False Widow vs Bees

Sometimes a few good pictures and the truth really can make a splash. Too frequently lies, false news, and spam grab the headlines but, every now and then, the truth gets a look in.

Such was the case in 2013 at the height of the “Britain’s Deadliest Spider” panic. An underserved title given the zero proven mortalities rate of the spider when held up against the deaths per year of native creatures.

The False Widow is being called “Britain’s Most Deadly Spider” when in actual fact they have not killed anyone. Bees and wasps on the other hand…

Thanet Star, Facebook post, 2013

Seen by around 6,000 Facebook users and shared 129 times, this was one time when we called out the press on their nonsense and it spread like wildfire. For reference, we had about 100 fans for our page at that time and yet reached 6,000% of our core audience number.

How we made that happen

This “runaway success” was planned from the outset. I knew that the hype had gotten silly and as more and more low end news outlets jumped on this trend for want of content, it was time to boldly speak up.

The amount of research needed for this was not much at all. I had my doubts about these headlines the moment I saw them – they just did not seem entirely honest to me.

I typed something like “False Widow Spider” into Google and scanned a few pages. Very quickly I learned that False Widow Spiders were not much of a threat. They are timid, and just not that able to harm anyone – unless you happen to be allergic in which case you might need some medication. The same is true of peanuts, pollen, and bees.

I learned that almost all spiders in the UK have a bite but that most of them are too weak to bite humans. I also learned that these weaker spiders had a stronger venom. Interesting, I thought.

To be sure, I Googled “False Widow death”. I got a lot of panic, newspaper headlines, and not a single fact to be seen. On the other hand, I did find a government causes of death report which included bee and wasp stings.

Making the image

I knew that the mostly false news used “scary spider” pictures to make the headline seem more real. So I got a picture of the spider and put it next to a bee picture.

After that, it was a case of reducing the facts to a few short statements that can be read at a glance. To aid this, I added the actual numbers and showed the totals – like a scorecard for the year’s deaths.

There was just one last thing to add – ask people to share. Something that should have been added tot he picture had I thought about it sooner. I wrote in the description, “share if you know the truth”. Anyone could claim to know the truth in response to that – they had the facts right there.

Setting it free

Next came the tricky part. Posting it.

I put the image up one lazy afternoon without any real planning at all. I could, I suppose, have waited for the busiest time on social media but that was not necessary.

Once posted, the image gained no attention at all. An hour of research and graphic building for nothing. Fortunatly, I was just getting started.

It needed a push. I shared it with some friends each of which I was pretty sure had grown as sick of the silliness as I had.

Over the next few days, the image was shared and shared again. We had a minor hit on our hands.

Lessons to learn from all that

  1. Have something to interesting or compelling say
  2. Present it in an easy to understand format
  3. Ask people to share it
  4. Show it to an interested audience
  5. Watch the message spread

I soon realised this was the same formula that had been used to create the panic. The false news played on people’s natural fear of spiders and the fact that it was non-native. This played to different strengths – people not wanting to get played for profit by cynical editors combined with how satisfying it is to be the first one in your friend group to be right about something.

The next time you think about sharing a headline for the latest panic or outrage to come out of nowhere, ask yourself if you are just being used to sell newspapers. Otherwise, you could be the reason your friends smugly post something that debunks the nonsense on your timeline. Just saying.

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