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.