SAN DIEGO — In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”
His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at Snopes.com, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.
Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.
Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.
Many of these emails share a common theme that I find puzzling. They assume we are personal friends with the Clintons or the Trumps, or else we’re funded — and thus controlled — by billionaire George Soros. I’ve known a few people from Little Rock, but that’s about as close as I’ve ever come to the Clintons personally. I’ve never met Trump. And my knowledge of Soros begins and ends with this: He’s really rich, and he (like many other extraordinarily rich people with philanthropic leanings) funds some journalistic endeavors. But he doesn’t fund us, and neither do any of the others.
Buried amid the dung heaps of email are some actual gems of information or leads on stories that we should write. Many of our pages are up because people have asked us to investigate specific stories or claims. So we sift through all the conspiracy theories to find what people need us to demystify or research. For instance, we received many questions about whether flossing is still medically necessary. (Answer: Even if the science is unclear, do it for everyone around you.)
After picking through the mail, we move on to discussing what we’re all going to write. What have we heard about the most? What’s in the headlines? What’s in the campaign? Because of my background and interests, I like to write about immigration, geopolitics, international relations, space and science, although I’m not the only person who writes about such things; other staffers have expertise in different and wildly varied subjects. Then, we read the 300 or so messages that have accumulated in the past hour.
I spot a question that I’d like to answer: Can you get sexually transmitted diseases from a tanning bed? The query seems straightforward enough, although some of the most innocuous-seeming questions can unearth a treasure trove of things to research. Strange medical stories are a lot of fun to write, especially as a change of pace during an election cycle; I’ve also looked into whether there’s a correlation between hand size and penis size (there isn’t, but there is a correlation between the relative lengths of fingers and penis size) and whether you can get tattoos on your eyeballs (you can).
In the tanning-bed case, I don’t know. It seems possible, doesn’t it? I start sifting through medical studies about the ability of viruses to survive on glass, get stuck on one particularly dry paper and call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see whether I can get any leads. Someone there, acting as if they get calls like this all the time, refers me to another person. I leave a message and return to my studies.
Success! I’ve found proof that catching any kind of sexually transmitted disease from a tanning bed, even a dirty one, is extremely unlikely. I start writing up the data I have pulled together as I keep one eye on social media, one ear on the headlines and another ear on my phone’s scanner app — which alerts me to higher-than-normal activity on police scanners throughout the United States — while I edit articles as our writers submit them. The CDC gets back to me with a quote further confirming what I’ve found, so I work that into my story as well.
Sometimes, breaking down stories to their bare facts is satisfying in its own right; it’s the thrill of the hunt. We all love to do research and find the nugget of truth beneath the veneers of shock, delight, outrage — whatever makes a story worth passing around.
But even when it’s too obvious to be thrilling (it doesn’t take any digging to determine that Queen Elizabeth is not a “lizard person”), this work is a social good. In addition to the hate mail, we receive a lot of frightened mail, from people who aren’t certain about their place in an increasingly scary world, where danger seemingly lurks around every corner. Times are changing, yes, but some websites take advantage of that uncertainty by plucking stories from the news and fluffing them up to make it appear as though there’s going to be a major disaster any minute now. (Recent examples included activity on a major fault line that supposedly signified an imminent massive earthquake on the West Coast, and the closure of cargo routes in the North Atlantic. Neither of these stories were true.) Concerned people pass along the stories, “just in case,” and spread the anxiety further. The people who own clickbait sites are never held accountable for dealing in fear. They do, however, make quite a lot of money from advertising.
We don’t think that our work will affect people committed to their belief systems to the exclusion of all facts. But Snopes can be a place where people begin their own research; we can be a reference for people who care to excavate the facts behind the often-terrifying headlines. We don’t pretend to be, nor do we want to be, the final word on any subject. We would like to be a starting point, though. In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.