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Snopes and the Search for Facts in a Post-Fact World

September 21,2017 07:16

But Snopes has kicked around the internet since 1994—which makes it almost as old as what we once called the World Wide Web. In this age of untruth, it has become an indispensable resource. Should your friend's sister start a conspiracy trash fire in ...


It was early March, not yet two months into the Trump administration, and the new Not-Normal was setting in: It continued to be the administration’s position, as enunciated by Sean Spicer, that the inauguration had attracted the “largest audience ever”; barely a month had passed since Kellyanne Conway brought the fictitious “Bowling Green massacre” to national attention; and just for kicks, on March 4, the president alerted the nation by tweet, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.”
If the administration had tossed the customs and niceties of American politics to the wind, there was one clearly identifiable constant: mendacity. “Fake news” accusations flew back and forth every day, like so many spitballs in a third-grade classroom.
Feeling depressed about the conflation of fiction and fact in the first few months of 2017, I steered a car into the hills of Calabasas to meet with one person whom many rely on to set things straight. This is an area near Los Angeles best known for its production of Kardashians, but there were no McMansions on the street where I was headed, only old, gnarled trees and a few modest houses. I spotted the one I was looking for—a ramshackle bungalow—because the car in the driveway gave it away. Its license plate read SNOPES.
David Mikkelson, the publisher of the fact-checking site Snopes.com, answered the door himself. He was wearing khakis and a polo shirt, his hair at an awkward length, somewhere between late-­career Robert Redford and early-­career Steve Carell. He had been working alone at the kitchen table, with just a laptop, a mouse, and the internet. The house, which he was getting ready to sell, was sparsely furnished, the most prominent feature being built-in bookcases filled with ancient hardcovers—“there’s a whole shelf devoted to the Titanic and other maritime disasters,” Mikkelson told me—and board games, his primary hobby.

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Since about 2010, this house has passed for a headquarters, as Snopes has no formal offices, just 16 people sitting at their laptops in different rooms across the country, trying to swim against the tide of spin, memes, and outright lies in the American public sphere. Just that morning Mikkelson and his staff had been digging into a new presidential tweet of dubious facticity: “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!” Trump had the correct total, but the overwhelming number of those detainees had been released during the George W. Bush administration. “There’s a whole lot of missing context to just that 122 number,” Mikkelson said.
There are other fact-checking outfits, like PolitiFact, which is operated by the Tampa Bay Times, or FactCheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. But Snopes has kicked around the internet since 1994—which makes it almost as old as what we once called the World Wide Web. In this age of untruth, it has become an indispensable resource. Should your friend’s sister start a conspiracy trash fire in a Facebook comment thread, Snopes is a reliable form of extinguisher. Because of this reputation, Snopes was listed as a partner in a Facebook fact-­checking effort announced last fall after the social media giant acknowledged it had become a conduit for fake news. Potentially false stories could be flagged by users and an algorithm, and then organizations like Snopes, ABC News, and the Associated Press would be tasked with investigating them.
As pretty much anyone knows, the truth can be a slippery bastard. Getting to the bottom of something requires what you might generously call a fussy personality. Mikkelson possesses that trait. He spends hours writing a detailed analysis of a claim and feels frustrated when readers just want a “true” or “false” answer. He’s got the world­view of Eeyore, had Eeyore been obsessed with cataloging the precise history, variety, and growing seasons of thistles in the Hundred Acre Wood. He can even get pessimistic about whether his work makes a difference. “Since a lot of this stuff is really complicated, nuanced stuff with areas of gray, it requires lengthy and complex explanations,” he said. “But a lot of the audience, their eyes just tend to glaze over, and it’s just, they don’t want to have to follow all of that. So they just fall back on their preconceptions.”
Among those preconceptions is the right-wing view that Snopes is anti-Trump, its efforts to separate fact from fiction merely a cover for liberal bias. Mikkelson disputes this, saying that if you look at the totality of the posts Snopes has written on the subject of the president, “the vast majority of them are debunking false claims made about him, not affirming negative things said about him or disproving positive things said about him.” But nobody is looking at the totality; if that sort of intellectual honesty ever existed in the public sphere, it’s gone now. And sure enough, the week before I went to Calabasas, Tucker Carlson on Fox News had been jeering at “those holy men at Snopes, those gods of objectivity.”
“Do you ever get sick of the stupidity of all this?” I asked Mikkelson in his kitchen, a couple of days after Carlson’s rant.
“Yes,” he said. His eyes rolled heavenward, and he gave a weary little laugh. But what I didn’t know then was that more chaos was coming, and it was chaos that threatened the very existence of Snopes. Just days later, Mikkelson would start a fight with the new co-owners of the business, which led them to freeze the distribution of the site’s ad revenues, making Snopes so cash-poor that by July it had to resort to a “Save Snopes” GoFundMe campaign to keep operations afloat. The appeal worked. It had raised, as of late August, more than $690,000.
The groundswell of support was a satisfying, even humbling, ratification of the work Mikkelson and his staff had put into Snopes. But amid the good feelings were some questions. Articles mentioned a messy divorce; they mentioned “embezzling claims.” And just as it’s hard for Snopes to nail down, absolutely, definitively, certain truths about the toxicity of a copper mug or the meaning of the president’s words, it can be trickier than expected to nail down the truth about Snopes.

David Mikkelson has been debunking myths on Snopes.com for more than 20 years. “It’s kind of like the site is my baby,” he says.

Holly Andres
Mikkelson first adopted his “nom de net,” snopes—lowercase, at first—in the early 1990s in a Usenet group called alt.folklore.urban. The name comes from a lesser-known William Faulkner trilogy, but Mikkelson just shrugged when I asked if he was a big Faulkner fan. The attraction was the sound—“short and catchy and distinctive.”
Alt.folklore.urban was a place for people who enjoyed collecting, sorting, and organizing facts. These were people who might spend hours trying to figure out if hot water froze faster than cold water or whether “Puff the Magic Dragon” was actually about drugs.
Barbara Hamel was in her thirties, married, and living in Ottawa, Canada, when she first found alt.folklore.urban, via the Ottawa FreeNet. She’d worked as a secretary and a bookkeeper, but it wasn’t really what she’d imagined for herself. “Under different circumstances, I would have gone on to become a journalist,” she wrote in an email to me recently, “but after applying to Ryerson University in Toronto, I was felled by Crohn’s disease and thus had to abandon that plan and find another way in life.” She posted several times a day, a funny, wry, and engaging presence.
David and Barbara began flirting in the Usenet group, and by the fall of 1994, Barbara had moved to California to be with David. They wed in 1996. It was in the early days of their romance, David says, when he had the idea that would become Snopes. The graphical web had just been born, and he saw an opportunity to rescue his careful research from the relentless chronological stream of the Usenet group.
The page grew. It was a joint effort, though at first David kept his day job as a computer tech and coder at an HMO. His income paid for their expenses and the cost of running the site. David and Barbara lived frugally in a rented condo in Agoura Hills, and their stories about these salad days sound like tales from an endearingly dorky public-­access television show. Barbara remembers the tests they would conduct to prove a fact or a falsehood. “One had me sitting for half an hour with my mouth full of marshmallows; another had me sequestering plants in our glass­-enclosed fireplace lest the cats gnaw on them before the conclusion of a multi­week experiment on the effects of microwaved water on their growth.”
For the first seven years or so, the site stayed firmly in the realm of what you might call Weird America: Was Walt Disney cryogenically frozen after death? (No, he wasn’t.) Google was not yet officially a verb, and the internet was still in some ways the domain of nerds whose web pages were read by other nerds. The site got attention from local media when reporters wrote up the dangers of believing your email forwards—the closest thing to fake news the early internet could come up with—but it remained, mostly, a hobby for the Mikkelsons.
Then, on September 11, 2001, out of the clear blue sky, everything changed. The planes flew into the Twin Towers and crashed at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and America turned, panicked, to the internet to try to explain those events to itself. “I posted the first of the September 11 articles just after midnight on September 12,” Barbara wrote to me. It was a post debunking the rumor that the 16th century astrologer Nostradamus had predicted the attacks. “I researched and wrote that first article only because I needed to do something other than just cry and feel helpless.” The tenor of their site was about to change.
Where once they had been conducting tests with marshmallows and houseplants, now they were debunking claims that there were 4,000 Israelis who worked in the World Trade Center who stayed home that fateful day. Traffic spiked. Suddenly the press, which had treated Snopes mostly as a curiosity, took real interest. The Mikkelsons found themselves doing newspaper interviews, appearing on television, talking about the lies Americans were telling themselves in the aftermath of the catastrophe. When David’s job disappeared in a round of layoffs in 2002, it seemed natural that he would work full-time on the site. In 2003 the Mikkelsons incorporated, combining their names to form Bardav Inc. They each took a 50 percent interest in the business, with Barbara doing the bookkeeping while David managed the technical aspects of the site, and both of them researching and writing posts. They were both active in the user forums they had set up too. Kim LaCapria, a frequent poster who later became one of Snopes’ first employees, says she relied on Barbara in those years. “She gave me lots of advice, she was probably one of the most influential adult women on me when I was a young woman.”
The world kept churning out bizarre rumors. Snopes let the world know that sushi did not cause maggots in a man’s brain and, at the height of tensions over the war in Iraq, debunked a claim that a South Carolina restaurant was turning away service members. And in 2008, as Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency and won, Snopes explained that he was not, in fact, the Antichrist and refuted a fake Kenyan birth certificate circulated in 2009, which, among other signals of inauthenticity, was stamped “Republic of Kenya” before such a country existed.
Finally, with a growing stream of falsehoods to attend to, the site hired LaCapria as its first writer in 2014. The next year, David brought on a freelance journalist named Brooke Binkowski, who quickly became indispensable, and hired even more researchers. Binkowski now serves as the managing editor of the site. These new employees came just in time for the massive challenge to accuracy that was the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. The researchers looked into the ever-­multiplying rumors popping up online: Did Trump fly troops home from the first Gulf War on his own airline? (No.) Were the black supporters in a photograph that Trump retweeted actually Trump fans? (They were not.) The site also confirmed that the Trump campaign had sent food and supplies to hurricane victims, and it debunked fake stories that Mike Pence had called Michelle Obama “vulgar” and that Ivanka Trump had disavowed her father.
Snopes had been hoping to vault itself out of partisanship by sticking to the facts. But the times we are in don’t allow for any such creature. For years—since Snopes started writing about politics—the underbelly of the internet has been vomiting up conspiracies suggesting that Snopes is a liberal front. Mikkelson, for his part, claims to be neither Democrat nor Republican; he says he’s essentially apolitical, with loosely libertarian views. His protests made no headway with Fox News, and sites like The Daily Caller complained that Snopes has hired researchers of a liberal persuasion and insist with regularity that Snopes is “fake news.”
None of the aspersions being cast hurt Snopes as an enterprise. Traffic hit an all-time high of 3.7 million pageviews just after the 2016 election, thanks to controversies large and small. Ad revenue was growing. It should have been a great time for everyone at Snopes. But for the Mikkelsons, things were unraveling.

The GoFundMe appeal seemed to diminish Barbara Mikkelson's role in building Snopes.

Courtesy Barbara Mikkelson

On May 8, 2014, Barbara abruptly took her things out of the Calabasas house and moved to Las Vegas while David was away on a trip. Then she filed for divorce. Neither David nor Barbara would talk to me on the record about the divorce. But London’s Daily Mail gave the Mikkelsons’ split the full tabloid treatment last December, and the divorce papers have been uploaded to the internet by some unknown person, surfacing on fringe right-wing websites and providing the outlines of their dispute.
At some point before Barbara left him, David began seeing a woman named Elyssa Young, whom he eventually married in late 2016. Today, Young works for Snopes as an administrative assistant but previously worked as a professional escort, something she’s been open about. In fact, in 2004, when Young ran for Congress in Hawaii on the Libertarian Party ticket, she wrote on her campaign pitch: “My background is in the adult entertainment and sex industry, so for once, you will get an honest person in office.” (Young did not respond to numerous requests for comment.)
The Daily Mail played up the salacious details of this history, which included the more serious claims that David used company funds to pay for Young’s personal travel. For his part, David refuses to be bothered by this public airing. “It’s just stupid personal stuff that doesn’t have to do with any aspect of the work I or my staff does,” he says. “Also, know that the people interested in ferreting out this stuff were probably really hoping to find something like undisclosed financial sources, undisclosed political contributions, drug abuse, criminal record, something like that, and nope, none of that is out there to be found.”
What the records do reveal, as any nasty marital dissolution will, are struggles over money and control. For at least some months in 2016, the records show, Snopes was pulling in more than $200,000 a month in advertising sales. And although the site had employees to pay, much of that money was profit. Barbara and David still each had equal shares in Bardav, which meant 50 percent of that profit was Barbara’s. David seemed to resent Barbara’s ownership stake. In his divorce papers, he argued that “in the last several years prior to the filing of the Petition, Petitioner did nothing other than bookkeeping for Snopes.com, while I oversaw all other aspects of the site’s operations.”
The divorce became so acrimonious that David and Barbara found it impossible to run the business together. In early 2016, David asked that his salary be raised to $360,000 from $208,000. Barbara said she found this “not even in the galaxy of reasonable.” Then, when David continued to ask for a retroactive increase, Barbara told him she’d sent the matter to their arbitrator, as was the procedure provided in the divorce agreement. David subsequently claimed he’d never signed the arbitrator’s engagement letter and now suspected the arbitrator was biased.
In other words: Any business matters would result in baroque disputes that lasted months. They squabbled constantly about whether David was inappropriately claiming personal expenses as business expenses, with Barbara contending, for example, that David had improperly claimed a trip to India as a business trip when really it was a vacation. (David replied in the divorce papers that he had gone to India as a “business-­building” effort.) Finally, in July of 2016, about seven months after the divorce was finalized, Barbara sold her stake in Bardav to the five principal shareholders of a company called Proper Media for $3.6 million.
Proper Media was already familiar with Snopes. Since August of 2015, in exchange for a commission, it brokered advertising on the site, collecting revenues and disbursing them to Bardav monthly. The agreement could be terminated by either party on 60 days’ notice. This meant while Proper Media’s shareholders had become owners of Bardav, their company also, independently, contracted with Bardav to manage Snopes’ cash flow from advertisers. For a while, this arrangement seemed to work to the benefit of all parties; though it was initially supposed to last a year, it continued for almost 19 months. Then, on March 9, 2017, David terminated the agreement.
Why David did this, as reporters often say in stories about unresolved lawsuits, is in dispute. Proper Media’s two main shareholders, Drew Schoentrup and Christopher Richmond, claim that David never wanted any co-­owners. “Mikkelson was unhappy that Barbara maintained ownership of half of what he always considered to be his company after the divorce,” they wrote in the complaint they filed in May with the Superior Court of San Diego. Together, Schoentrup and Richmond now hold a 40 percent interest in Bardav. In the complaint, they say David was seeking to regain control of Bardav by conspiring with one of Proper Media’s other shareholders, Vincent Green, who left and began working directly with Bardav. They filed suit against Green too.
David, in his court-filed response, says he ended the agreement with Proper because its disbursements were often late, and Snopes could get the same services from other vendors “at significantly lower cost.”
Still, David must have anticipated that ending the agreement would annoy his new co-owners. After he did so, Proper quit sending Bardav the money from advertisers and claims that David couldn’t cancel the contract without at least one of the co-owners agreeing to the decision. They also suggested that David had improperly claimed personal expenses as business ones, citing his honeymoon with Young to Asia as an example. In late July, with cash apparently running out, David set up the GoFundMe account. The fund-raising appeal referred to Proper Media as simply a “vendor” and made no reference to the fact that its shareholders held a 50 percent stake in Bardav too.
The GoFundMe campaign’s rousing success suggested that the danger to Snopes had passed. Moreover, after a court hearing in August in San Diego, a judge ruled in David’s favor and ordered Proper Media to disburse advertising revenues to Bardav while the case was pending. Through their attorney, Karl Kronenberger, Schoentrup and Richmond confirmed that they will comply with the order, though they still intended to press on with their claims against the business. “The issue,” Kronenberger said, “is getting David Mikkelson out of a leadership position from Snopes, because he’s not fit to be there.”

Mikkelson and his current wife, Elyssa Young, married in 2016.

Holly Andres

Overwrought claims that eventually come around to a compromise are common in business disputes, and for now the judge has ruled that David will stay in charge of Snopes. I doubt that David will ever leave Snopes willingly. It’s everything to him. I’d asked him, once, if he’d ever seek venture capital, say, for Snopes. He shook his head. “I’m not interested in giving up ownership, no.” This was a theme. Snopes now has 12 people on its editorial staff, but David told me he still tries to read as many of the posts as he can. “I don’t mean this as an expression of lack of confidence in the other editors; it could be interpreted that way but it’s not how I mean it. It’s kind of like the site is my baby,” he said. “It’s like having to leave your child in the charge of a babysitter.”
When the GoFundMe campaign was announced in late July, I thought about that statement. The force of Snopes’ appeal was emotional: Without giving his readers the full story, David Mikkelson was essentially pleading with them to help him keep his baby. ­People responded to that call because Snopes had made itself, as Alexis Madrigal, who wrote a detailed account of the lawsuit for The Atlantic, put it, “a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era.” NPR reported that the site had paved the way for other online fact-checking sites. The story was largely covered as a small guy trying to maintain his integrity against the forces of business.
That was, for sure, the most compelling way to characterize what was happening. The lawsuit was concerned with questions about corporate governance and contract interpretation that are not exciting to describe. And most journalists rightfully admire what Snopes does. They understand what it means to feel under assault from both economic and political forces. Defending Snopes felt like a natural extension of the ongoing fight for truth in what can sometimes feel like a post-truth world. Whatever the circumstances, there are a lot of people who don’t want to see an enterprise like Snopes fail right now.
The nobility of the cause was self-evident, but I had spent months trying to understand the history of the site, and something about the fund-raiser had stuck in my craw. It was six little words on the GoFundMe: David had written that Snopes had begun as a “small one-person effort in 1994.” There was no mention of Barbara. She only came up as journalists had begun to look at the documents in the business dispute, and then was usually mentioned as the other party in an acrimonious divorce.
The GoFundMe appeal was not the first time I’d seen David diminish Barbara’s role in building Snopes’ reputation. There was the claim in the divorce papers that she hadn’t been involved “other than bookkeeping” in Snopes for years. And a curious thing had happened as Snopes grew and changed and switched web templates over the past three years: Increasingly, it was hard to find Barbara’s name. She wasn’t listed on the site’s About page. Posts she wrote—like the one about 9/11 and the Nostradamus predictions—now bear David’s byline rather than hers. David told me this is the result of a technical change made after Barbara left—the site migrated to a WordPress platform, which automatically populated bylines with his name.
When I asked Barbara to comment on the GoFundMe page, she noticed her erasure. “Was surprised to see my life’s work described as having been ‘a small one-­person effort,’” she wrote in a Facebook message to me. She refused to meet in person for an interview, but her first response to my entreaties—“Thank you for looking to include me”—was telling, and she did agree to answer some questions by email.
She still lives in the Las Vegas house she moved into when she left David. She hasn’t published a word anywhere since she sold her interest in the business, but she still plainly likes to write. She gave me long and thorough replies to questions about her place in Snopes’ history. When I asked how many articles she’d written for the site, she came back with a “verified count” of 1,905. She told me how she came to that number: “By examining every Snopes.com HTML file on my computer, rereading every email David and I exchanged from 1997 until now, and in cases where doubt still existed, examining my research files. The task took a week, but I am satisfied I now have a fair list and that all lurking doubles (a result of David’s penchant for renaming files) have been excised.”
I’d been communicating with David since our March meeting but hadn’t mentioned that I also reached out to Barbara. After the GoFundMe request went up, I called him to ask about it. I was sympathetic to his effort to keep his life’s work alive, but as we talked, I kept thinking about that “one-­person” line in the fund-­raising appeal. I hadn’t realized how annoyed I was about it until I found myself asking if he had a response to Barbara’s remark, about having her “life’s work” described as a “one-person effort.”
David is a pretty unflappable guy, but he seemed surprised. “She certainly contributed a great deal to making *it a successful business enterprise,” he said, stammering a bit. “We jointly founded Bardav.” But he told me he felt there was a distinction between the claim he alone made to the idea behind Snopes.com and the successful business partnership he was willing to allow that Barbara had participated in. I pointed out that until their divorce, Barbara’s name had often been associated with the site in the press—searches in newspaper archives reveal that until about 2010, she had given many interviews about Snopes, more than David had, and that was true even before Bardav’s founding in 2003 and the inauguration of Snopes as a business. David, evidently frustrated with this question, said, “Well, she was giving all the interviews because I was working a full-time job,” referring to his position at the HMO, “whereas she never worked at all throughout the entirety of our marriage.” But then he seemed to regret this outburst, and backtracked. “I would not in any way try to slight her or say that she was not responsible for a good deal of success of the site,” he said.
The problem is that David’s telling of the Snopes story does seem to slight her. However meticulous he might be in fact-­checking the errors of others, there is always this slippage in his account of his own success, this insistence that he did it by himself. It’s not a slippage that has any bearing on his dispute with Proper Media or the contractual matters at issue there. He went through a bad divorce and emerged from it, as it seems to me people often do, with a blind spot. It’s one we all have to one degree or another, to fail to see the obvious when it comes to ourselves. It just stands out with David because he has spent his career being so scrupulous about facts.
Snopes posted an essay on this phenomenon in 2001. After having trouble pinning down certain facts, Barbara and David had begun thinking about how everyone was unreliable and skepticism was a virtue. As a kind of demonstration, they wrote a few false Snopes entries. And then they published a lead entry called “False Authority”:
No single truth purveyor, no matter how reliable, should be considered an infallible font of accurate information. Folks make mistakes. Or they get duped. Or they have a bad day at the fact-checking bureau. Or some days they’re just being silly. To not allow for any of this is to risk stepping into a pothole the size of Lake Superior.
I’d assumed Barbara wrote this piece, and she said she had. But I wanted to be accurate, so I reached out to David to confirm. He wrote back pretty quickly. “That was so long ago that I can’t say definitively from memory. Reading through the article I would say it sounds like something that both of us substantially contributed to and not something that one or the other of us wrote entirely on our own,” he said. “It has a lot of Barbara’s voice to it, so probably she wrote the initial draft, and both of us contributed revisions to it.” But when wired’s fact-checker contacted Barbara, she searched her files again and found that David had written the first draft of “False Authority.” “Which means whatever I came to later believe, he wrote the base article,” she wrote in an email. “I’m utterly red-faced about this.” So those were the facts: David wrote the first draft, Barbara contributed. The precise way their powers combined? That remains an area of gray.
Michelle Dean (@michelledean) is a journalist in Los Angeles. Her first book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, will be published in 2018.
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