Too Good To Be True? It Usually Is. Sniffs Out What You Can Believe

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

This election has been hard on all of our inboxes.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's (cut and pasted) head on a patriotically bikini'd bod? Sen. Barack Obama cluelessly chatting on a (Photoshopped) upside-down phone? Sen. John McCain identifying himself -- according to a totally mangled forward -- as a "war criminal"?

Gotta be fakes, all of them. Right?

Because why would a grown man hold a phone upside do-- well, then again, it wouldn't be the first time a politician was a doofus maximus. So maybe, just to be on the safe side. . . .

Which is why no inbox has had it harder in these last frenzied weeks than the one belonging to David and Barbara Mikkelson, the founders and sole researchers at urban legend mega-site

The couple debunked each of the myths above, along with dozens more allegations ranging from the wacko (a claim that the Bible identifies Obama as the antichrist) to the wonko (a widely circulated comparison of the two candidates' tax plans).

Snopes receives 6.3 million site visits a month, according to media measurement company Quantcast, and about 600 e-mailed research requests a day from desperate voters who don't know What. To. Believe.

"Usually it's around 400," says Barbara, 49. "But, election season." She sighs.

"A lot of people don't realize," David, 48, says wearily, "that our site is just two people."

Working out of their living room.

And so the confused masses write. And writeandwriteandwrite. Not always about politics, though in recent weeks politics has dominated the site. Forget about Cokelore, forget about Glurge -- two classic Snopes categories. Currently Palin, Obama, Sen. Joe Biden and McCain, in that order, top the "Hottest 25 Legends," a compilation updated daily of the terms generating the most reader e-mails and user searches.

This confused and earnest quest for the truth is why the Mikkelsons refuse to classify any request as stupid. It's not about stupidity. It's about desperation. Studies have shown that people will believe anything that's repeated multiple times, which, in these days of mass e-mails, constitutes just about everything. It makes getting to the bottom of something a battle between our real desire for truth and the limits of our neurological makeup.

Occasionally, the most bizarro queries end up being true. Sort of. Yes, Barack Obama did say that he'd visited 57 states during his campaign. But according to the video footage David and Barbara provide, it appears to be a flub born of exhaustion: He had actually visited 47. The Mikkelsons found no evidence, FYI, that Obama was secretly referring to the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Each of their sources is cited, each of their entries is marked with a color-coded circle standing for true or false (and occasionally, undetermined).

Ah, Snopes. What a stalwart it has become, a sort of go-to intellectual Drano clearing out the apocryphal political sewage that clogs our brains more and more each day.

It's morphed into its own verb -- Snopesed, Snopesing, Snopesifying -- part of an information-overloaded election where stuff needs to be fact-checked, where believing everyone is lying seems more like smarts than paranoia. "I was Snopesing about last night," a user on a parenting message board writes in wonder, "and I discovered that the bulk of [Cindy McCain's] good deeds are more than just right-wing wonkery."

It's a one-sentence rebuttal to even the bat-craziest of e-mail forwards: Dude. Snopesify that junk.

Such oracle-like power was not the original intent of David and Barbara, who met cute in 1994 on a user group dedicated to discussing urban legends. Barbara moved from Ottawa to be with David, setting up a rudimentary Snopes in their Los Angeles area home. Their site takes its name from a particularly pernicious family peopling a William Faulkner trilogy -- and papering academia with hundreds of doctoral dissertations.

A few years ago, David left his job as a computer programmer to join his wife in full-time myth-busting (income is from ad space purchased on the site), and recently they hired an assistant whose sole job is reading through the massive piles of nutty that seem to signify everything from mudslinging partisanship to the death of satire.

Just the other day, they received a note from someone wanting to know the veracity of a newscast entitled "2008 Election Results Leaked," in which a voter complains, "If you can't trust the shadowy overlords that run your election, who can you trust?"

The video was from the Onion, a satirical newspaper whose current headlines include "No One on SWAT Team Wants to Wait in Ventilation Duct With Howard."

The Mikkelsons, who consider themselves apolitical -- Barbara's still Canadian -- opted not to debunk that particular story. They try to reserve precious Snopesifying man-hours for the stories they think have the most legs, the highest likelihood of going viral.

But they couldn't overlook another query, not after it was e-mailed by dozens of concerned readers. Branded as a series of Palin quotes, the document contained such ramblers as, "God made dinosaurs . . . so that when they died and became petroleum products we, in his perfect image, could use them in our snow machines, pickup trucks and fishing boats."

This text, as you, dear elite intellectual reader, may have suspected, is meant to be a joke. The Mikkelsons traced it to a blog labeling it as satire, not once but three separate times.

And yet, the e-mails came: "Does Sarah Palin really believe that dinosaurs are lizards of the Devil?"

"After you've received a few hundred e-mails like these," says David, "you figure that even if it looks obvious it's not obvious to everyone. . . . There's never anything so ridiculous that at least some people won't believe it."

It's ironic that Snopes is receiving more research requests than ever, says David, because most of what people are looking to verify isn't that hard to find. Although some rumors still require library visits or the combing of city records, many others can be put to bed with a few e-mails or a Googling of an online primary source. (Nothing compared with the three weeks of solid research Barbara says she once spent addressing an e-mail asserting that Bill Clinton had arranged for the deaths of 50 opponents.)

Still, some people, apparently exhausted from trying to sort through anything themselves, completely give up.

"People will forward us the entire text of a New York Times or Washington Post editorial, wanting to know if it's true," says David. "What can you say beyond, 'Well, it's someone's opinion.' "

Or, he says, people will e-mail a document asking, Did someone really write this? Obviously someone wrote it, he wants to tell them. Because you just sent it to me.

"It's kind of flattering and kind of scary," he says. "We never had any intent of becoming political screens -- it just kind of snowballed."

"The only reason we do politics," says Barbara, "is that we get so many political inquiries that it finally becomes easier just to answer them." If they ignored them, she says, those forwards would just keep clogging their inbox, again and again and again.

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