During a recent fact-checking summit organized by the American Press Institute, Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Fact Checker had an extended discussion with David Mikkelson, who owns and runs the wildly popular Snopes website. Snopes specializes in debunking urban myths that pop up regularly on the Internet, making it one of the original fact-checking websites.
The name Snopes comes from the work of William Faulkner — a particularly venal family in several novels — but it really has no meaningful connection to the nature of website, according to Mikkelson. “When I first started posting to Internet-based newsgroups (back in the pre-web days circa 1988), I adopted ‘snopes’ as a nom de net simply because it was short and distinctive, so (especially since I was already fairly well known on the Internet under that pseudonym) when the web came along it seemed the obvious choice of domain name to use for my own website,” he said.
Mikkelson grants few interviews, so we thought our readers would be interested in the following Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Question: How did you get started on Snopes?
Answer: Long ago, I worked for a very large computer company, so I was on the Internet before most people were aware there was an Internet. I was on text-based discussion groups talking about urban legends. So when the Web came along, I started writing up a collection of Disney-related legends and other categories. Since that was the days before search engines, I was an early adopter. It took a left turn and became the place where everybody started sending stuff to find out, things they were getting in their e-mail, [asking] is this true or not. So it spread to hoaxes and scams and missing kids and fake photos. It took a surprisingly long time, but eventually, politics became a thing. We were doing this in ’94, ’95. And it wasn’t until the 2000 election when I saw the first political pieces come out that lent themselves to debunking.
Q: Does it surprise you, in retrospect, what became of your hobby researching folklore and urban legends?
A: (Laughs) Yes.
Q: Are there any similarities to what you’re doing now with Snopes.com, and what you were doing back then on discussion groups?
A: Technology changes, but human nature doesn’t. People want to believe the same things for the same reasons, and spread the same kind of stories. It’s just, instead of talking over their back fence, they’re on Facebook or whatever, and it’s still the same function.
Q: How many people work at Snopes.com?
A: On the content side, there are five. We finally got someone to handle the infrastructure, so there’s 10 or 12 on the IT side. Up until last year, I was doing everything myself. I took on more writers, so it was only this year that I spun off infrastructure, so that I wasn’t managing servers and stuff.
Q: We noticed you now have a news section on the redesign of Snopes.com. Why did you decide to branch out?
A: Some things don’t lend themselves to fact-checking so much. All you can say is, “Somebody said this,” and not really distinguish it. It’s the same issue. What do you do when someone sends you an op-ed piece and says, “Is this true”? You say, “Yes, it’s true, but it’s someone’s opinion.”
Q: How do you decide what to write about?
A: We’ve always stuck to what most people are asking about, talking about. It used to be easy in the days before social media, we could just look at our e-mail and that’s pretty much how everything was disseminated. But now, with social media and sites like Reddit, it’s more diffused. I don’t think there’s any scientific method to it. We look at what’s trending on Twitter and Facebook, what’s hitting our inbox, what terms people are searching, what people are repeatedly posting to our Facebook page.
Q: We’ve noticed you pick up on Internet rumors quickly. This week, there was a tweet where a lottery winner had died because he had gold-plated his testicles. And a few days later, your site had debunked it.
A: (Laughs) It’s actually an old fake story. It was some convict who had done the same thing. But someone had spun it as a lottery winner, then it makes another round on the Internet.
Q: How many of your fact-checks come from reader tips, versus browsing the Web?
A: Everything goes into the mixture. We don’t write about it just because one person asked about it in an e-mail. We’re also wary about astroturfing by fake news sites. A lot of them [the websites] are disgruntled, because Facebook was using us as a metric to determine who not to give much organic reach to. We didn’t have anything to do with it. We didn’t cooperate with them. But they were using us as a measuring stick to limit the reach of fake news and they [the websites] got all cranky with us. So I think sometimes, some of them are sending fake inquiries to us to try to get us to write about their articles.
Q: What was your most popular article this year?
A: In recent years, it’s been the one about the Facebook privacy notice, that Facebook is going to assert ownership or copyright over everything you post unless you post this notice to your website. It’s a completely bogus legal notice that has no effect whatsoever. The last couple times that’s gone around online, 25,000 people on the site were reading about it. [Snopes says the item has been shared 1.8 million times.]
Q: Do people still fall for advance-fee scams, like the so-called Nigerian prince scam?
A: Yes, that’s like the Facebook privacy post. There’s a point where you sit there and think, how is there anybody who has not heard of this by now, after all these years? The Nigerian scam is hard, because every message is different, and people aren’t really good at searching online. They search for the specific name of the person who sent it to them and don’t find it.
Q: FactCheck.org wrote about you in 2009 in response to claims in chain e-mails that Snopes is run by “very Democratic” proprietors, who were lying to protect President Obama. They reported that you have no political affiliation. Is that still correct?
A: Pretty much. I don’t know where all these people who write to us are, because I never encounter them in real life. All the people I know socially, don’t talk about politics, and certainly not vociferously. So I don’t know where the audience actually is. Other than writing about politics, I don’t have any involvement with it. I haven’t worked on any campaigns, I haven’t put any signs or bumper stickers out. My registration tends to differ. Being in California, by the time we have our primary, it’s usually moot because both parties pick their candidates. So I tended to shift my voter registration: Is there actually any election I’m going to be able to have a say in, even if it’s not the candidate I prefer?
Q: Given your ambivalence toward politics, what’s your take on political fact-checking? What does it add, if anything, to the political conversation?
A: Well, the political conversation is messy overall. I’m sure, like a lot of people here [at the summit], you often get a sense of despair like nobody’s paying any attention to what you’re actually writing. They’re just determined to believe what they want to believe. Or, you write this long expository article and they focus on some minor aspect of it, completely outside of the thrust of what you’ve written, to claim it’s wrong or it should be disregarded. So, I have to say, I don’t have much faith that it does any good. But I’m not the one sitting there trying to measure it, like others are. I’m just going by the reader reaction.
Q: What do you make of the Trump phenomenon?
A: In the aspect that he can keep saying things that aren’t true and it doesn’t hurt him? Well, I wonder if it’s not in some way related to what we do. There are people who say, “Oh, there are fact-checkers out there, and you’re supposed to take their word for it because they say so. Well, these people say so, and they’re not backing down, and there are people who claim they’re wrong.” So they see it as the same thing [as Trump’s actions]. … In a sense, it’s like if you’re in a bar, and you see some guy stand up and slug somebody in the face, [you think] “Oh my gosh, that guy hit him.” But if you come into a bar and you see two guys already fighting, you just assume they’re equally culpable.
Q: Okay, alright, that makes sense. When it comes to online rumors or fake news, are there any common ways they start on the Internet? Why do rumors gain traction?
A: Well, it just makes sense. They generally speak to something that people already believe, or confirm something they want to believe. That’s kind of what people cling to. For a lot of them … if you present something authoritatively enough, [they’ll believe it]. We tried that years and years ago at the beginning [when] everybody started sending us stuff to find out if something is true. So we thought, “OK, they’re telling us this, but how do they know [if our answer is true]?”
So I made up an article about Mister Ed, that he’s a zebra, not a horse. I put in all these convoluted reasons — because the show is in black-and-white, viewers couldn’t tell the difference, and all these technical explanation of how television worked and how zebras were easier to train than horses. And one day, sometime later, I was standing in line at a grocery store and I was looking at the tabloids. One of them [the National Enquirer] had this headline: Shocking truth revealed, Mister Ed was a zebra. They’d gone and interviewed Alan Young [who played Wilbur Post in the television show] to find out whether this was true or not. So there’s a lot of market for, you just say something authoritatively and people will believe it. A lot of memes bank on that. It’s full of numbers or stats, [and people think], “How can you dispute this?” Since they’re anonymous, too, it lends to it. You can’t disclaim it as being obviously the product of whomever or whatever.
Q: Not unlike Trump, how he authoritatively reasserts his incorrect statements. What’s a head-scratcher that you still think about, something that was challenging to track down?
A: The one that I ended up spending the most time on was a long-standing Hollywood rumor that Clark Gable was once driving drunk and hit and killed a pedestrian, and MGM covered it up and sent someone else to prison in his place. Since this was pre-online databases, I spent a lot of time in the early years at the UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] research library going through microfilm of old magazines. I had to make several trips to go through old issues of Variety, to find out where Clark Gable was when. I found out it supposedly happened on two different dates that were widely separated by several years. I eventually dug up the same story being told about someone completely different — John Huston’s son. The very same story was told about him. But that was a lot of time and footwork, in the days before you can just sit at home and do it.
Q: So it didn’t actually happen to Clark Gable.
A: (Laughs) It’s kind of a self-contradictory story, if you think that MGM had the power to cover up a homicide, but not enough power to get out of it without sending someone to prison in his place. Or, if MGM had that much influence over the police and district attorney, why not just say, “We arrested the guy but he escaped custody, and he fled the jurisdiction, and no witnesses could identify him”?
Q: It’s enough to let your B.S. meter go off!
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