Around one in ten people suffer from arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders. Some people have such an extreme aversion to spiders they may even be afraid to enter a basement because an arachnid might be present there. It's no wonder then that some media outlets capitalize on these strong emotions.
This hasn't gone unnoticed by scientists, who have turned unfair coverage of spiders into an opportunity to study the spread of misinformation at large.
In a new study, team of international researchers compiled news focused on spiders published across 81 countries and in 41 languages. What they found wasn't exactly encouraging.
Almost half the articles they parsed contained one or more factual errors and 43% were sensationalistic, using emotionally-charged language and imagery, including words such as "terror", "nightmare", and "killer".
But there was also some excellent coverage of spiders and the outlets that did well had one thing in common: they spoke to experts.
Why you should take fake news seriously
Every year, fake news affects millions of individuals across the globe in one or the other way. In 2019, a survey involving more than 25,000 people in 25 countries revealed that about 86% of the global population has encountered fake news, which they believed to be true for some time.
The situation may have worsened since then. For instance, during the first few months of the COVID-19 outbreak, 800 people died and over 5,000 were admitted to hospitals because they followed misinformation, such as drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products would make them immune to the virus.
Misinformation in the form of news could lead to mass manipulation, social conflicts, mob lynchings, shooting events, riots, anarchy, and most importantly, it slowly and gradually sabotages people’s belief in democracy.
That's not to say that most news is fake -- far from it. A 2020 study of the media ecosystem in the U.S. found that 0.15% of Americans’ daily media diet is comprised of fake news. But even that's enough to cause societal damage and erode public trust in journalism.
According to the international team of authors of the new study, one of the key factors that promote the spread of misinformation is sensationalism. Countries where journalists produce more sensationalistic articles are more likely to serve as important nodes in the global network of misinformation.
Unfortunately, in this digital age, many individuals, news agencies, and organizations readily adopt a strategy that follows views and clicks, without giving a second thought to the factual quality of their content.
Sensationalism and its role in promoting fake news
The Oxford dictionary defines sensationalism as a way of arousing people’s interest by using information that is intended to shock them or by presenting data, events, and facts as worse or more shocking than they really are. It is a sad reality that some news contains false information because it has the potential to grab the attention of the masses.
For instance, in 2019, a hundred news stories on Facebook that were completely fake garnered 150 million views on the platform. Such numbers suggest the grand scale at which fake news can manipulate people’s minds in a country. Other types of fake news contain instances of misinformation shrouded in truths, but they can be just damaging in some instances as completely fabricated news.
Surprisingly, fake or misleading news is not just limited to political matters as many people may think. When the researchers went through the news from around the world on a seemingly benign topic like spiders, they found information that was poorly documented, sensationalized, and full of errors.
When asked about the percentage of misinformation in spider news data collected from 81 countries, corresponding author and ecologist at Italy’s National Research Council, Stefano Mammola told ZME Science that:
“We didn't really assess whether news stories were "fake", so I cannot confidently answer this. What I can say is that the proportion of sensationalistic articles hovered around 43%, at about 47% contained one or more errors. Interestingly, however, there are large differences among countries (e.g., the quality of news was overall excellent in northern Europe and very very poor in other areas of the globe).”
The researchers also highlight the role of social media and the internet in spreading fake news. They believe that digital communication technology amplifies the proliferation of misinformation on a global scale.
What spiders can teach us about fighting fake news in general
Mammola and his team found that although misinformation surrounding spiders was rather rampant, there are only a few key factors driving this mess. Apart from sensationalism, the researchers also highlight the role of the right source or expert. Their analysis revealed that the quality of spider news improved when journalists spoke to experts, such as entomologists and biologists, rather than sources outside the field.
Another factor that could play an important role in preventing the flow of fake news is local journalism. Quite often, a piece of sensational news first reported in a town, village, or city gets picked up by national newspapers or TV stations, and in some cases may even receive international coverage. Therefore, by ensuring quality news at local nodes, we can bring a drastic improvement in the global information network. The researcher advocate for a “think globally, act locally” approach in newsrooms.
But how does one go about it? Answering this question, Mammola said:
“According to our data, the best strategy to improve local quality is for journalists to consult local experts when drafting their news. For example, we observed that when a news article consulted a spider expert, its probability of being sensationalistic and containing errors decreased significantly.”
The researchers will now use the compiled spider news data to further study the reasons underlying the disparity in the quality of news across regions and countries, namely, the main ecological, cultural, and/or social factors that explain the observed patterns.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.