No, not Snopes!


We love Snopes, the fact-checking web site founded by David and Barbara Mikkelson, and it’s useful now more than ever. Now, though, the Daily Mail has published a hit piece on Snopes — Snopes must have debunked a few too many Daily Mail crap stories.

The hit piece is 90% hot steaming garbage, but unfortunately, 10% of it is a matter for serious concern. First, let’s sweep away the garbage.

The piece focuses on the most useless bits of the story: Facebook ‘fact checker’ who will arbitrate on ‘fake news’ is accused of defrauding website to pay for prostitutes – and its staff includes an escort-porn star and ‘Vice Vixen domme’. Oooh. A couple of the people writing for Snopes are also sex workers. I don’t care, but apparently readers of the Daily Mail need a sanctimonious snit to get through the day. Sex work is work. It no more discredits the intellectual abilities of Snopes contributors than does the fact that I worked my way through high school doing agricultural stoop labor. Actually, sex work sounds like a smarter use of one’s time than spending long hours bent over pulling weeds.

The article obsesses over the fact that Kim LaCapria and Elyssa Young have and may still be working as escorts and models. Don’t care. Really, the only thing I care about is that the Daily Mail thinks shaming women is newsworthy. [A clarification: while the Daily Mail thinks this is the case, LaCapria herself has said that she is not and has not been a sex worker.]

They are outraged that a site billing itself as “non-political” has a woman writing for them who ran as a Libertarian for Congress on a ‘Dump Bush’ platform. I have no love for Libertarians, but if the only way a website can be non-political is if every writer for it never expressed a political opinion, then you’ve just created a filter that guarantees that only idiots will work for it. Everyone has political opinions, it’s human nature. What matters is if they take care to avoid using them to color their work. Or if they use the illusion of objectivity to justify defenses of the intolerable, which is the Daily Mail’s specialty. Fuck ’em. Don’t care.

They are also aghast that the Mikkelson’s went through an acrimonious divorce, with disputes about the management of the site ongoing. That two people are finding personal differences great enough to compel them to separate is not a problem — if you’re unhappy in a relationship, end it and move on. I watched my grandparents hate each other for decades, and I would rather have seen them happily apart, if that was possible. The Daily Mail does not get to tell people who should stay married to who.

But then we start getting into some real concerns. They are arguing over compensation, which is an internal concern, but one of the accusations is that David Mikkelson has been rifling through the company’s budget to pay for personal matters. If true, and of course David Mikkelson disputes it, that’s an ethical violation that also says management is not very tight. Healthy companies do not let the founder loot the treasury.

If true. I’d like to see evidence of professional management.

Mikkelson has also made a statement to address the Daily Mail’s objections.

David Mikkelson told the Dailymail.com that Snopes does not have a ‘standardized procedure’ for fact-checking ‘since the nature of this material can vary widely.’ He said the process ‘involves multiple stages of editorial oversight, so no output is the result of a single person’s discretion.’

He also said the company has no set requirements for fact-checkers because the variety of the work ‘would be difficult to encompass in any single blanket set of standards.’

‘Accordingly, our editorial staff is drawn from diverse backgrounds; some of them have degrees and/or professional experience in journalism, and some of them don’t,’ he added.

I think that’s a good response, actually. I agree that they should have a diverse staff, and that they’re dealing with all kinds of claims suggests that flexibility is important. But the key point is this one: “multiple stages of editorial oversight”. Say more. What exactly does Snopes do internally to verify their assessment, and how do they cross-check to prevent bias from creeping in? That’s something they ought to be able to explain.

So Forbes asked them for the details. David Mikkelson flubbed the answer.

Thus, when I reached out to David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes, for comment, I fully expected him to respond with a lengthy email in Snopes’ trademark point-by-point format, fully refuting each and every one of the claims in the Daily Mail’s article and writing the entire article off as “fake news.”

It was with incredible surprise therefore that I received David’s one-sentence response which read in its entirety “I’d be happy to speak with you, but I can only address some aspects in general because I’m precluded by the terms of a binding settlement agreement from discussing details of my divorce.”

OK, details of your divorce should be off the table. But the details of how your company determines what is fit to post on your website? Nope. That’s the main concern and you should be able to discuss it. That the Daily Mail published a lot of salacious garbage ought to be ignored on principle, but the accusations that weaken trust in your organization ought to be answered promptly.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Forbes article is still tainted with bullshit.

When I presented a set of subsequent clarifying questions to David, he provided responses to some and not to others. Of particular interest, when pressed about claims by the Daily Mail that at least one Snopes employee has actually run for political office and that this presents at the very least the appearance of potential bias in Snopes’ fact checks, David responded “It’s pretty much a given that anyone who has ever run for (or held) a political office did so under some form of party affiliation and said something critical about their opponent(s) and/or other politicians at some point. Does that mean anyone who has ever run for office is manifestly unsuited to be associated with a fact-checking endeavor, in any capacity?”

That is actually a fascinating response to come from a fact checking organization that prides itself on its claimed neutrality. Think about it this way – what if there was a fact checking organization whose fact checkers were all drawn from the ranks of Breitbart and Infowars? Most liberals would likely dismiss such an organization as partisan and biased. Similarly, an organization whose fact checkers were all drawn from Occupy Democrats and Huffington Post might be dismissed by conservatives as partisan and biased. In fact, when I asked several colleagues for their thoughts on this issue this morning, the unanimous response back was that people with strong self-declared political leanings on either side should not be a part of a fact checking organization and all had incorrectly assumed that Snopes would have felt the same way and had a blanket policy against placing partisan individuals as fact checkers.

Mikkelson’s answer to that is actually on point. I agree. The author’s reply is crap.

We aren’t talking about an organization drawing on a sole political viewpoint, like Breitbart or Infowars. The Daily Mail found one person with open Libertarian leanings, and at the same time, found that the operation was loose and diverse. Snopes is not a propaganda organ for one point of view.

And Jesus fuck, what is a “partisan individual”? Where are you going to find all these boring neutered drones to act as the fact-check department for a news organization? That a bunch of suits at Forbes don’t like people who think differently than they do to work as fact-checkers is meaningless. Don’t care, again.

I would say that someone who worked at Breitbart and Infowars is disqualified from working as a fact-checker because those organizations don’t do any fact-checking, and seem to lack all principled motivation to search for the truth. That isn’t necessarily true for a libertarian, a conservative, or a liberal. Judge them on the quality of their work and their ability to separate the personal from the objective, not whether they have brains of purest pablum.

My opinion: most of the accusations against Snopes are irrelevant. But some do raise concerns: this is an organization that ought to strive for transparency, and they aren’t. I also get the impression it’s very much a David Mikkelson operation, and there ought to be management practices that shield the organization from the whims of the founder.

Comments

  1. brett says

    Snopes may be going through some growing pains as it becomes a bigger operation. I read that their traffic has gone up a ton this year, and they hired a bunch of new people.

  2. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    What I see is mainly the rightwing nutjobs resenting any sort of check on their ability to lie their white pasty asses off and suffer no consequences. They have tried the same thing with scientists (oh, they’re all liberals sucking on the teat of the ebil gummint), educators (all lefties…), journalists… well at least the few journalists left who still make an attempt to practice that arcane art…. The thinking–if it rises to that level–is that if they can discredit every other source of information, then their own bullshit will not stand out so egregiously.

    No source of information is perfect. I look at Snopes like I look at Wikipedia–it’s a pretty good starting point. Most of what they do is pretty fair. But it is just a starting point. It is best if you can trace the news back to original sources, and Shopes as well as Wiki should assist in doing this by citing them

    Unfortunately, now that we have elected, er, selected, anyway, the liar in chief, the truth is inherently political.

    As to the Daily Fail and Forbes…, well, the former was never anything but a sorry waste of paper and the latter ceased to be relevant as soon as Stevie-boy succeeded his still-rightwing-but-intelligent father. I wouldn’t use a copy of Forbes to pick up a dog turd anymore.

  3. chrislawson says

    So Forbes runs a malicious, poorly reasoned hit piece on Snopes, the worst they can come up with is that David Mikkelson declined to answer one question — and that looks suspiciously like it was taken out of context to me (why would Mikkelson refuse to discuss their fact-checking methods because of his divorce?) — and we’re supposed to consider this a matter of “serious concern”? I’ll show serious concern when there’s reason to think the quality of their investigations is declining.

    Also, you missed the biggest fallacy in the Forbes article. The reason why I don’t trust anything that comes out of Breitbart or InfoWars is because they have a long history of publishing fabricated stories. (I don’t trust anything Pravda says about Ukraine either.)

  4. says

    Somehow this strikes me as more of the post-truth right-wing vendetta against facts, of any sort. Make sure that any source of real information is just labeled as “opinion”. Then, whatever bullshit they come up with is just another worldview.

    There are ways of finding out things and knowing their truth. These people really, really don’t like that (because it interferes with their agenda).

  5. Zeppelin says

    “the unanimous response back was that people with strong self-declared political leanings on either side should not be a part of a fact checking organization and all had incorrectly assumed that Snopes would have felt the same way and had a blanket policy against placing partisan individuals as fact checkers.”

    They seem to be assuming that
    1. politics consists of two “sides”, and
    2. that a political position that fits what they have arbitrarily decided is “the middle” between those “sides” is less of a political stance and somehow “neutral”, and
    3. that political apathy is the same as impartiality.

    This seems like an amazingly naive, simple-minded view of politics and ideology coming from a group of ostensibly qualified journalists. Who exactly gets to be arbiter of what counts as “strong self-declared political leanings”? Forbes?

  6. says

    At this point, Forbes is just a minimally-curated blog-farm for a few thousand unpaid writers who want “exposure”. Calling something a “Forbes article” is about as meaningless as calling something a “Medium article”.

  7. says

    That’s interesting. Ask the people who covered the rise of fascism and Nazism if they had a point of view and if they tried to provide the objective truth to their readers even thought they had a point of view.

    That is one explanation of what is happening with the news today. Reporters try to explain their lack of investigation by saying: We have no point of view we just report the facts, which just happen to be what each side says.

  8. Greta Samsa says

    If only we’d have the research funding to develop computers to operate Snopes, so we won’t have to deal with those partisan “humans”.

  9. MJKelleher, lurker in the dark says

    They are arguing over compensation, which is an internal concern, but one of the accusations is that David Mikkelson has been rifling through the company’s budget to pay for personal matters. If true, and of course David Mikkelson disputes it, that’s an ethical violation that also says management is not very tight. Healthy companies do not let the founder loot the treasury

    I wouldn’t have a problem with this one. Mikkelson apparently owns Snopes, it’s not a public corporation with stockholders or a nonprofit with donors. His company, his money, he can do with it as he pleases (apart from issues relating to the divorce, and those are none of our business).

  10. Ichthyic says

    Actually, sex work sounds like a smarter use of one’s time than spending long hours bent over pulling weeds.

    Now I’m getting an idea of what the next “American Gigolo” sequel would look like….

  11. llyris says

    It is also possible that major disagreement about how the company operates is one of the reasons for the divorce, in which case he is wise not to discuss it with someone who is likely to reinterpret his words and then publish it in the worst possible light.

  12. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I wonder if it would be possible to fund a non-profit, co-op type online resource similar to snopes. Make it as transparent as possible, wouldn’t necessarily have to be non-profit if it could be made into a co-op style operation.

    I wonder if there would be enough interest to try something like that?

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