Fake news feeds misinformation: an international team discovered this phenomenon starting with an analysis of newspaper articles about spiders
It is no secret that the Internet and social media are a widespread source of (wrong) information in many areas: a study published on August 22 last in current biology – which was attended by an international team of 65 researchers also from CNR – explored the phenomenon starting with an analysis of newspaper articles related to spiders. judgment? Don’t blindly believe anything you read about these eight-legged arthropods, and always think about the source of the information.
“The quality of information about spiders in the global press is rather poor: Errors and excitement are ubiquitous,” said Stefano Mamula, a Cnr-Irsa researcher in Verbania Pallanza’s office. “News about spiders flows through a widely interconnected global network, the spread of misinformation comes from a limited number of factors, and the article’s sensational tone is one of the most important.”
Mamula says he was inspired by a study previously conducted in the Italian press and general disappointment about the quality of news about spiders. He added that “a lot of articles about spiders in the Italian press are full of errors, fears, or even fake news, or a combination of these factors.”
The researcher, along with several colleagues including Catherine Scott of McGill University, Quebec, and Angela Chuang of the University of Florida, decided to conduct a larger study to understand whether this was a global problem. They assembled a panel of experts to collect the data, from 81 countries and representing 41 languages. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the project offered the possibility to investigate important issues on a global scale at a time when field research was not possible.
Analyzes showed that the level of arousal and disinformation decreased significantly when the journalist interviewed the appropriate “expert” – a spider expert rather than a doctor or other professional figures. The data also showed the importance of media coverage at the local level, as even news from small countries are able to spread quickly in the international media landscape.
“I was particularly surprised that such a local event – like the story of a breeder bitten by a spider in a remote Australian town – published in regional newspapers could quickly become an international phenomenon. This means that improving the quality of information produced in these local nodes could have repercussions for the network. The entire world is sharing information,” Mamula commented.
Misinformation about spiders has several practical implications. In some cases, disturbing reactions to the “invasion” by pseudo-black widows have led to school closures. In another circumstance, a man inadvertently set his house on fire in an attempt to eradicate a harmless spider infestation.
Now, researchers want to understand how poor-quality information about spiders relates to perpetuating feelings of arachnophobia in a population, and to understand how cultural and social differences influence how spiders and other animal creatures are represented and talked about in the world press. Different countries and regions. “It would be interesting to explore the media representation of different groups of organisms, including animals that are venomous but not stigmatized in the same way, such as bees, but also other venomous animals such as snakes,” Mamula says. “Such an exercise will allow us to understand whether the level of misinformation and excitement is the same between different groups, and to test the hypothesis that negative representation through traditional and social media translates into a lower probability of being a target of conservation policies.”
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