Snopes takes major hit to its reputation

Updated 22.12.2016

Once upon the Internet, Snopes.com was the site you checked for clarification on the urban legend that appeared in your email box. In the past year or so, Snopes has morphed into a powerhouse of postings that now delve into political issues.

There have been several problems over the many years with the site itself: it was heavy with ads, used annoying headlines that promoted the myth, and lately there were some missteps on coverage of political stories which are trickier to discern as true or false than urban legends. But they did sign onto to Poynter’s fact-checking network. I thought that was a great move. Today, we get news from a gag-inducing tabloid that ugly things have transpired in the Snopes family with a more reputable source seemingly confirming some bad vibes.

The Daily Mail (yes, we list them as a dubious source but they sometimes have real news stories) reveals that the founders of the site, David and Barbara Mikkelson, have divorced and it’s not a pretty story. In fact, it’s incredibly ugly.

…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.

In addition, The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society they referred to since the site began in 1995 didn’t really exist. It was said to be a ploy to look more legitimate.

The Mail includes snippets of apparent court documents that hint at profit and payments regarding the site. Kim LaCapria, content manager of Snopes, has also been under fire by conservative outlets for the entire year for biased reporting. [This post as “mostly false” has been frequently attacked.]

You should rightly demand additional verification of this current information. Forbes demanded it too. They went directly to David who responded by saying… he can’t respond due to the divorce settlement:

…when someone attempted to fact check the fact checker, the response was the equivalent of “its secret.”

It is impossible to understate how antithetical this is to the fact checking world, in which absolute openness and transparency are necessary prerequisites for trust. How can fact checking organizations like Snopes expect the public to place trust in them if when they themselves are called into question, their response is that they can’t respond.

So, Snopes credibility, already under attack by the political right, is tanking. Their work, possibly legitimately fact-checked, is now potentially questionable on the basis of their fact checkers being unqualified or obviously partisan. Worse, it appears they do not have a solid methodology for fact checking, which does not mesh with their commitment for the IFCN. From Forbes:

At Snopes, fact checking is the core function of an article and thus if multiple people contributed to a fact check, it is surprising that absolutely no mention is made of them, given that at a newspaper all reporters contributing to a story are listed. Not only does this rob those individuals of credit, but perhaps most critically, it makes it impossible for outside entities to audit who is contributing to what fact check and to ensure that fact checkers who self-identify as strongly supportive or against particular topics are not assigned to fact check those topics to prevent the appearance of conflicts of interest or bias.

Also noted by Forbes is the fact that the Snopes writers do not contact the authors of the articles they attempt to fact-check.

Pre-2015, Barbara wrote almost all the postings on Snopes and their reputation was build on that flavor of urban legend debunking. Then, there was the very obvious change in the website format and expansion of writers. Previous pieces by Barbara have been replaced by David’s byline. This was from an advertisement for writers wanted:

Working as a staff writer/fact-checker is all about establishing and maintaining a commitment to accuracy and integrity. Our standards are extremely high — and we’ll hold you to them.

Forbes concludes we just don’t know how much of the Daily Mail story is true. But the standards have been called into serious question not only by conservative-leaning sites but out in the open exchange. The site may still provide reliable information but this exposure of dysfunction that appears to have some truth to it will go far in shredding their 20-year reputation as a go-to source in the public eye.

Editor’s comment: Please read this article carefully. I am not glorifying the Daily Mail’s salacious coverage. It’s sickening but it is some cause for concern. As always, I expect the reader to consult the links and judge their value for themselves. The points of the piece are as follows: 1. Their reputation is under fire (for various reasons). 2. Their fact-checking methodology appears shaky even though they are now considered a “fact-checker” by Facebook and a member of the IFCN. 3. Their expansion into political claims to compete with other political fact-checking sources may be big on hits but out of their league, considering political commentary is messy stuff, and it has gained them some nasty critics, which is unfortunate. Many of the people quick to berate me for posting this story are not focusing on those points. This was NOT an ad hominem attack on anyone and it’s not “gossip”. It’s about skeptical advocacy and commentary failing in the public eye. It is what it is and the ramifications are not good. I’m sorry to hear it all, but I thought it was actually pretty important to post when the world’s “definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation” has their reputation attacked.

Addition 26.12.2016 New York Times piece also mentions that the political foray caused a new wave of difficulties for Snopes.

  26 comments for “Snopes takes major hit to its reputation

  1. Denis Robert
    December 23, 2016 at 5:51 AM

    I’m disappointed that you would further the political agenda of the far right, which is desperate to discredit any fact-checking organization that isn’t explicitly biased to the right. The right has in the last few years created a narrative where facts are de-facto political; you have left-wing facts, and you have right-wing facts; liberal science vs conservative science. That is a narrative designed to destroy the power of facts to illuminate corruption and tyranny.

    The only fact that really matters here is: is Snopes for the most part accurate or not? There is little evidence that it isn’t (and the article certainly didn’t present any). A skeptical news site should know better

  2. December 23, 2016 at 5:56 AM

    To be fair, everybody who gets anywhere close to honest and unbiased reporting, especially if involved in fact-checking, is accused by the Right of being biased. Indeed, any news source that the Right does *not* accuse of being biased, is almost certainly untrustworthy.

    Messy divorce is messy. Does that reflect on the credibility of the project? It’s hard to say. The founders have substantial influence, but there is a larger community.

    Contacting the original authors is one way to fact-check, but often times it’s a total waste of time and effort. Would Breitbart ever cooperate in an effort to show that one of its stories is hogwash? I don’t think so. Most of the sites Snopes is checking are clickbait or propaganda, there’s no point contacting the original source.

    But: it could be that this is resulting in real issues on the site. Can you point to any instances where Snopes have got it wrong, as a result of these issues? I’d like to see what the effect is.

  3. Sockatume
    December 23, 2016 at 6:15 AM

    1) The phrasing “already under attack by the political right” might imply that the Daily Mail’s involvement represents an attack from outside of that group. Actually, the Mail is the most infamous of the UK right wing tabloids.

    2) While the Mail also publishes “real” news their accuracy on that front is famously poor and they have a history of burying corrections. I would not take this story as accurate as written.

    3) Given that many of these criticisms are also true of Doubtful News, when can we expect editorial changes to address them?

  4. Mark Summerfield
    December 23, 2016 at 6:33 AM

    This report saddens and disturbs me.

    Many, many years ago, before the World Wide Web was even much of a thing outside of government and academia, I was a longtime lurker, and sometimes contributor, on the Usenet newsgroup (or, if you were part of the ‘in’ group, ‘newsfroup’) alt.folklore.urban (a.k.a. ‘AFU’). As my contemporaries on that group will know, the web site now known as snopes.com grew from an FTP repository formerly known as the Cathouse (perhaps http://ftp.cathouse.org, but don’t quote me on that without confirmation).

    As I understand it, this is how David and Barbara Mikkelson met. It seems that, over 20 years later, their union has ended with the kind of acrimony that is, sadly, not uncommon in such circumstances.

    So, is this article a genuine warning about the veracity of snopes.com, or a piece of salacious gossip about the sad demise of a relatively long and (presumably) mostly happy marriage of two people committed not only to each other, but to the truth? If the former, well then all well and good. If the latter, however, then it is not just snopes.com that has to worry about its reputation.

    It turns out that life is messy and complicated. Go figure.

  5. Gary Spencer
    December 23, 2016 at 7:22 AM

    My first thought was that Doubtful News is losing its own integrity and reputation. Be more critical and show examples of how the site is slipping, instead of spreading gossip about a failed marriage.

  6. randall krippner
    December 23, 2016 at 8:18 AM

    As Guy points out, the far right claims that any news source that publishes anything unflattering about them is somehow biased or crooked or controlled by some mysterious left wing cabal. I agree with him also in that I’d like to see exactly where there is any evidence that this issue has caused Snopes to publish erroneous information. Especially considering the track record of the Daily Mail, which has largely supplanted the supermarket tabloids of old as the source for ridiculous gossipy stories about who’s pregnant by who, fuzzy telephoto photos of female celebrities with their breasts bare, and how you too can dress like Kim Kardashian for only $29.95.

    The Daily Mail is the scandal sheet to the world. It’s the new supermarket tabloid. Gossip, salacious sex, scantily clad women, clickbait headlines, misinformation, misleading quotes and artificially generated outrage are its stock in trade. So when I first saw this story pop up on its website, the first thing that went through my mind was that yes, of course DM, which specializes in printing garbage, is going to run with this. Not only is it a delicious bit of nasty gossip to titillate its readers, it will undermine the credibility of a fact checker that has called out DM and other “news” sources like it for their misleading stories.

  7. December 23, 2016 at 8:42 AM

    Doubtful news readers should know better than to simply attack the source rather than the information. “This is a right wing news source” does not confirm or deny the content. If fact checkers are “unqualified or obviously partisan” that’s something we all should be concerned about, yeah?

  8. December 23, 2016 at 9:21 AM

    Interesting article from The Guardian. The aims of Daily Mail make for another curious aspect to this story. link to theguardian.com

  9. Stacey C.
    December 23, 2016 at 9:29 AM

    I agree with idoubtit! Their reputation *has* been called into question. Not just in the realm of politics but also in regards to health claims about food and medicine. While the original source, The Daily Mail, is mostly a rag of the worst sort, they *do* have actual news, perhaps more by accident than design, from time to time. There’s a big difference from debunking an urban legend to reporting on scientific and political claims…there’s no suggestion of malice here, just that authors at the site might be in over their heads.

  10. skeptictmac57
    December 23, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    As skeptics, we should take any potential criticism of our go to information sites seriously since we are usually not personally in a position to do our own primary investigation. But there are several competing pieces to this accusation by DM, and the one that I am most interested in is whether or not Snopes has gotten any of it’s stories wrong.
    I share the complaint that they run headlines that look like they might be supporting the claim, which is a click bait tactic, and that really annoyed me. The ads are just a cost of doing business, and I ignore them since I realize that the bills have to be paid somehow.
    Politically, they have been relentlessly attacked by the right, but you will notice that they do in fact debunk wrong information on people such as Trump, Palin and other right leaning public figures, as well as debunking left leaning memes and claims at times also. Are they completely unbiased or do they get it right all the times? Probably not, and that goes for every other information source.
    So the questions are, what about this story is completely true, do they use good fact checking methods, and to what extent has Snopes gotten any of their stories wrong where they were not corrected? The rest is just gossip.
    This will absolutely forever taint the reputation, not only of Snopes, but of other sites trying to vet news, in the eyes of those for whom fact checking is inconvenient to their goals. So no matter how this plays out, the truth will take a hit, and that’s not good for society.

  11. December 23, 2016 at 12:49 PM

    See the one example I link to above. They call it “mostly false” but it could fairly be “mostly true”. When dealing with complicated political issues, they have stumbled. I do not know if I would trust their paid bloggers over Politifact for such judgments.

  12. skeptictmac57
    December 23, 2016 at 1:36 PM

    I looked at that again, and looked at what Politifact (I don’t see where the contradicted Snopes) reported, and I think that the meme (which was what was in question) could be construed as mostly false if you took it literally. It seems to be a complicated case with lots of relying on people’s memory of events and interpretation of audio without the full context.
    If I missed something I would be glad to take a deeper look. Having said that, I too would trust Politifact or Factcheck more, but Snopes does usually link to other primary sources that they trust, to back up their reporting (as does Politifact), and I have not noticed them linking to dubious sources, so from that standpoint, I don’t see where the problem is for them to make judgments on veracity as long as they show their work.
    Isn’t that what we all do?

  13. James R
    December 23, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    Snopes seems to have lost it’s way, trying to gain a foothold into political matters. Urban legends are one thing, dissecting a political story for accuracy should be left to news organizations. And now with ‘fake news’ itself being news every day (and it seems to be accelerating), trying to keep up with ‘what is true / what is false’ is almost pointless. I’ve pretty much given up. Check out rense.com if you want to see what “conspiracy theorists” are inventing every day.

  14. skeptictmac57
    December 23, 2016 at 3:21 PM

    If Snopes runs a story such as this:
    link to snopes.com
    with references back to The Washington Post and The Center for Public Integrity, and rules it a ‘mixture’ of true and false backed up by those sources, then what’s wrong with that?
    Isn’t that what Skeptic blog sites and other reliable site do all of the time?
    I am really failing to understand why Snopes is being singled out for doing the exact same thing that dozens of skeptic blogs and podcast do everyday. Now if they are specifically wrong, then that’s a completely different topic for calling them out.
    Let’s see some specifics please. I am not defending them blindly, but what is the evidence? Isn’t that the skeptical way?

  15. December 23, 2016 at 3:21 PM

    Although the “failed marriage” aspect can (possibly) be separated from the other points, it still goes to “trouble in River City.” I think Idoubtit’s mention is not out of scope of trying to determine if the Snopes reputation is intact.

  16. December 23, 2016 at 3:44 PM

    Although I made a limited comment above, I’d like to offer a more general Snopes critique — even while acknowledging that Snopes remains my go-to source for fair, reliable and documented analysis. As other commenters have noted, anyone who takes a fair and balanced, open-minded, fact-based stance is often called biased, liberal or even that most opprobrius of epithets nowadays “mainstream.” But ignoring current political events is no solution.

    That said, my two problems are:

    1) The ridiculous jokey bios that they insist on using for their contributors. While they are indeed amusing, how much credibility do we have in referring others to a particular Snopes report when the faked-up bio undermines the very report.

    2) The overall organization of items which seems to be endless and, in their new format, is even more confusing (or maybe it’s just the new email format they started using). I have suggested (not that anyone listens to me) that they put all the fake news items in one bucket so we can go to the actual analytical reports without having to wade through the nonsense. Sometimes I do like to see what fake news is going about, but mostly I want to see what’s being reported in various legit and semi-legit (“newz”) media.

    I see that in the past 6 months or so they have heeded the call to at least label fake news in their header/lede but it’s still not entirely clear.

  17. Howard Lewis
    December 23, 2016 at 4:03 PM

    I think it would be a mistake to not publish a piece because a secondary affect is that it might assist some on the right to discredit Snopes. Whether Snopes or not is for the ‘most part accurate or not’ is not the point. The point of this piece is more that Snopes is not what it used to be, and there is some allegedly messy business going behind the scenes that has gone public and will negatively impact the site to the public at large. I really do not follow the apparent logic if a site is within the skeptical fold its problems and now public dirty laundry ought to be ignored. To bury an issue, rather than give it a fair airing, sure seems corrupt to me. I think Sharon’s piece was a fair airing of the situation.

  18. December 23, 2016 at 8:22 PM

    Then you can go to some other site, Denis. I really will not mind losing a patronizing clueless commentator.

  19. December 26, 2016 at 2:50 PM

    Yes, heaven forfend that a skeptical site should stray into something like politics. We should all be patted on the head and be left to deal with alien conspiracies, bigfoot sightings and massive snakes.

    Sorry but I find this attitude of “skeptics should stick to what they know” to be really patronising. Skeptics debunk bullshit, and if there is one subject that is full of bullshit, it’s politics.

  20. December 26, 2016 at 3:18 PM

    Now that was really patronizing.

    Skeptic SHOULD stick with what they know; if they know how to root out facts from fiction, that’s fine. But policy/politics are not simply “facts”, they involve complicated and multiple value judgements. This is where Snopes got into trouble.

    A parallel problem I see frequently is skeptics saying skepticism = science, remarking that science should be the arbiter of truth. But science informs policy, it must not dictate it.

    The basis for some political comments do deserve fact checking but that’s absolutely not all there is to it. When you are dealing with value judgements, truth is VERY VERY TRICKY to discern.

  21. Sockatume
    December 26, 2016 at 6:15 PM

    This article and the “you can’t fact check US politicians” attitude of the “clarifications” really make me wonder about this site’s future. If the truth or falsity of statements by that whole class of people is beyond sceptical enquiry here then where is the line drawn?

    Politically active media personalities?
    Articles politicians lean on?
    Will this site stop fact checking vaccination-autism if it becomes a formal stance of the US political establishment?
    If – as seems likely – someone in a US administration turns out to believe 9/11 is an inside job do a whole swathe of conspiracy theories leave Doubtful News’ purview?
    Do old articles stay with a disclaimer? Get deleted?

    As a non-US reader I really don’t need that much provincial spin colouring what are ultimately global issues but apparently this is something Doubtful News believes in strongly.

  22. skeptictmac57
    December 26, 2016 at 6:21 PM

    idoubit- Yes, of course, if Snopes tries to debunk a political opinion, then that would be better left to an editorial page of some quality source.
    But is that what they are doing when they tackle ‘fact’ claims that are being made, such as Trump supposedly saying:
    “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country.” (he didn’t)
    or when they checked the claim that Carl Paladino (a former Trump campaign official) said :
    “Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” (he did say that)?
    Those are checkable fact claims, just like ‘Did a couple of fishermen find a large snake?.
    Just because the examples that I listed involve links to politicians, does not make them off limits to claim checking from anyone, let alone people who are adept at skeptical inquiry.
    Again, as I have asked before, what are the stories where Snopes was entering into the realm of purely political opinion, rather than checking on, providing context for, or clarification of, or contrary evidence to factual claims?
    You pointed to the Clinton rape trial article in the OP, but my rechecking of that piece failed to support your claim. It may have been an edge case, so even if that is the one example (which I still dispute) why would that negate their other fact checking pieces on political figures?
    Even the New York Times has gotten stories wrong. Does that mean we should tell them to stay out of the news business?
    I do like and respect what you are doing on this blog Sharon, but just stop and ask yourself if you might be taking your position on this for reasons other than fact based claims.
    I am happy to change my mind if you can give some better examples.

  23. Sockatume
    December 26, 2016 at 6:21 PM

    Well it’s nice to know what you think of your readers!

  24. December 26, 2016 at 7:16 PM

    Just certain commenters.

  25. December 26, 2016 at 7:17 PM

    Wonder all you want. You have seemed to have misread all of the article, comments and have misunderstood the premise of this site.

  26. December 26, 2016 at 7:26 PM

    I didn’t say they were “entering into the realm of purely political opinion”. And I’m done trying to justify why I wrote this article.

    Snopes rep is in trouble. That’s not good. But they ventured beyond their original scope into a contentious area which has led to an *arguable* case of mission drift and getting too big for your britches.

Comments are closed.