Snopes is a relic of the old internet that produced Wikipedia and the Internet Archive, rather than the stultifying Big Tech monopolies of Web 2.0. The site went from an obscure relic of internet pop culture to the big time when Democrats and their media falsely claimed that the 2016 presidential election had been somehow stolen from them by “fake news” on Facebook. Despite a million articles on the subject, protests, congressional hearings, and legislation, they’ve never been able to explain this BlueAnon conspiracy theory in any way that made sense to anyone who didn’t already believe it. (This is a hallmark of conspiracy theories, you believe them, you can’t prove them.)
But the practical upshot of the fake news conspiracy theory was that conservatives needed to be aggressively censored on the internet.
A market was created in “fact-checkers” who would target conservatives for censorship with social media platforms insisting that they were just following what the “experts” told them was true.
While much of the fact-checking ecosystem consisted of organizations that had at least some media connections, Snopes was in its own strange category. It had been doing fact-checking long before the media got into the business, and it had zero credibility. There was nothing professional or expert about it. Snopes was a strictly amateur hour effort that had gotten very big.
It took the DailyMail to report that Snopes was a bad joke.
Now a DailyMail.com investigation reveals that Snopes.com’s founders, former husband and wife David and Barbara Mikkelson, are embroiled in a lengthy and bitter legal dispute in the wake of their divorce.
He has since remarried, to a former escort and porn actress who is one of the site’s staff members.
They are accusing each other of financial impropriety, with Barbara claiming her ex-husband is guilty of ’embezzlement’ and suggesting he is attempting a ‘boondoggle’ to change tax arrangements, while David claims she took millions from their joint accounts and bought property in Las Vegas.
The Mikkelsons founded the site in 1995. The couple had met in the early 1990s on a folklore-themed online message board, and married before setting up the site.
Profiles of the website disclose that for some time before it was set up, the couple had posed as ‘The San Fernardo Valley Folklore Society’, using its name on letterheads, even though it did not exist.
A profile for the Webby Awards published in October describes it as ‘an entity dreamed up to help make the inquiries seem more legit’.
One of the lead fact-checkers, Kim LaCapria, has also been a sex-and-fetish blogger who went by the pseudonym ‘Vice Vixen.’
The media insisted on ignoring this sort of thing and pushed a fundraiser for Snopes to bail the site out.
Now BuzzFeed, of all places, is reporting that Snopes is behaving exactly the way you would expect.
David Mikkelson, the co-founder of the fact-checking website Snopes, has long presented himself as the arbiter of truth online, a bulwark in the fight against rumors and fake news. But he has been lying to the site’s tens of millions of readers: A BuzzFeed News investigation has found that between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson wrote and published dozens of articles containing material plagiarized from news outlets such as the Guardian and the LA Times.
I’m shocked that such an upstanding fellow would do such a thing.
Meet Jeff Zarronandia. During a brief but memorable career, his byline, which linked to a bio detailing his Pulitzer Prize and his skill at mule-skinning, appeared on at least 23 Snopes articles on topics like Donald Trump’s financial woes and false rumors about Hillary Clinton. His reporting made enemies of hoaxsters and fabulists across the political spectrum, including former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone and the late “fake-news kingpin” Paul Horner, both of whom were unaware of his true identity.
“It’s just a David Mikkelson alt,” Snopes’ former managing editor Brooke Binkowski explained when BuzzFeed News inquired. “He used to write about topics he knew would get him hate mail under that assumed name. Plus it made it appear he had more staff than he had.”
Between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson regularly plagiarized reporting from other news outlets in an effort, he said, to scoop up traffic.
Anyway, Snopes was cutting and pasting content from the media into its own articles and passing them off as his own words. Like George Costanza , Mikkelson claims that he was not aware that this was wrong.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mikkelson attributed this behavior to his lack of formal journalism experience. “I didn’t come from a journalism background,” he said. “I wasn’t used to doing news aggregation. A number of times I crossed the line to where it was copyright infringement. I own that.”
“Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, ‘cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.”
“That was his big SEO/speed secret,” said Binkowski, whom Snopes fired without explanation in 2018 (she currently manages the fact-checking site Truth or Fiction). “He would instruct us to copy text from other sites, post them verbatim so that it looked like we were fast and could scoop up traffic, and then change the story in real time. I hated it and wouldn’t tell any of the staff to do it, but he did it all the time.”
Two other former employees also said that copying and rewriting content was part of Mikkelson’s strategy for driving traffic to Snopes’ site. One, who asked to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News that “taking credit for other people’s work” was “part of his model.”
In one Slack message from January 2016, Mikkelson detailed his strategy for copying and then quickly rewriting articles after publishing. “Usually when a hot real news story breaks (such as a celebrity death), I just find a wire service or other news story about it and publish it on the site verbatim to quickly get a page up. Once that’s done, then I quickly start editing the page to reword it and add material from other sources to make it not plagiarized,” he wrote.
In two emails from 2014 and 2015, Mikkelson told staff to “pop over to one of our competitor sites (urbanlegends.com or hoaxslayer.com), pick something out that they’ve recently published that we haven’t covered,” and “rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.”
Snopes claims to be very shocked that its founder and owner is behaving this way and promises a serious investigation.