Snopes and Facts
Introduction: Facts Do Not Stand Alone
How does the fact-checking site, snopes.com, stack up as a reliable source? Because the site now features thousands of articles, readers might encounter some articles that ring true as professional, well-balanced, and unbiased. However, other pieces on the site may not live up to any standard of neutrality. How can readers know that a fact-checking site can be trusted? Ultimately, the answer must suggest that readers keep an open mind and verify; don't take for gospel what the snopes folks say without due diligence, especially if an article seems to appeal to your own political bias.
Even though facts should prevail in any argument, facts do not stand alone; they are always accompanied by analysis, interpretation, explanation, elucidation, clarification, and point of view. That is why fact-checking is a vital part of understanding and using discourse. Thus, fact-checking the fact-checker will always remain a significant part of the public trust.
If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed."— Mark Twain
David and Barbara Mikkelson
Snopes in the Beginning
The name "Snopes" comes from a series of novels and short stories penned by William Faulkner, featuring the Snopes family, recurring characters in Faulkner's works. David Mikkelson's affinity for folklore and urban legends inspired the founding of the company.
The Snopes site, controlled by the company called "Bardav" named for the co-founders, David and Barbara Mikkelson, began as an urban legend, myth-busting site, circa 1994; however, the current lawsuit involving David Mikkelson reports the founding date at 2004. The site was essentially a mom-&-pop business run by the couple, out of their modest California home in Agoura Hills. The site performed a useful service in debunking inaccurate claims that have been spewed all over the Internet.
Examples of the Mikkelsons' helpful corrections include the inaccuracy about poisoned onions, the skinny on pop cans, and the Southwest airline ticket giveaway. In this area, the site excels, correcting the phony information that gets spread through Twitter and Facebook and other social media outlets, even email.
Snopes in Jeopardy
After the Mikkelsons divorced in 2016, Barbara sold her stake in the company, Bardav, to Proper Media, a San Diego-based Internet media company. Because of a California law that prohibits company's from engaging in such acquisitions, Barbara had to sell her stakes to individuals who were employed by Proper Media. David Mikkelson resented the fact that Barbara retained half ownership in the company that he always considered belonged only to him. Thus, David Mikkelson then engaged with one of the individuals, Vincent Green, to wrest control from Proper Media.
Mikkelson did this allegedly in order to gain access to the finances of the company. Proper Media is now suing David Mikkelson for inappropriate use of the company's financial resources. While Mikkelson has insisted that he used the money for business, Proper Media's lawsuit alleges that he has used the money for personal travel and to pay for his honeymoon with his new wife. And in further actions against it, the company claims that Mikkelson has prevented the Proper Media firm from operating its business; thus, it is suffering financially.
As of August 2017, Mikkelson was awarded half a million dollars to continue his upkeep of Snopes, but the same judge that awarded him those funds, Judge Judith Hayes of the San Diego Superior Court, also ruled that the lawsuit against Mikkelson for breach of contract could continue.
The Snopes team has created a GoFundMe page soliciting funds to save the site. So far it has collected $697,791 out of a goal of $500,000. While this does sound like an amazing feat, the comments following the plea for cash at the bottom of the page continue to show that a number of folks continue to accuse the site of political bias.
Whether the Snopes site will remain a viable fact-checking entity now depends upon the outcome of the lawsuit and the cumulative judgment of its users. Is the site significantly neutral enough politically to remain a reliable source for fact-checking the political class? Only time will tell in both instances.
Mikkelson and Elyssa Young
Snopes and Politics
When Snopes began focusing on political fact-checking, its reputation began to ebb and flow with accusations of political bias. David Mikkelson claims to have no political affiliation while his former wife Barbara, as a Canadian citizen, cannot vote in U.S. elections.
David Mikkelson has remarked: “You’d be hard-pressed to find two more apolitical people.” He claims that he declined to state a political party on his current voter registration, but FactCheck.org states that in 2000, Mikkelson was registered as a Republican. Mikkelson on the Snopes site features a list of alleged accusations made against the site as politically biased. Mikkelson's new wife, Elyssa Young, does have a background in politics, as she ran for office in Hawaii as a Libertarian in 2004.
Interestingly, David Mikkelson has admitted that the site is more often accused of liberal bias than conservative. Other than a political bias, does the site actually address issues that people really need to know about?
The following two Snopes articles reveal a somewhat troubling trend in how the site addresses issues involving the political class. The first article focuses on a claim made about Ben Carson, the new HUD secretary; the second article addresses the Clintons' taking publicly owned items from the White House as they departed the administration in 2001. The difference between the handling of the articles is clear and troubling.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson
Article 1: Ben Carson
The claim: "HUD Secretary Ben Carson bought a $31,000 dining set and billed taxpayers for it." And Snopes labels that claim "true."
The article then proceeds to pile on references from the New York Times and the Guardian that offer further damning claims about Carson. But then comes the information that completely refutes the claims made earlier in the article. Carson did not order the furniture, and he told CNN: "I did not request new furniture, but asked if it could be remediated."
The Snopes article even provides part of Carson's response which puts the lie to the article's "true" claim:
I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered,” Carson said in the statement. “I have requested that the order be canceled. We will find another solution for the furniture replacement.
So, why would an article that ends with information answering the question, "Did Ben Carson Purchase a $31,000 Dining Set and Charge It to HUD?," with a resounding "No," claim that the statement "HUD Secretary Ben Carson bought a $31,000 dining set and billed taxpayers for it," is "true"?
The end of the article refutes its beginning, but anyone who just casually glances over it would likely come away thinking that Carson was, in fact, trying to bilk the taxpayers out of $31,000 for a dining set and likely would not have even bothered to note that it was not for Carson's personal home use but for his office at HUD.
It seems likely that the Snopes writer, Bethania Palma, is banking on readers' minds being set by the beginning claims along with denigration by the New York Times and Guardian, so that by the time the readers encounter Ben Carson's claims, those readers will just believe that it is Carson who is lying.
Lest readers still miss the point that this piece is intended to tarnished Ben Carson, Palma ends on this note: "Revelations of the luxurious purchase came as Carson was advocating for budget cuts that would slash funding for the department," despite the fact that there was no purchase because Carson had canceled the order that someone else at HUD had initiated.
Bill and Hillary Clinton
Article 2: The Clintons
The claim: "The Clintons were forced to return an estimated $200,000 in furniture, china and art they 'stole' from the White House." This claim is labeled, "Mostly False."
Again, the article twists itself through some loops of creative analysis to finally land on the claim, "All told, the Clintons paid back or returned approximately $136,000 worth of furniture, artwork, china and other household items they had kept upon leaving office." That number looks a lot closer to $200,000 than the label of "mostly false" would indicate.
Again, the second half of the article refutes its own beginning. But a little trick is yet coming with this remark,
To say the latter were 'stolen' is to say more than we know — the removal of the questioned items could have been based a clerical mistake — but in any case an accurate accounting of those items’ worth puts it at only a quarter of what has been alleged: $50,000, not $200,000.
Wow, sounds familiar, rather like James Comey's judgment that Hillary likely did not "intend" to break the law and endanger the nation with her private email server. We cannot know that the Clintons intendedto "steal" anything, so the word "stole" is beyond our ken. And despite Clintonian intention, it is likely that only "a clerical mistake" caused those items to be removed. And even at that, the things that they took really only amounted to $50,000 not $200,000—thus that they took $200,000 worth of stuff is only a quarter true. Voila! The accusation can be labeled, "mostly false"—despite the fact that earlier in the piece, it was reported that "the Clintons paid back or returned approximately $136,000 worth of furniture, etc."
The Clintons clearly took items from the White House that did not belong to them, yet their sycophants quibble about the actual value of the things, not the fact that they took them. If taking things that do not belong to you is not "stealing," then we need a new definition of the word.
Again, anyone giving this article a casual look-through would come away with the notion that the Clintons did not actually take items that did not belong to them when they left the White House that winter day in 2001.
Bias? You decide.
One might decide that these two articles may not be typical, and one might find examples that reverse the left over right bias. It would be a useful exercise for anyone who depends on Snopes to look for further examples and make comparisons. Facts are facts, but human beings are always capable of bending those facts or spinning them toward one's own point of view. The people at Snopes are no less human than the people they fact check.
The Babylon Bee Logo
Snopes and Satire
Satire is a literary form that often engages irony to make its point. Western political satire has been part of the literary canon since the ancient Roman writers Horace and Juvenal plied their trade. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" remains one of the most widely anthologized and studied satires.
Satire is not "fake news"; it is not factually possible to debunk satire with a literal explanation. Debunking a piece of satire renders the debunker as functionally illiterate, appearing too ignorant to understand that a piece of satire does not function to relay information as a news report would. Satire makes an evaluation about an issue or person, but it usually does so by stating the opposite of what the satirist believes or by making outrageous claims whose value lies in what they imply, not what they state.
Currently on the Web, many sites have been created to feature satirical articles exclusively. The Babylon Bee describes itself as "Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire." But Snopes has found it necessary to "debunk" many of the Bee's satirical articles. It features an archive of Babylon Bee articles, which is mislabeled as "Fake News."
Although the Snopes writer usually includes the fact that the Babylon Bee is a satirical site, that writer then creates a straw man so he/she can burn it down. If a piece is satire, it's ludicrous to claim you are debunking it.
A recent example of a straw man built up by a Snopes writer is "Did CNN Purchase an Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News?" That Snopes question is addressing the Babylon Bee's title, which claims, "CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication." Anyone over the age of five would immediately recognize this title as satire.
But the Snopes writer, who is none other than David Mikkelson himself, declares in the debunking article,
Although it should have been obvious that the Babylon Bee piece was just a spoof of the ongoing political brouhaha over alleged news media "bias" and "fake news," some readers missed that aspect of the article and interpreted it literally.
Any reader who would interpret the "Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News" claim literally needs more help in reading comprehension than Snopes can provide.
That straw man created by the site owner would seem to imply the site has lost its way in more areas than just engaging in political bias; they seem now not to be able to gauge what the generally educated public who peruse their site can and cannot understand.
Other debunked satires tackled by the fact-checkers of Snopes include the Babylon Bee's "Horrified Joel Osteen Learns About Crucifixion," "California Christians Must Now Register Bibles As Assault Weapons," and "Playing Christmas Music Before Thanksgiving Now A Federal Crime." The Snopes writer, David Emery, who penned this last article, mislabels the Babylon Bee "a politically-oriented fake news web site" even as he quotes the site's description as, "Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire."
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form judgments requires the severe discipline of hard work and the tempering heat of experience and maturity."— Calvin Coolidge
Snopes and Reliability
In a recent article, "The Daily Mail Snopes Story And Fact Checking The Fact Checkers," appearing on Forbes, Kalev Leetaru attempts to determine that reliability. Leetaru begins by referencing the tabloid nature of an earlier article that appeared on Daily Mail and saying that he expected David Mikkelson to refute the claims being made in the Daily Mail article whose lengthy title is "'Fact checking' website Snopes on verge of collapse after founder is accused of fraud, lies, and putting prostitutes and his honeymoon on expenses (and it hasn't told its readers THOSE facts)."
Because no such refutation was forthcoming from Mikkelson, Leetaru engaged the Snopes founder himself through a series of emails. Leetaru was first stunned by the fact that the fact-checker began by hiding himself, his business practices, and even his hiring practices for the fact-checking Snopes site behind the secrecy of his divorce proceedings.
Leetaru continues to engage Mikkelson asking him about how he determines who was capable of doing the kind of fact-checking that would be required of a fact-checking site. Mikkelson remained vague and elusive, indicating that the Snopes staff includes a variety of individual talents. Leetaru then attempts to glean from Mikkelson what the hiring process involves, but again Mikkelson remaines unresponsive, making it quite clear that he actually has no significant set of standards by which to evaluate new hires.
While the Snopes site is likely to remain a mainstay in Internet fact-checking, some readers will continue to blindly accept even the most partisan articles as gospel. Hopefully, most readers will look in more than one place for answers to their fact-checking needs. Snopes is not the last word in accuracy, not by a long shot. As Kalev Leetaru shows, Snopes does not even have a reliable set of standards by which it checks its facts or by which it even hires those doing the checking.
Despite the site's About Snopes claims that the site "strives to be as transparent as possible," the proof is in the articles, in the convoluting of the analyses, and in the choices made for presentation, especially the misguided focus on satire.
In the site's section featuring Frequently Asked Questions, the question appears along with its answer:
Q: How do I know the information you’ve presented is accurate?
A: We don’t expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic.
That's good advice.
- "Mom-and Pop Site Busts the Web's Biggest Myths." NPR-Nashville Public Radio. March 20, 2010.
- Lawsuit. Proper Media vs Bardav Inc and David Mikkelson. May 4, 2017.
- Jennifer Van Grove. "Snopes prevails in tentative court ruling over finances, ownership." The San Diego Union-Tribune. August 3, 2017.
- David Mikkelson. "Is snopes politically biased?" Snopes. April 17, 2015.
- Official Campaign Web Site - Elyssa Young. Library of Congress. October 29, 2004 to November 8, 2004
- Bethania Palma. "Did Ben Carson Purchase a $31,000 Dining Set and Charge It to HUD?" Snopes. March 1, 2018.
Rene Marsh. "Ben Carson says he wants to cancel $31,000 dining room furniture order." CNN. March 1, 2018.
- David Emery. "Capitol Crime." Snopes. July 26, 2016.
- Kalev Leetaru. "The Daily Mail Snopes Story And Fact Checking The Fact Checkers." Forbes. December 22, 2016.
"About Snopes." Snopes.
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© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes