In talks and presentations to students, journalists and news consumers, my first question for the audience often is: “What do you know about fact-checkers?”
Someone might mention PolitiFact or The Washington Post’s Pinocchios or FactCheck.org. Among those who study such things, these are “the big three” fact-checkers in the U.S., all created in the mid-2000s and particularly prominent during election seasons.
But most often, “Snopes!” is what the audience shouts out.
A decade before PolitiFact set anyone’s pants on fire and before the Post’s Glenn Kessler began presiding over a gallery of growing noses, Snopes was out there debunking the most ridiculous lies and the most enduring urban myths.
Snopes, in fact, was a leader in fighting “fake news” long before everyone was using that overused phrase. Its cofounder David Mikkelson was an early adopter who “was on the internet before most people were aware there was an internet,” Mikkelson said in a rare 2015 interview with The Washington Post.
This week, Mikkelson is talking about himself and Snopes probably a bit more than he would care to. He’s in the midst of a legal drama that includes his ex-wife, a battle between Snopes’ parent company and a web services company, accusations of hostage-taking and bank account-emptying. As a result of the ongoing, complicated lawsuit, Snopes isn’t able to get its hands on its share of advertising revenue, Mikkelson says.
On Monday, Mikkelson launched a GoFundMe page to raise $500,000 he says he needs to keep the site operating while the lawsuit proceeds.
On Tuesday, the $500,000 goal was exceeded.
Money talks. Snopes matters.
Traditional fact-checking organizations around the world can only dream of that level of audience and financial support. While Snopes is not a traditional journalism organization, they hire journalists and they do journalistic work. Mikkelson and his staff also are part of the growing community of fact-checking organizations, participating in important conversations and projects alongside “big media” fact-checkers.
But here are two things that set Snopes apart: The site reaches audiences that many traditional fact-checkers don’t. And its fact-checking and debunkings are produced in a way that’s attractive, accessible, instinctively web-savvy.
At this moment, both of these factors are incredibly important.
Fact-checking, while growing more ubiquitous, is being battered by equally ubiquitous divisive politics. American Press Institute research and other studies have found that Republican audiences have far less faith than Democrats in the accuracy and reliability of mainstream news. Republicans also hold a much dimmer view of fact-checking than Democratic audiences do.
While Snopes includes politically themed “debunks” in its work, it’s not hampered by the political baggage that weighs on fact-checkers employed by traditional media organizations. Among the comments from donors on Snopes’ GoFundMe page:
“I know you’re politically neutral and not left-leaning like some of the mainstream media. So here’s my contribution.”
“One of the few establishments that provides correct information to the public.”
“Snopes is even-handed and delivers the non-partisan truth in political rumors. Thanks.”
And Snopes delivers in a way that clearly appeals to both web regulars and novices.
“I was an early adopter and still can hardly get through a day on the InterWebs without a Snopes check!”
“If I had a dime for every time I used Snopes to shoot down some idiocy online… .”
“I need you guys to keep my dad’s crazy email chains in check. Best of luck!”
Though the site has undergone a few redesigns, the presentation has historically included important elements:
Sources: The sites and statistics used to investigate the statement or rumor.
Authors: Who wrote the article?
Dates: When the investigation was published and when it was updated.
Original claim: Precisely when, where and what was said, with plenty of context.
Clear verdict: You won’t leave without knowing whether the claim was true, false, or just not provable.
Brevity: And you don’t need to wade through a 1,000-word treatise to find out how that verdict was reached.
Reader involvement: Snopes actively asks for reader tips and offers a newsletter.
A reader-friendly format and tone, a memorable name, a highly recognizable logo: These characteristics add up to an organic, non-preachy way to deliver news literacy to masses of consumers each day.
Legal issues aside, a site like Snopes can attract readers who are resistant to facts reported by the mainstream press, inform young people who are pelted with fakery on social media sites, and support web natives whose natural crap-detecting skills have been overwhelmed by piles of rhetoric.
And that’s an endeavor worth supporting and emulating.