Seeking Truth In The Era Of Fake News
By Anthony Elio
How Snopes Founder David Mikkelson went from writing about urban legends to keeping the news media accountable.
Ingesting Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks at the same time will kill you. Gas station patrons are being pricked by HIV-infected needles at the pump. Applying lip balm to a Scantron test will give you a perfect score. There’s a good chance that, at one time or another, you have heard and possibly even believed some of these urban legends. Popular in email chains and everyday conversation alike, these are the types of rumors that grow for years without being properly dispelled. This is where Snopes comes in.
Launched in 1994, Snopes.com has been the renowned online hub for separating fact from fiction. And, despite being nearly 25 years old, the website is more relevant than ever, investigating the validity of stories in our current political climate. We spoke with the website’s founder David Mikkelson about the website’s early beginnings, how the site has evolved over time in the era of “fake news,” and his personal favorite story that turned out to be true.
Innovation & Tech Today: Snopes started all the way back in 1994. Could you tell me a bit about how the website started?
David Mikkelson: I used to participate in some of the text-based newsgroups on the internet, one of which was about urban legends. I actually started going out and going to libraries and digging up old material to actually look into and write about various rumors. When the first graphical browser came out from Mozilla, I kind of created this little corner where I started writing up initially Disney-related legends.
It kind of quickly became the go-to place where people on the internet sent anything they encountered that was questionable, so we ended up doing a lot of hoaxes and scams and crime warnings, like the needles on the gas pumps. Eventually, politics caught up with the internet. They figured out how to use that to their advantage, so that’s kind of a lot of what occupies us at the moment.
“So, it kind of created problems where the audience’s perception of an urban legend was very different than what it actually had been.”
I&T Today: What have been the biggest changes since the website launched?
DM: Well, I think the most recent big change that’s affected things is that individual partisans started using the internet for politics. People arguing about supporting their side or another, and then eventually political campaigns caught on to using the internet and particularly social media. But, with the last election cycle, we added the “politics as profit,” where you have these Macedonian teenagers and “fake news” purveyors, and everybody figuring out that they could actually make money by spreading mostly fake political stuff, or just hyper partisan or highly slanted political stuff, which kind of really skewed the sum of the information that’s out there.
And so, that’s led to the whole “fake news” phenomenon that’s obsessed everybody over the last year or so. I mean, initially, before the election, we were using “fake news” pretty narrowly just to describe the sites that were putting up the stuff that was outrageously fake that didn’t have anything to do with politics, like “Woman Gives Birth To Litter of Puppies in Elevator” or something. And it’s taken a very political and profit-driven turn since then.
When we started, we were writing about urban legends, which are a particular type of folklore and have a particular structure and format. But people just started using that term to mean basically, “Oh, that didn’t happen. That’s an urban legend.” So, it kind of created problems where the audience’s perception of an urban legend was very different than what it actually had been. And it’s kind of the same thing with “fake news,” where it was originally applied to this kind of narrow niche. And now, it’s expanded to basically anything that anyone up to and including the President of the United States doesn’t believe or want to believe.
I&T Today: How do you feel about the current state of distrust when it comes to news media?
DM: A lot of people seem to be under the illusion that there was a golden age of journalism where reporters offered nothing but facts and that was it. And that isn’t really true. I mean, our history is full of yellow journalism and planted reporting and people not thoroughly investigating stories because it would make them actually less interesting than the truth. So, there never was such a golden age.
I&T Today: Was there anything on the site that you were amazed to find out was true?
DM: Years ago, there was a really humorous narrative about a group of FBI agents who had supposedly taken over a psychiatric hospital for some sort of investigation and were trying to order pizza delivery and were trying to convince an incredulous pizza restaurant that, “We need eight pizzas delivered to the psychiatric hospital, and we’re all FBI agents here, really, and none of us have cash. Will you take a check?” The kind of thing that was very funny but had no source or origin attached to it, and you think somebody just made this up. But in that particular case, there was enough context in it to figure out that if it had happened, it was something that would have happened in the San Diego area based off the name of the hospital.
So, I just sent a routine inquiry to the FBI office in San Diego expecting I’m not going to hear back because they have more important things to do. And actually, several weeks later, long after I’d forgotten about it, I got a letter in the mail, not email, an actual letter, from an agent who had been with the San Diego office and had since been transferred elsewhere who was the agent in charge of that investigation. And [he] said, “Yes, it was all true.” That they had shut down the hospital, or taken it over to do a forensic accounting based on a Medicare fraud investigation.