Where fake news goes to die
CALABASAS, California — The command center in the war against fake news isn’t in some network’s conference room or tech startup’s offices. It’s in a large ranch home nestled in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, just north of Los Angeles.
It’s here, in a long, wood-paneled room, that David Mikkelson works to keep the Internet safe from urban legends, falsehoods and lies with his myth-busting website, Snopes.com.
On this particular day, the day after President Trump’s big speech to Congress, Mikkelson and his staff are checking out a claim from social media that some prominent Democrats refused to stand and applaud when Trump honored a Navy SEAL’s widow during his address.
“It’s not true,” Mikkelson chuckles to himself, while doing research on the computer at his desk. And he’s right. Snopes determined, by examining video coverage of the speech, that the pictures used in social media posts — of Democrats sitting and not clapping — were from an earlier part of Trump’s speech and not from when the president honored the widow. Mikkelson rated the claim “false.”
It’s what Mikkelson, the co-owner and co-founder of Snopes, has been doing for more than two decades.
Name a meme or myth that sounds shady, and he and his team have probably busted it.
That time Donald Trump said Republicans are “the dumbest group of voters?” There’s no proof he ever said it.
Fearful that Facebook is going to start charging? For the umpteenth time, no it’s not.
Saw proof that Bigfoot is real? Nope, that was just another elaborate hoax.
Snopes is the first place a lot of people go when they’re not quite sure about what they’ve seen online. But Mikkelson and others who run the site have aspirations to be more than just a debunker of fake news.
They want it to be a place where people come for real news, too.
Was Walt Disney’s body really frozen?
Mikkelson started Snopes — named after a family of characters in William Faulkner novels — more than 20 years ago with his now ex-wife. Back then, in 1994, he wasn’t trying to launch a debunker of myths. He was just playing around with this shiny new thing called the Internet.
“I worked for a large computer company, so I was on the Internet before most people knew there was an Internet,” Mikkelson told CNN from his home office in Calabasas.
On one of the Internet’s earliest discussion boards, Mikkelson started out writing about the biggest urban legends surrounding all things Disney.
“I started with stuff about (Walt) Disney — like, is he really frozen?” he said. (No, he is not.) Next came the rumors about salacious things supposedly hidden in Disney movies.
Then he turned his attention to urban legends and myths of all kinds. This was all before social media, YouTube or even search engines. But word got around and people started seeking out Mikkelson’s site.
“People on the Internet who knew about it just started making it the go-to place for anything they came across that was questionable,” Mikkelson said. “They wanted to know if something was true (and) they’d start sending stuff to us.”
In those early days people often wanted to know about things like computer virus warnings and missing children reports, almost all of which were hoaxes.
And Mikkelson was content with his little hobby.
“I had no journalistic pretensions,” he said. “I had no idea of running a business or making money or employing other people or anything like that.”
That all changed one day after a trip to the mailbox. Mikkelson had put a few banner ads on the site to help defray the costs associated with it. Then he got a check in the mail for $16.
“I was looking at it and wondering, ‘who sent me $16?’ Finally I realized it was the advertising from the site. I was so excited,” he said. “I got paid this just purely as the product of my own creativity and effort and not working for anyone else.”
And as traffic to his site grew, so did the checks. They grew from a couple of hundred dollars a month to a couple of thousand to almost what he was making at his day job at the computer company. He began thinking he could make a living running Snopes as a full-time business. But when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Mikkelson decided it probably wasn’t the best time to strike it rich in the wilds of the Internet.
But then came September 11, 2001, and all of the associated conspiracy theories and rumors that sprang up after the terrorist attacks.
Traffic to Snopes soared.
“We were kind of like the only site out there that was tracking and writing about all the 9/11 rumors and conspiracy theories that were on the Internet,” he said. “The traditional news media weren’t doing that.”
But the media did start noticing the work Snopes was doing with 9/11 conspiracy stories, and they began contacting Mikkelson.
“We were the ones that CNN and ’20/20′ and ABC News called on” when they wanted to do feature stories on that topic, he said. Snopes traffic soared again.
In 2002 Mikkelson was laid off from the computer company and got about a year’s worth of severance pay. He thought he’d have no better opportunity to make Snopes a full-time gig.
‘Unique set of skills’
Today, Snopes has grown from essentially a one-man band to a team of 12 editorial employees (including four staff writers and two contract writers) and a handful of operations staff to handle the technical and business side of things.
“We exist as a small scrappy team with a unique set of skills,” said Vinny Green, Snopes’ director of business development and, through a San Diego company called Proper Media, one of its co-owners. ” We try to make the biggest impact that we can.”
Snopes doesn’t really have an office. All of the editorial employees are spread out across the country and work remotely, although Green said they do try to get everyone together under one roof a couple of times a year.
On this day, Green’s townhome in San Diego’s breezy Pacific Beach neighborhood served as an office of sorts, as he and managing editor Brooke Binkowski met to work on the site.
The things that Snopes works on are determined by its readers. Green said Snopes receives about 1,500 emails a day. They are all read and sorted by an employee in Boston, who passes these story leads on to Mikkelson and Binkowski.
They also get story ideas from a private Facebook group which has 80,000 members, as well as from what people search for when they log onto the site.
“If we’re getting a lot of emails on something, we’ll check it out,” said Binkowski, a journalist whose career includes stints at Southern California Public Radio, CBS Radio and CNN. So the daily workload is determined mostly by “email and our own discretion.”
Staff members take the story ideas, check out the claims and then write them up, sometimes adding a rating of “true,” “false,” “unproven” or “mixture.”
Some stories can be done in as fast as 30 minutes. The really outlandish stuff — the stories that Binkowski and Mikkelson call the “low-hanging fruit” — is the easiest to debunk. Among these are a fake report that tweens are smoking bed bugs to get high, or Photoshopped pics like the one that shows track legend Jesse Owens shaking hands with Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics.
Other, more nuanced stories can take the staff weeks to work through before they are given a rating. Then Binkowski and Mikkelson give all stories one final look before they are published to the site.
Jeff Sessions and legal marijuana
Binkowski, with Mikkelson editing up in L.A., is sorting through an eclectic buffet of items on this day. One potential story is a report that claims 150 people have being killed by pit bulls in the last five years.
But Binkowski — typing away on a laptop while seated on a brown bean bag in Green’s sparsely furnished bachelor pad/office — is skeptical because it comes from a site she says has put out misleading information in the past.
Snopes writers are also checking out other claims:
A report that Sterling Heights, Michigan, has “submitted” to Sharia law by allowing a mosque to be built in a residential area (turns out the mosque is being built after a lawsuit was settled, not because of Sharia law) A Dutch researcher who predicts big earthquakes in the US, the Philippines, Chile, Peru and Indonesia because of planetary alignment (scientists have shot that one down) And a claim from a Canadian study that chicken from fast food restaurants is only half chicken.
But Binkowski’s favorite this day is a claim that Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeated that legal marijuana has led to an increase in violent crime. A Snopes writer is checking to see if this supposed link is one that needs to be debunked. It is, and they did.
“Jeff Sessions needs to come hang out in my neighborhood,” Binkowski says, giggling, “because the whole place smells like pot 24-7 and it’s super safe.”
The Trump effect
About three years ago Snopes.com averaged about 6 to 7 million visitors a month, according to information provided by Green.
But then came the epic 2016 presidential election. The site’s traffic exploded to about 20 million visitors a month during the primaries and political conventions. By the time the election rolled around last November, more than 28 million people went to the site that month.
The day after the election was the busiest in Snopes’ history. Green said 2.5 million people visited the site that day. Before that it had been averaging 750,000 visitors a day.
And in the age of Trump, it hasn’t slowed down. Mikkelson and his new wife, Elyssa, got married two days before the election and went to China for their honeymoon because they figured things would die down after Election Day. They were wrong on that one.
So was Binkowski. She had planned a week-long vacation — a camping and backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains — after the election. She had to cancel it because the workload only increased after the votes were counted.
According to Alexa, a web analytics firm, more people in the US visit Snopes than either of its two main fact-checking rivals, Politifact and FactCheck.org.
In December, Snopes became one of a group of online fact-checkers helping Facebook label some stories on its pages as fake news.
The plan calls for “flags” to be appended to 100% bogus stories shared by users. For example, a popular made-up story during the election, which claimed Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, would be accompanied by a red label that says “disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers.”
Facebook says it is not deciding what’s true or false. The deciders are Snopes and other fact-checking groups — ABC News, Politifact and FactCheck.org — that have committed to an International Fact Checking Code of Principles recently established by the Poynter Institute.
People sometimes need help in discerning what’s real and what’s not, because fake news is getting more sophisticated. A new, highly profitable industry has sprung up in which shady operators with various motives create fake stories, videos and pictures specifically crafted to mislead readers and be shared on social media. The more clicks and shares, the more profit for the creators.
“These headlines … are written specifically to elicit an emotion. That’s how the scammers make their money,” Binkowski said, noting that you are more likely to share that story you see on Facebook or Twitter if you have an emotional connection with it.
“They are not just written to inform. I keep telling people if you read a headline and (after reading it) you’re ticked off and you’re angry and you’re frustrated, then double check that source because you need to know whether or not it’s legitimate.”
There used to be a feeling among the staff of “how can people fall for this crap?” But Green said we must start cutting people some slack, because today’s fake news is refined and engineered to deceive users.
“These websites are designed to be as misleading as possible,” said Green, who described creators of fake news as professional scam artists. “This industry that’s been created can dupe even the most sophisticated reader. And I think that’s important to realize.”
Green says there are people out there “creating fake websites that look like real publications solely to generate revenue and mislead people. What’s the expectation that people are immune from that?”
Left versus right
How does Snopes support itself? This has turned into a conspiracy theory all its own, with many people convinced that liberal billionaire George Soros is bankrolling the site.
Advertising is Snopes’ only source of revenue, and Mikkelson — who calls Soros “an all-purpose bogeyman” for people on the right — said his site has no donors or sponsors backing it.
He said Snopes has no political leanings, doesn’t accept political advertising and does not advocate for issues on the left or on the right. But many conservatives consider it a left-leaning site.
Mikkelson said that has to do with the history of the political web.
“When we started out doing this, for quite a long time like 90 percent of the political stuff that went around on the Internet was anti-Democratic, anti-liberal. That’s what mostly we were debunking,” he said. “So people would say so if you’re spending all your time debunking this stuff about Democrats or liberals it must be because you’re one yourself.”
It’s much more even now, with people on either side of the political landscape equally upset with Snopes’ work.
The stuff we write now gets “complaints from both sides,” Mikkelson said. “If everybody’s mad at us, we must be doing something right.”
Binkowski, as the site’s lead journalist, gets her share of grief on social media. “I have grown a much thicker skin,” she said.
More than myth-busting
Almost everyone involved with Snopes wants it to grow into more than just a website that debunks stuff. Snopes also wants to become a major player in the world of journalism.
Mikkelson, Binkowski and Green all want to grow the site’s editorial staff so that Snopes can do more original reporting. Mikkelson wants to increase the Snopes’ offerings to include original videos, podcasts and real-time fact checking.
Snopes actually sent a staff member, L.A.-based journalist Bethania Palma, to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. She promptly broke news there in December as the first to report that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the easement needed to complete the pipeline, temporarily blocking the project.
The pipeline project has since been revived under the Trump administration.
Green said Palma’s work at Standing Rock created a real “paradigm shift” in Snopes staffers’ thinking and pointed to where they’d like to take the site in the future.
Despite all his success, Mikkelson admits to sometimes getting frustrated because he feels he’s just preaching to the choir.
“I often feel like we’re not really changing anybody’s mind,” he said. “The people who use the site are the people who are looking for something that confirms what they already think.
“But the people whose beliefs are being challenged, who think something is really true, and we’re saying it’s false, they’ll just say (Snopes) isn’t credible or it’s biased or it’s not qualified. Yeah, it’s kind of disconcerting at times.”
Still, he and the staff press on, proud of the site’s 20-year legacy. There are always more emails to sift through, more rumors to investigate, more fake news to be punctured.
The truth awaits.