Misinformation can occur with everything… just ask spiders

Despite their fur-like hair, cute waggle dances and the fact they make great pets, not everyone is super keen on our eight legged arachnids, the spiders.

But even they don’t deserve to have rumours, lies and falsehoods spread about them on the internet – at least according to a group of spider scientists who have just written a paper about the ‘fake news’ of spiders. They found that 47% of articles about spiders contained errors, while 43% was scored as ‘sensationalistic’ by spider experts.

But this spider slander can provide us a way to look into misinformation more broadly and how we combat it.

Just a note, “misinformation” is defined as incorrect or misleading information – which can sometimes be accidental – while “disinformation” is incorrect or misleading content that’s deliberately deceptive. 

“I think misinformation can be about anything,” says Dr Kieran McGuinness a media researcher at the University of Canberra.

“Often the intention of misinformation or disinformation is not to persuade to a particular point of view. Sometimes the intention of disinformation is simply to create disorientation.”

Of course, that’s not to say that being a bit mean to spiders is the same as an active disinformation campaign for climate change or politics, but every little bit helps, or, more accurately, hurts.

“We are exposed to so much information – estimates of around 10,000 ads per day, and 10,000 social media messages a day,” says McGuinness.

“No individual should be expected to fact check every single claim. I think it’d be exhausting and that’s sort of borne out by our results.”

Read more: Less than half of Australian adults know how to identify misinformation online

McGuinness and his team used focus groups and surveys to look at how misinformation exists in Australia. They found two thirds of Australians are concerned about misinformation, but mostly saw it as an issue that affects others – not themselves.

For example, a millennial might think of it as a problem for their older parents, while a teacher might think it an issue for their students. But unfortunately, misinformation is not just an issue for the young or old – it affects everyone.

Let’s go back to spiders. Imagine a small town in Australia. Maybe a ‘plague of spiders completely covers’ the town in webs, or a ‘brave Australian family’ who allowed a ‘gigantic huntsman spider to live in their house for a year’. Actually, quite a few of these stories come out of Australia.

But according to the spider scientists, the original articles that get spread and distributed around the world on the web are usually wrong.

“I was particularly surprised by the fact that even very local-scale events – say, the story of a farmer bitten by a spider in some remote village in Australia – published by a regional newspaper can quickly become broadcast internationally,” says Dr Stefano Mammola – lead researcher and an ecologist at the National Research Council in Italy.

“This implies that improving the quality of the information produced in these local nodes could have a positive effect reverberating across the information network.”

So, the original story gets written up by a local publication, and as more and more news organisations jump on the story, a game of telephone begins. Any errors in the original copy can be magnified and new errors can be introduced. This is a classic case of misinformation.

So, how do we make this better? In the case of spiders, Mammola suggests there’s an easy fix – better experts.

“We found that the level of sensationalism and misinformation drops when the ‘right’ expert—namely an expert on spiders rather than a medical doctor or other professional—is consulted by journalists doing the writing,” he says.

Because this expert information is also then spread through more networks, it dampens some of that telephone effect. 

Fixing the issue at its source is also in contrast to who many of us think should be responsible for misinformation.

“We asked people who was responsible for dealing with misinformation, and overwhelmingly the majority of Australians said that it was the individual’s responsibility for using common sense,” says McGuinness.

“Governments and social media platforms were seen as being less responsible – still responsible – but less responsible than the individual for actually doing the fact checking needed to tell the difference between what is true and not true on the internet.”

But individually, it’s incredibly hard to sift through the bunk from the gold. There’s just too much information, much of it looking similarly credible – even if it’s not.

Instead, McGuinness suggests that misinformation is a systemic problem by social media companies, combined with inaction by governments.

“The number one response people have to seeing misinformation is to ignore it, or to do nothing about it, or to simply not use that source of information anymore, because it’s much easier than fact checking,” he says.

“If you were expected to fact check every bit of information you’d be spending all day fact checking and none of your time actually doing your job or consuming music, entertainment, things like that. So, the burden on the individual is too much. It would be outrageous to expect that.”

This ‘spider solution’ of using better experts unfortunately won’t help in all cases of misinformation, but it is a great start – particularly when it comes to local stories being spread around the world.

McGuinness also suggests treating news – no matter how trustworthy – the same way as we treat advertising.

“A basic skill of media literacy is to assume someone is trying to sell you something. Someone is trying to persuade you, to convince you to a certain point of view.” he says.

“In the case of news, it’s not really a product or a service, it’s a presentation of a vision of the world. They framed the article in a certain way, they’ve chosen certain sources, they’ve selected the information that’s gone into the article.”

So next time you see a piece talking about ‘skin-crawling footage’ of spiders ‘swarming homes’, or any other article for that matter, think about what you’re being convinced of, whether the spiders are getting a bit of a raw deal, and whether you’re at the end of a very long game of telephone.

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