False Widow spiders: Any real threat?

Thanks to the horror of ‘Promoted tweets’, I occasionally get something that is of no real interest to me. Normally I just ignore it. But a promoted tweet from the Daily Star yesterday caught my attention:

10 million KILLER spiders on the loose?

10 million KILLER spiders on the loose?

Now, we can all agree that 10 million killer spiders rampaging across Britain sounds like a bad thing, right? In fact, it’s amazing there’s been no major health scare, no government warning etc. There is of course a reason for this. The Daily Star is, not to put too fine a point on it, making the whole thing up.

When you go to the actual story, there is not one mention of any deaths as a result of these spiders. There’s a guy who was bitten suggesting it might be worse if a child or an old person was bitten, but no medical experts, no arachnologists, nothing to justify the tweet. So maybe someone running their Twitter account just made an honest mistake? That’s fair enough, but despite their account being active last night, and despite a correction being sought, nothing has happened. The tweets are still there.

Also, the ’10 million’ claim seems to have no source at all. So that’s also made up, or so we must assume.

When we dig a little deeper, we find some better sources with expert comments. And not one of them matches up to the Star’s hyperbole. A bite can kill. But only if you are allergic to the toxin. Which makes it no different to bee stings. Nobody in the UK has ever died of a spider bite. People have died of bee stings. More people are hospitalised through bee stings. But if you read a headline suggesting Britain was home to millions of killer bumblebees, you’d laugh it off.

You should always be careful around any wild animal, because you may get bitten, stung etc. Take suitable precautions (like not catching spiders in your hand). But don’t be afraid.

It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as trivial, but arachnophobia is one of the most common fears, and fear of being bitten is tied into that. Promoting a demonstrably false story about some mythical threat of killer spiders is dangerously irresponsible. It’ll lead to increased and unnecessary calls on the health services. And we should all tell the Daily Star that, either via their Twitter account, or via the Press Complaints Commission.

I’d also say Twitter themselves have to take some blame. If you are going to take money to promote tweets into people’s timelines, extending the reach of that story, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to check that you are not scaremongering.

I hope some of you will complain.

If you want more on this story, the Natural History Museum have a couple of good pieces, HERE and HERE.

* If you’ve found your way here via a search engine looking for info on killer spiders, I hope this has proven useful and interesting. Please do have a read through the rest of the blog, as I want people to feel encouraged to go watch wildlife, not fear it! *

UPDATE: Interestingly, this is now the most viewed single post I’ve made. So I guess people are reading it.

I contacted the PCC, but there’s nothing they can do. With the Code of Conduct being voluntary, they can only uphold it if the relevant publication has signed up, and The Daily Star haven’t. It’s quite clear why, and a cogent argument for greater regulation of the press.

The paper continues to run new stories scaremongering over this, content to be the number one source of utter nonsense on this issue.

I’ll contact the paper directly, but suffice to say I’m not going so far as to take legal action over this!

UPDATE 2: Just in case anyone has got here through a search engine, and has read the latest Star story saying “Killer spiders ate my leg”, a few points of clarity. The spiders aren’t killers, and they didn’t eat the man’s leg.

What appears to have happened is that the man was bitten by a spider of some description, possibly a false widow. The  wound wasn’t properly treated and became infected, and this led to all the problems he’s then had.

It’s quite conceivable that the initial wound, and subsequent infection, was actually caused by something else entirely, like a splinter, or a nick from one of the tools he was using. But none of this is made clear in an astonishingly misleading article.

Journalism of the lowest order.

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7 Responses to False Widow spiders: Any real threat?

  1. Lawrence McNeela says:

    “Killer spiders, my arse!” as Jim Royle would probably say. Having been to Australia, where spiders offering a genuine health risk exist in abundance, amongst poisonous snakes, fish and killer sharks, I can honestly say I wasn’t once frightened by potentially dangerous wildlife. Why? Because the Aussies weren’t either. They made light of it as a quirk of living in such an amazing place. As always, a sense of perspective is needed, and people should be bright enough to realise you aren’t likely to find that in the Ooh Aah Daily Star!

    • David says:

      Thanks Lawrence. It’s like the media reaction to anything that’s commonplace elsewhere. For 20-30 years now our media has thrived on panic and alarm, because presumably that’s what sells newspapers. Hopefully you are right and people maintain perspective.

  2. Cathy says:

    Pathetic story and the Daily Star should be ashamed. Pathetic moronic rag. Why does anyone buy it anyway???

  3. Andy says:

    Another cracking scaremongering article by the Daily Star
    http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/343983/False-widow-spider-ATE-my-leg

    This is why I hate the UK media. So much rubbish, and lies told.

  4. Bart says:

    Hmmm, I grew up in a country with real black widows – and survived ;-). I guess we’ll brand the Daily Star as the yellow press.
    The beeb seems to give a more balanced view:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24636116

  5. Pingback: An invasion of killer snakes? The Express is at it again… | Why watch wildlife?

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