Snopsing Snopes

Claim
In August 2021, Snopes’ co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson was revealed to be a serial plagiarizer, sloppily violating copyrights of other publications in an attempt to make the site look extremely proactive in uncovering news.
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A snopes-like 'True' checkmark.
True


“The definitive fact-checking site and reference source” — as snopes.com has long claimed to be — was caught with its pants down by BuzzFeed Contributor Dean Sterling Jones, who found “dozens” of articles under Snopes co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson’s byline, or the byline of his pseudonym, “Jeff Zarronandia”, to be plagiarized: lifted verbatim from other news sources in violation of copyright.

logo
Snopes’ “logo card” from its site.

The Zarronandia byline is “just a David Mikkelson alt,” Snopes’ former managing editor Brooke Binkowski told BuzzFeed. “He used to write about topics he knew would get him hate mail under that assumed name. Plus it made it appear he had more staff than he had.” Binkowski was fired from Snopes in 2018, and is now the manager of Truth or Fiction, a competing fact-checking site.

In news, verbatim use of others’ “expression of facts” is a copyright violation; pretending you’ve scooped some other publication without attribution is an ethical violation. Ideally, summarization of facts is done in the writer’s own words, with some sort of attribution to the source (which is what This is True does in its news story summarizations).

Snopes has either deleted all of “Zarronandia’s” articles, or re-attributed them to “Snopes Staff”.

brief biography
“Jeff Zarronandia”’s Snopes bio, now deleted from the site. (via Archive.today)

Mikkelson’s Excuse?

“I didn’t come from a journalism background,” Mikkelson told BuzzFeed’s Dean Sterling Jones. “I wasn’t used to doing news aggregation. A number of times I crossed the line to where it was copyright infringement. I own that.”

Mikkelson also owns 50 percent of Snopes, but agreed to allow Snopes’ Managing Editor, Doreen Marchionni, to take any action deemed necessary to protect the publications’ ethical standards. She “suspended Mikkelson from all editorial production pending a final outcome to the internal review and removed his access to our content management system,” Snopes announced on its site under the byline of Marchionni and Snopes Media Group COO Vinny Green. “Green flagged all 140 news articles” for review that may have included plagiarized material, and confirmed 54 of them were in enough violation that they were deleted, including all of the examples provided by BuzzFeed.

Appropriately, the URLs for the deleted pages are still active, with a notice that the article was withdrawn and why, with a link to the actual source. That is an ethical way to make amends for its co-founder’s failure.

Example of deleted article explanation.
Screencap of how Snopes is dealing with deleted articles.

The other founder was his then-wife, Barbara Mikkelson. They divorced in the mid-2010s; her half of the company was bought out by a media company, which led to a fight for control of the site. Readers contributed around $700,000 in response to Mr. Mikkelson’s urgent plea to keep the site going. It’s unclear if the dispute, which graduated to a lawsuit against the company, has been fully resolved.

Did He Think He Could Get Away With It?

Yes and No: as noted above Mikkelson allegedly would post verbatim articles scraped from legitimate news sites, which would start attracting traffic as people searched for information on breaking news (especially celebrity deaths), and then work on rewriting the article to reduce the copyright infringement. Such a practice is unethical in journalism.

Mikkelson allegedly explained it this way in a 2016 Slack message to staff, which was apparently provided to BuzzFeed: “Usually when a hot real news story breaks (such as a celebrity death), I just find a wire service or other news story about it and publish it on the site verbatim to quickly get a page up,” he told them. “Once that’s done, then I quickly start editing the page to reword it and add material from other sources to make it not plagiarized.”

Yeah, not so much.

Because the problem was, Mikkelson would get busy with other things and forget to go back and “cure” the plagiarism, or maybe figured the article was old news and would be forgotten. That made many such articles easy to find today with an online plagiarism checker. Oops.

Mikkelson wouldn’t let the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine archive Snopes’ articles …and perhaps that’s why: it might document more such articles as they’re in the process of being rewritten after publication. Another archive, archive.today, apparently still captured many Snopes pages; it’s where I got (for instance) my screencap of Jeff Zarronandia’s bio shown above.

Snopes Staff’s Response

In addition to the apology from “Senior Management” Marchionni and Green noted above, the staff writers — Alex Kasprak, Dan Evon, Jessica Lee, Nur Ibrahim, Jordan Liles, Madison Dapcevich, Dan Mac Guill, and Bethania Palma — strongly condemned the plagiarism. “No writer participated in this behavior, nor did any editors … support or encourage these practices,” they wrote. “We have all been held to very high journalistic standards, both by our editors and by our audience.”

Indeed, in their apology, Senior Management solicited readers to let them know if they found any other such examples so they can take further action. Presumably their “internal review” is still underway.

My Take

This is all a pretty humiliating time for Mikkelson, but he is mostly taking full blame (save the “but I wasn’t formally educated in journalism” excuse). He did the right thing by explicitly giving management authority to do whatever needed to be done to correct the problem. He may be the main owner of Snopes, but being suspended and having his site login credentials revoked is a big deal, and good for him for allowing it.

Of course, that may be the only way for Snopes to survive this scandal.

So, do I still trust Snopes? In a way, more than ever: they proved that they want to be accurate and non-deceiving, even when it came to “the boss.” And good for them.

It’s very hard for a site to “tell the truth” without some obliviot saying they’re lying, biased, partisan (in favor of “the other side,” of course), or otherwise being deceitful. So when a site that purports to “tell the truth” has been proven to be deceitful, it’s great to see that site take strong, positive action to cure the defect.

Whether Mikkelson — or Snopes — survives obviously remains to be seen, but when you get down to it, we need such sites to help us sort out what really is true. So for Snopes to “snope itself” and do better is a positive thing …and an indication that we can’t rely on any one site to arbitrate truth.

“We want to thank Jones for his reporting,” Snopes’ Senior Management said in its statement, showing their appreciation for the opportunity to improve. “It’s an example of dogged, watchdog journalism we cherish.”

Hear hear.

17 August Update

I got this today from a long-time Premium (read: pays to support True) reader:

“This segment appears in every mailing,” she wrote. “I’m unsubscribing & stopping my monthly payment [to Snopes]. Thanks again, Randy.”

What she forwarded was this part, from “every” Snopes mailing to her:

Sounds a lot like Oral Roberts’ 1997 plea to send him money toward an $8 million goal or God will “call me home.” (Image: screencap of email, click to see larger.)

While I’m completely aghast at SLAPP cases (which I’ve written about at the True Stella Awards), if what the media company referenced above has really filed such a suit, it needs to be thrown out. On the other hand, that it hasn’t been thrown out in the past four years is an indication to me that it’s not really a SLAPP.

The more I think about Snopes’ situation, the more I think Mikkelson needs to permanently resign from any leadership role at the site. That’s probably the only way for Snopes to survive. And until he does so, I think other Snopes patrons should do the same as my reader, and send those contributions instead to sites that are more worthy.

Primary Sources:

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22 Comments on “Snopsing Snopes

  1. It’s frustrating. I’ve used and trusted Snopes for years. None of this actually impacts the veracity of the articles posted on the site — even the plagiarized ones — and yet it still tarnishes Snopes’ reputation more broadly.

    Fortunately, there are alternatives. Truth or Fiction being one that seems to do a reasonable job.

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  2. I worked pretty closely with the people at Snopes for a while (including Brooke) and Mikkelson has ALWAYS been the wrench in their gears.

    After his wife made her exit, he should have just taken his hands off the site; it was always her baby to begin with.

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  3. I’ve taken anything Snopes says with more than a few grains of salt for years, since I noticed a pattern in their fact-checking that suggests a political bias.

    If a Left-leaning source makes an unsubstantiated claim, and Snopes can’t find any facts to prove or disprove it, it almost always gets labeled as unverified.

    But if a Right-leaning source does the same thing, Snopes will tag it false nearly every time. This has caused them to have to back-pedal a few times, and edit their fact-check page when facts supporting the claim do come to light.

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    • I’ve seen the same thing. I once read an article they wrote fact checking something about Obama, where they took an opportunity to slam Trump even though he had nothing to do with the original issue.

      Their political bias is palpable and distasteful. Once you could depend on them for a straight-up yes/no answer. Not anymore. So much of their produce these past several years is tainted by opinion and propaganda.

      I think a lot of that came from Mikkelson himself. Let’s hope they go back to non-partisan reporting now that he’s out of the picture (though it remains to be seen if that’s temporary, or permanent.) -rc

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    • But the appearance of dishonesty invalidates his other work. Even if his assessments are correct, they can now be ignored because he stole the work of others and claimed it as his own. He plagiarism also threatens the work of his colleagues.

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  4. This, to me, is a betrayal of public trust. In a world of grotesque misinformation, it’s an act of faith what media I chose to read and by that believe. I won’t read Snopes again until he resigns. That needs to be the message for the next person who might try to be above it all. Aghh.

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  5. The right has been bashing fact-checking sites for years, especially since 45 told them that every non-right-wing news site is fake news. What did the “not a computer expert” guy say at the Lindell hoax event the other day? Oh, yeah. He said that the msm needs to start just reporting and stop fact-checking. So, hey! Thanks, Mikkelson, for giving them even more false outrage!

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    • Thanks, Jeannette, but I’ve bashed Snopes and other fake news sites for years because of what *I’ve* read, and because I understand the English language and can spot unnecessary adjectives.

      For example, I’ve been living in Israel for the past 27 years. I’m intimately familiar with the lies of CNN and the fake news media from watching how they “reported” on Israel all that time. One of my earliest memories is from the Intifada of the early 2000s.

      A year before 9/11 and the MSM was lying about the suicide bombers infiltrating Israel and blowing up busses, pizza parlors, hotels, Passover Seders, supermarkets, malls, and discos where 20-somethings hung out, murdered in cold blood.

      Even now they continue to lie and distort events, ignoring rockets and incendiary devices shot at Israeli civilians, only reporting on the situation at all when Israel responds to the attacks, and then portraying Israel as the agressors.

      It wasn’t 45 who revealed the lie from AP, echoed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and the rest of the fake news media, back in the fall of 2000. That was when a photo of an Israeli soldier towering over a bloody young man was plastered all over newspapers and TV screens, with a caption telling the world that the Israeli soldier had beaten a “Palestinian”.

      The truth was that the bloody young man was an American Jew named Tuvia Grossman, and the Israeli soldier had just rescued from a lynching at the hands of a Muslim mob:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuvia_Grossman

      And that is only one of hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of stories that the “non conservative” press has lied through their teeth about.

      45 didn’t tell anyone what to say. He only amplified what those who still know what freedom of speech is, and how to be a discerning reader, already knew. The press has been lying for decades. Didn’t they lie the entire spring and summer preceding the 2016 election when they swore up and down that Donald Trump would never win? Do you not remember that?

      Sadly, people have short memories and the AP, NY Times, CNN, MSNBC and the rest work really hard to teach their patrons to be unaccepting of, and derisive towards, differing opinions so people never realize there are alternative perspectives and additional facts to what CNN, etc., chooses to feed them.

      Sorry for the delay in posting this: I had to recover it from the spam folder.

      The AP photo situation is well documented. Sure, I can see how the photographer could get that wrong, and the NYT, WSJ, etc. didn’t reinforce it, they ran it with the caption that AP provided. The IMPORTANT part isn’t that AP made a mistake, it’s that they sent out a correction — which the NYT, WSJ, etc. ran. Was damage done in the meantime? Absolutely. Was it purposeful? Absolutely not. It wasn’t a “lie” it was a mistake that was rectified when the mistake was discovered. The link you provided even backs that up. -rc

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  6. I’ve been waiting for probably ten years for someone to link me an incorrect or false story from snopes. Still waiting.

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  7. We need places like Snopes now more than ever and we don’t need even the hint of a scandal that will taint the image.

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  8. I never really thought of Snopes as a source of original articles, but as a site that draws information from other presumably reliable sources. Perhaps this fellow just never did a term paper where sources needed to be cited or you lose grade points….

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  9. Sad to hear of Mikkelson’s plagiarism, impressed to see Snopes’ response.

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the discussions to revoke/reduce his access to his own site….

    Oh, heck yeah! -rc

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  10. Your analysis is spot on, Randy. Now it remains to be seen if self-incrimination and a mea culpa is sufficient to save the Scopes brand. Certainly, it won’t for those whose stock-and-trade is fabricated ‘news’ because they never cared about integrity in the first place. And yet, any damage to fact-checking is a disservice to the rest of us.

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  11. I used to rely on Snopes… and would even point people to Snopes when they were spreading false information (you know… the usual forwarded articles that circle the email/social media platforms).

    But I lost faith in them years ago, partly due to their political bias, and stopped using them as a reference. I’m not surprised by this turn of events and find it interesting how this is playing out. I can’t say that I’ll use them in the future, even if they vet out all the articles.

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  12. It’s an evil plot to prove that there are no reliable fact checkers. I am truly angry and disappointed. And I resign from being a conspiracy theorist.

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  13. Wow. Snopes has always been good about citing sources, ever since it’s been a website; this really surprises me.

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  14. Thanks for the coverage of the Snopes story. The recursion was hurting my head though — one of my favorite “sources of truth” covering the downfall and/or redemption of another.

    The breakup of the Mikkelsen team had already tarnished the site in my mind years ago, but the existence of sites like theirs (and yours) are sssssooooo important in this era of “fake news” (thanx, Donald), “alternative facts” (thanx, Kellyanne), and “truthiness” (thanx, non-ironically this time, to the ironic Steven Colbert persona).

    Keep on doing what you do.

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  15. I stopped using Snopes the minute I saw a “did they say this” statement, and the quote they were looking for is what the person said, but their answer is “false or unverified”, “taken out of context”… out of context or not, that IS what they said. Those were the words that came out of their mouth. but it’s “false” or “unverified”.

    Pro basketball great Charles Barkley was once criticized for saying, “I’m not a role model.” Then the full quote came out: “I’m not a role model. When I’m playing basketball, my job is to cause as much chaos for the other team as possible. If you want a role model for your kid, it should be you.” So yes, the words “I’m not a role model.” DID “come out of his mouth,” but context is critical for understanding what he was actually saying. Context definitely matters. -rc

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  16. One doesn’t *write* a plagiarized article. One cuts and pastes it and then removes all attributions to the actual writer.

    I obviously understand your point, but that’s not where it ends. The thief then claims he wrote it by putting it under his byline, which is what Mikkelson admits he did on numerous occasions. -rc

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  17. Nice write-up, Randy, and I completely agree — Mikkelson needs to separate himself from the company. He’s done enough damage, and remaining affiliated will just do more.

    I’ve been citing Snopes verifications/debunkings for many years, even defending them on occasion when someone claimed they were just a leftwing echo chamber. I’m ashamed for Mikkelson, as he should be for himself. I hope Marchionni can navigate the company’s way out of this mess. Snopes and Truth or Fiction are needed more than ever.

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  18. I love everything you write, even when you give your political opinion and i disagree with it ,because you dont make it sound like you are right and im an idiot for not realizing you are right.

    You allow me to disagree. For the past few years no one has been allowed to disagree. Instead of a discussion we get banned, blocked, threatened , insulted. You post facts to support your opinion. Even if i still disagree with the conclusions you drew from your facts, i can understand where you got your opinion from.

    Although you do not make politics a major part of your writings, it is obvious you lean left. I think it is because you lean left that you cant see how biased SNOPES is.

    When someone is on your side, agrees with you, it is harder to see when they are wrong then if you didn’t know them or they supported someone that you do not.

    SNOPES has nothing to do with journalism.

    They are a political propaganda site.

    We do not need fact checkers.

    Fact checkers lied about that drug, forget the name, that Trump said successfuly treated COVID. Then, after Trump was out of office ,POOF! as if by magic, they said the drug was successful at treating COVID. How many people died because they didn’t get treated with this drug because fact checkers lied because they didn’t like Trump?

    Fact checkers lied and said COVID didn’t come from a Chinese lab. Then POOF! as if by magic, Biden said it may have come from a lab and not one fact checker called Biden a liar. Instead, the fact checkers said Biden was right.

    What we need are JOURNALISTS. People who reaserch and tell both sides of a story.

    Journalism is dead.

    Notice how when Trump says something it is reported as “claimed” , but when a democrat says something it is reported as fact?

    I support your right to believe SNOPES is an unbiased company, but i disagree with that opinion.

    It’s your opinion that I “lean left.” Others have the opposite opinion: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called a heartless conservative (because I’ve lost count) [Example]. My politics are much more complex than “right or left” — and I criticize both sites frequently.

    As for your opinion of my “belief” that “SNOPES is an unbiased company,” what I actually said was, “Let’s hope they go back to non-partisan reporting now that he’s out of the picture (though it remains to be seen if that’s temporary, or permanent.)” That doesn’t read to me as a “belief” in their non-partisanship. -rc

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