallanza/University of Helsinki). "Information about spiders in the press circulates through a highly interconnected global network and the spread of misinformation is fuelled by a limited number of key factors, with the sensationalist tone of an article being particularly important.
The contribution from Rennes
Concerned about the poor quality of information conveyed by press articles and reports, the international community of arachnologists has assembled an impressive team of experts to analyse them, representing 41 languages and 81 countries. Among them, Julien Pétillon, lecturer at the Université de Rennes 1 and deputy director of the ECOBIO laboratory (CNRS/Université de Rennes 1 - OSUR), and Axel Hacala, a PhD student from the same laboratory with a passion for scientific mediation, focused on the French press.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its successive confinements, and the impossibility of working in the field for in situ observation, enabled the scientists to free up the time needed for this colossal task of collecting information and synthesising it worldwide.
Implementation in COVID context
Julien Pétillon recalls the conditions under which the study was carried out:
I would say that this work was part of a double "Covid" context: a context of remote work of course, with long weeks spent behind computers reading and analysing press articles, but also of mass dissemination of scientific or medical information without validation or necessary precautions. What this work has highlighted, on a constrained model such as that of spider bites, is the ease, but also the speed with which bad information is disseminated, especially if it has not been subjected to expert advice beforehand.
Indeed, the analyses showed 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 journalists. The data also revealed the importance of local events and media coverage, as 'small town' stories can quickly make international headlines.
Improving local information means improving information for the whole network
On the other hand, this implies that improving the quality of information produced in these local contexts could have a positive effect on the entire information network: a typical example of the "think globally, act locally" strategy.
Thanks to this study, we have been able to observe that the cases covered in the press are in fact few in number, explains Axel Hacala. On the other hand, they are covered by a very large number of media. In fact, all it would take is for a handful of journalists to call on us so that we can offer counter-responses in the public arena, fuelled by passion for this incredible fauna.
Real consequences of misinformation about spiders
Misinformation about spiders has many real-world implications. The study reports that some notable cases have resulted in schools being closed due to alarmist reactions to fake black widow "invasions". In another case, a man set fire to his house by torching (harmless) spider webs in his garden. The tone and quality of the 'news' about spiders shapes our perception and ideas about them, with implications for us, but also for the conservation of the spider fauna.
Axel Hacala confirms: Beyond this sad state of affairs and the stress people put on themselves by inventing monsters, this misinformation can affect biodiversity conservation: we naturally tend to want to protect what we like, but everyone would lose out if we sacrificed the very important part of our ecosystems that spiders represent.
The authors of the study now want to further investigate the link between poor quality information about spiders and 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 the way spiders are portrayed and talked about in different countries and regions of the world. Eventually, they may even extend their work beyond spiders.
It would be interesting to explore the media representation of a wider selection of organisms, says Stefano Mammola. A similar exercise would compare whether levels of misinformation and sensationalism are the same across a broad spectrum of taxa, testing the prediction that negative framing by traditional and social media translates into a lower chance of being prioritised for conservation, and vice versa.
Arachnology in Rennes
Julien Pétillon concludes: We are also proud of this work because it reinforces the visibility of Rennes' arachnology on an international scale, and confirms the small group we are to continue working on these small, often unjustly despised and unloved creatures. We recently contributed to a study showing how global warming in Greenland is changing the reproduction of wolf spiders (see reference below).
Another is in press, very original and even amusing, on the origin of the names given to arthropods on a worldwide scale; this one has required truly fastidious work, as nearly 50,000 species names are deciphered in all the languages of description in order to understand the choices made in assigning these names, which are historically linked above all to morphology and geography, but also to the behaviour of spiders. In recent decades, it has even been observed that these names can be given in tribute to singers, actors or sportsmen!
The global spread of (mis-)information on spiders
Stefano Mammola, Catherine Scott et al.
Current Biology, Volume 32, Issue 16, 22 August 2022, Pages R871-R873 - doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.07.026
Multiple reproductive events in female wolf spiders Pardosa hyperborea and Pardosa furcifera in the Low‑Arctic: one clutch can hide another
Nathan Viel · Cecilie Mielec · Julien Pétillon · Toke T. Høye
Polar Biol 45, 143–148 (2022) - doi: 10.1007/s00300-021-02963-9