Who Are The People Behind Snopes?

For most of the early 2000’s, and now well into the 21st century, fact-checking site Snopes has been used by media outlets and baby boomers on Facebook alike to contradict the apparent spreading of misinformation.

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
David Mikkelson wikimedia commons public domain snopes

In its infancy, the now-infamously biased site focused on debunking urban legends and folklore throughout the U.S. But at the dawn of a new age, at the intersection of the Trump presidency and the ‘fake news’ media, Snopes evolved and found its niche as the now go-to analytic investigator of basically any and every claim on the internet.

But where did Snopes come from? Upon further examination, the backstory of the controversial site reads almost like a soap opera and is full to the brim with scandal and intrigue, the majority of which is probably unknown to its users.

The backstory though is less about the drama and more about how the site became what it is today — a bastion of progressive smugness coupled with profound internal conflict and, like any other self-described fact-checker, a problematic example of the influence one source can accrue with growing public trust in its infallibility.

What You Didn’t Know About Snopes

Snopes’ founders, David Mikkelson and his former wife Barbara, founded the site after meeting in a fantasy/folklore-themed internet message board. (The name comes from the depraved, corrupt Snopes family of Nobel Laureate William Faulkner’s novels and short stories — which already seems like a bad omen.)

From almost its inception, the couple’s hobby-turned-profession wasn’t without shadiness. In 1997, David Mikkelson admitted to the LA Times that he and his wife wrote to companies under the letterhead of a fake source, The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, because the site “got a much better response with an official-looking organization’s stationery.” It’s almost unfortunate that the organization was completely fabricated.

A 2010 NPR piece dedicated to the couple and their work presents them as quirky, cat-owning, almost New Girl-character types. At that time, Snopes was receiving around 5 million views per month and already publishing thousands of debunked internet hoaxes, scams, and gifts. In that article specifically, they were dubbed “husband-and-wife myth debunkers” and “internet pioneers.”

By 2015, David and Barbara were embroiled in a bitter, nasty divorce which also threw the future of the company into question. Barbara, who owned 50% of the site, sold her stake to internet outfit Proper Media, thus putting David’s ownership and role in jeopardy. Two years later, the site was surviving on crowdfunding and was facing extinction. It survived, however, and David supposedly brought his second wife, a former porn star, on as an administrator, though she’s not currently listed on the staff page. There were also allegations amid the divorce/ownership battle that David had used company funds (specifically $98,000) to pay for his divorce and to hire prostitutes, as well as to pay for his honeymoon with his second wife. 

How Is It Run?

Despite all of this, Snopes, which by the 2016 election year had millions of users and views and still claimed to be fundamentally anchored in an environment of “transparency,” was selected by Facebook to be an official arbiter of determination of fake news and accurate reporting. Sometimes, you just can’t make this stuff up.

It’s almost mind-boggling to think that an internet startup, founded by two individuals with no background or professional credentials in research and investigation, somehow became both the gold standard for fact-checking and the anointed one of the mainstream media.

Although “sources” are cited in each post debunking a popular internet trend or claim, it’s not entirely clear how those sources are chosen, nor how conclusions are arrived at by the fact-checkers and if there are protocols or fail-safes in place to ensure the accuracy of the reporting. 

Fact-Checking Is Biased Now

Fascinating backstory aside, there’s an important question we have to ask ourselves here: Is Snopes actually an accurate, unbiased fact-checking source and, more to the point, one we should be using? The short answer is no. The long answer is more complex.

Here’s the thing. Whenever we consume a piece of information, which we take to be fact, there shouldn’t be any question that this specific piece of information is subjective. It’s fact, after all, an incontrovertible truth. But lately, it seems as though more and more “facts” are hindered by personal bias. Or, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would say, it’s more important to be “morally right” than factually correct. 

Bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we acknowledge our own when we consume information, as well as the bias of the source giving us that data.

It looks as though Snopes’ main mission is not to check facts and to promote truth, but to promote agendas. Like it or not, your personal bias may also come into play when “fact-checking” say, politics, and Snopes has no qualms about how that may affect their staff and the content they produce. They’ve even had their fact-checking corrected by The DC — specifically several examples of an incident with American flags at a Democratic convention.

As The Daily Caller noted, Snopes’ key demographic and most popular posts appeal to progressive individuals, and they don’t employ any fact-checkers with remotely conservative backgrounds. We saw the impact that not giving centrist and conservative voices a legitimate place in news and fact-based organizations has with Bari Weiss' resignation from The New York Times in July 2020.

When you tie it all back to its current CEO David Mikkelson and his own checkered past, it makes sense. Transparency doesn’t appear to be in the company playbook, and it’s been that way since the beginning. When questionable leadership is exposed for getting up to no good, it’s not hard to imagine how that same shadiness dictates and influences company culture.

Closing Thoughts

At this time, now more than ever, we’re being targeted on all sides from authoritative sources telling us that they know best, and what’s more, that they intend to help us by telling us that we’re wrong.

But that’s not always the case. Anyone who stands to gain something from our own collective ignorance doesn’t have our best interests at heart, and never will. And we should be extremely cautious, and wary, about so-called fact-checkers who intend to “educate” us through calling out misinformation. Most of the time, their own constructed definitions of facts and misinformation aren’t as accurate as they’d have us all believe.