You probably heard it from a friend or read it in the news: spiders do bite humans! And their bites may be fatal! You also probably wonder whether that spider you just saw creeping closer to the foot of the bed is exactly the same as the one you saw depicted on the latest online news you read. It really looked the same, Google says it! You are not an expert arachnologist, but you know there is a chance that the creepy candy stripe legged spider you saw was the one shown in the news. And that is enough for you. As spider experts, however, just guessing about what spider is on TV or social media is not enough. On the one hand, “medically important” spiders such as the Mediterranean black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus)and Mediterranean recluse (Loxosceles rufescens) may sometimes be found in houses. On the other hand, fake news may also occur very frequently and that spider in your house may not be something to worry about.
In order to shed some light on the reliability of spider-related news, we examined more than 300 news stories published online in Italian newspapers between 2010 and 2020 and we assessed their accuracy, circulation, sensationalistic content, and spread on social media. We found that both the Mediterranean black widow and the Mediterranean recluse recently gained high popularity in Italy, but the quality of the news was generally poor: 70% of them contained errors, 32% were exaggerated, and, our biggest concern, almost none of them were verified by an expert. A conservative estimate would suggest that less than 10% of the bites reported in the media reports were delivered by the species described or illustrated in the report. Moreover, two out of three casualties associated with a bite of the Mediterranean recluse were actually not due to a spider bite, while the third was impossible to verify.
Our work provides evidence that some journalists are able to exploit arachnophobic sentiments, framing sensationalistic news capable of attracting substantial online attention. Sensationalistic news that dramatize and overstate the frequency of spider “attacks” on humans are also those which most attract social media. Through emotional contagion, this biased representation is spread online, and people keep on thinking that the Spiderman is having them for dinner tonight… but this is not true!