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.