In the heat of the Republican presidential primary, Jerry Falwell Jr. appeared on The Sean Hannity Show to talk about the Donald Trump he has gotten to know—a man defined by “stuff the public never hears.” So he shared an anecdote about the time the billionaire’s limousine broke down, and a random passing couple stopped to help. Later, these Good Samaritans got some surprising news: As a gesture of thanks, Trump had paid off the their home mortgage. “Pretty impressive,” Hannity declared.
But wait a second. Who exactly were these people, and why couldn’t the limo driver just call AAA? Impressive as this anecdote sounds, is it true? Well, what does Snopes say? Founded more than two decades ago, Snopes.com was originally devoted to researching all manner of just-so tales and urban folklore sourced to a friend of a friend, or to no source at all. These days, when readers “submit a rumor” they’d like confirmed or debunked, it’s likely to be a tale tied to current events. And yes, Snopes founder David Mikkelson recognized that “impressive” Trump anecdote immediately.
“That same story had been told for years,” he says. In fact, there’s a Snopes entry—first posted in 1998 and updated as recently as this past May—about its permutations. These rumors of roadside assistance and a generous (but curiously publicity-free) financial “thank you” involve not just Trump (on various routes, sometimes with his first wife Ivana, others with his second wife Marla Maples), but Bill Gates and even Henry Ford, among others. There’s never any corroborating evidence, and nary a peep from the actual do-gooders.
In other words, it’s a classic example of a durable myth—judged “False” by Snopes—repurposed to fit the moment. And the entry not only breaks down the tale’s many iterations, noting both the suspicious similarities, and consistent lack of any third-party confirmation for any of them, but offers bigger-picture thinking about why stories like this persist in the absence of, you know, evidence. “It’s a classic windfall legend,” the entry reads. “Each of us would like to believe an ordinary kindness on our part would result in manna from heaven falling our way, which is why this legend speaks directly to us. We can see ourselves on the receiving end of all those golden goodies, and it reaffirms our faith in the world in that we want to believe good deeds don’t go unrewarded.”
Like a good urban legend, Snopes.com feels like something that’s somehow just been around forever—but that has changed to fit with the times. Mikkelson built the first version of the site in 1995, not long after the birth of the modern Web. More than a decade ago, a reporter asked him whether he was “concerned or even sad that in an age of instant Snopesing and Googling, our urban myths will disappear.” He was not—and today the question sounds quaint.
In the 20-plus years since Mikkelson first brought Snopes online, the Web has obviously changed in dramatic ways and transformed culture in the process. We used to have only a limited number of information-media choices to determine facts and truths; now you can essentially choose to believe whatever facts and truths you wish, and seek out whatever like-minded assurance you can find. The meaning of “truth” online has evolved as well: It’s been over a decade since Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness,” meaning that which “feels” true, irrespective of hard evidence one way or the other. Today, even in the context of a presidential campaign subject to endless mainstream media scrutiny, unfounded rumors (about Hillary Clinton’s health, let’s say) spread with such ferocity through informal and alternative-to-the-mainstream channels that they end up being addressed on the front page of The New York Times. As the velocity and variety of dubious tales gained steam, it is perhaps only natural that Snopes adjusted with the times. The challenge now is not to identify the latest myths and legends to be assessed, but rather to keep up with them. Snopes has never been more relevant.
These days, hoax “reports” of celebrity death are an Internet staple. New entities churn out purely fake stories simply to rack up monetizable clicks. (Snopes has a useful guide to such sites.) And a presidential candidate who traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories has become a central figure of the news cycle. A 2015 Tow Center for Digital Journalism report lamented the role of credulous media outlets in spreading clickbait misinformation: “News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors.”
Maybe that’s why Snopes.com has endured. At an American Press Institute conference last year, Glenn Kessler and Michelle Hee Lee of The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” initiative conducted a lengthy Q&A with Mikkelson, crediting Snopes as “one of the original fact-checking websites.” Once Mikkelson’s casual hobby, Snopes today is a full-on business, employing multiple writers who cross-check questionable news in real time, with a massive readership that keeps it near the top 500 Alexa ranking of US. sites. It’s a remarkable tale, really: The site that made its name debunking bizarre stories of chicken-fried rats and death by Pop Rocks has become one of the better-known checks on the news of the day.
On a shady street among the hills near Calabasas, CA, it’s easy to guess which house belongs to Mikkelson. There’s a black Lexus out front with a big Snopes.com magnet on the door; and right next to it, a white Lexus with the same decoration. “People will say, ‘Snopes has its own car?’” Mikkelson says, laughing. “Maybe they think it’s like Google Street View—we have cars all over the country searching for legends.”
Inside his home, there are shelves of reference works, organized topically, from Rock of Ages: Rolling Stone’s History of Rock & Roll to titles about sports, Hitler, and all subjects in-between. Elsewhere, there are scads of contemporary strategy board games, and Mikkelson’s whopping baseball card collection. A no-frills office looks out at a screened porch where cats lounge, and, in the backyard, about a half-dozen chickens stare.
Mikkelson himself is an unassuming, trim, 56-year-old man, with neatly parted hair and a startling snort of a laugh. Friendly in a measured way, he’s a precise conversationalist who politely corrects any over-generalizations. Prodded for some kind of “Rosebud” moment that sparked his interest in urban myths, he’s resistant. As a kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he says, he was no more conversant in such legends than any other “voracious reader and consumer of popular culture.” Maybe what really set him on his path was more of a stubborn curiosity, combined with a congenital determination to verify what he’s told.
That, plus the Internet. Working for Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1980s, Mikkelson was drawn to the company’s internal message board system—with topic areas that ranged far beyond the firm’s products and software to “Star Trek” and sports. It was his first exposure to “electronic discussion,” and he loved it. Then he found early Usenet newsgroups—“the same thing times a thousand”—and the first two he joined were alt.folklore.urban and rec.arts.disney. Coincidentally, both groups were discussing Club 33: a “sort of mythical” private club supposedly tucked away on the grounds of Disneyland. The more he read about this unpublicized, members-only locale, rumored to be the only place in the amusement park that served alcohol, the more he wanted to know the truth. “It became kind of a mini obsession,” he recalls. Eventually he went so far as to place classified ads in the (pre-Web) Los Angeles Times and Orange Counter Register and got an answer from a bonafide member. Mikkelson eventually dined at Club 33 himself. Several times.
Mikkelson stayed active on alt.folklore.urban, using “Snopes”—the family name of an unsavory batch of characters in a series of William Faulkner novels—as his handle. He launched Snopes.com in 1995, basically porting the alt.folklore.urban model onto the Web: a collection of carefully researched articles, listing verifiable sources, mostly debunking popular contemporary legends.
Readers could submit examples and debate details on the site’s discussion forum, but the articles were all written by Mikkelson and his then-wife, Barbara. They’d actually met via that Usenet board. For years this was just a hobby, with much research conducted at the library. (Mikkelson also had access to California State University, Northridge’s digital research databases, because he continued to take classes long after completing his degree.) Sometimes they wrote letters to potential sources on letterhead from The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, an entity dreamed up to help make the inquiries seem more legit.
Mikkelson remained a full-time software engineer until late 2002. By then, advertising was generating enough money to live on, and the site had begun to cover not just classic urban legends, but basically “whatever was coming up on the Internet,” Mikkelson says. This reflected what readers wanted to know, and a changing media landscape. The shift accelerated after the contested 2000 election, but it really took off after 9/11. The site was flooded with requests to verify or debunk this or that theory about the terror attacks, the attackers, the possibility that the government was in on it and other rumors coursing through an accelerating news cycle. Traffic grew. Events like Hurricane Katrina produced even more newsy conjecture and real-time mythology. Then came the 2008 election with wild rumors about Obama erupting “within minutes of his candidacy” announcement, Mikkelson chuckles.
And simultaneously, the mainstreaming of the Web, and all the misinformation that spread through it, fueled a massive desire for rapid fact-checking. The first decade of the 2000s saw the debut of FactCheck.org (a nonprofit connected to the Annenberg Foundation), PolitiFact (launched by The Tampa Bay Times) and Fact Check (Glen Kessler’s column and blog for The Washington Post). All were primarily focused on the statements of political figures, and positioned themselves as bipartisan. (NewsBusters.org has a more openly conservative fact-check agenda, and Media Matters a more liberal one.) By 2016, the Duke Reporters’ Lab counted 96 active fact-check sites “keeping tabs on politicians” in 37 countries, up from 64 such sites last year. This resonated with a rise in a more widespread expression of skepticism of the media that isn’t easy to quantify but is hard to miss: From the self-publishing “citizen journalist,” to the entire Gawker empire, to the recent evolution of Genius.com into a tool for “annotating” anything published online, dissecting and undermining whatever resembles an official narrative has become an orthodoxy of its own.
Vetting political news was certainly not the original Snopes mission, but gradually became core to the site as truth-seeking readers searched for answers. And as the site’s profile rose, so did curiosity about who was behind it. This reached an amusing climax in 2009, when FactCheck.org investigated a chain-email rumor charging that Snopes was actually a secretive, richly funded and “very Democratic” operation. This was debunked. Among other things, FactCheck.org found that Mikkelson was a former registered Republican turned Independent, and his wife was a Canadian citizen unable to vote in the US. As for the rich funding: The site had gotten by without ever taking on an outside investor, hiring writers, or even updating its aging code. The Mikkelsons worked at home and had just one (remote) employee who helped deal with incoming mail.
But with the shift to addressing fast-flying web news “ephemera,” Mikkelson was, by mid-2014, overwhelmed. Barbara Mikkelson had stopped writing for the site, citing health issues. (They have since divorced, Barbara has not been editorially involved for “several years,” and no longer holds an ownership stake in the site, David says.) “It was pretty much, ‘I can’t keep doing this on my own,’” Mikkelson says. “It wasn’t really tenable.”
For help, he turned to the Snopes.com message board. That’s where he found that original employee back in 2005: Liz Donaldson, a Boston-area reader with an administrative background. She now deals with more than 1,000 emails a day, plus Facebook communiqués, tracking and flagging recurring or promising topics. The Snopes team today includes several other writer/editors who are geographically far-flung, but constantly connected on Slack. And last year, Mikkelson partnered with an upstart outfit in San Diego called Proper Media, focused on buying or partnering with popular but essentially mom-and-pop Web properties, to modernize the site’s backend and sell ads. These days, Snopes’ day-to-day editor Brooke Binkowski—whose background includes both audio and video production—and Mikkelson have been plotting how to add those capabilities to the Snopes empire. But, Binkowski admits with a laugh, it’s not easy to find the time in an election year: “There’s just so much bullshit out there.”
It only takes a glance at the front page of Snopes.com to confirm that Binkowski’s assertion checks out. On a day in early August, one item debunks a meme circulating on social media claiming that Hillary Clinton has argued “Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.” Another shows how a false rumor that Donald Trump had leaked information from a classified intelligence briefing started as a confused Twitter exchange that was converted into a speculative item on a dubious news site, which was in turn amplified by left-leaning political blogs that didn’t bother to check it. Near the top of the site’s “Hot List,” a piece explains that a hoax claiming Will Smith’s son Jaden Smith had killed himself is actually a trick on behalf of a malware-spreading app for Facebook. And leading the “most shared” list is a debunking of the durable (false) rumor that Facebook is about to make all users’ posts public.
But as much as always-on social media functions as a firehouse spewing bad information into our newsfeeds, it’s too easy to put all the blame on new media for the proliferation of dubious messages. As this heated political season makes clear, rumors spread when they reaffirm biases—that vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine would wear a Communist lapel pin (actually it was a “blue star” pin symbolizing his son’s service in the Marines) or that Donald Trump has voiced plans to annex Canada (a fabricated tweet to that effect was actually created for a satire site). And this isn’t just an election-year phenomenon. Binkowski points to the way sites built to mimic real news sources attract clicks with carefully calibrated fakery: Pairing a mug shot from the public domain with a fake story claiming that, say, a black man has committed some particularly outrageous crime. “And basically old racists will say ‘I knew it all along! Those people!,’” Binkowski says, “and pass it along.”
And therein lies one of the biggest lessons that Snopes has to teach: Urban legends are most interesting for what they say about those who spread and believe them—our hopes (as in the grateful millionaire tale) as well as our fears about the secret ways the world really works. That’s one reason some legends persist over time, by morphing and substituting fresher details into a similar narrative: Trump, Gates, Ford, whomever. Another example dates back to the 1990s, and involves Liz Claiborne allegedly confessing on Oprah Winfrey’s show that her designs are purposely unflattering to black consumers because she doesn’t want them as customers. That never happened, but years later, when Claiborne wasn’t quite so salient, there was a similarly false rumor that involved Tommy Hilfiger telling Oprah he doesn’t like black people. And just last year, a fake news site published a (hoax) story claiming that Michael Kors had tweeted that he is “tired of pretending to like blacks.” The recurring theme is a distrust of corporate power, a suspicion that fortunes are gained through exploitation by bad people with ugly secrets.
But what about your cousin or friend or colleague who swears he or she actually saw or experienced this or that debunked event? It’s plausible that our credulity is affected by the way our memories work—or don’t. Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has studied memory for decades and advanced groundbreaking work on the way the brain manufactures false memories (and the implications for the reliability of “eyewitness” accounts). An early study she was involved in has come to be called the “lost in the mall” experiment: Researchers asked participants to recall as much as possible about four childhood events they were presented with. One of these events—being lost in a mall and rescued by a kind, older person—was actually a fabrication. But a quarter of participants “remembered” it anyway, and often added new details. Subsequent research has indicated that heavy exposure to perceptual information about an event (images, descriptions) can make some people more likely to believe they experienced it firsthand. (Snopes.com has, perhaps generously, suggested this may partly explain Donald Trump’s claim to have witnessed “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims cheering the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. While that never happened, he might be “remembering” some conflation of rumors and unrelated news footage from that time.)
The deeper point is that whatever the role of new (dis)information media, it all plays on the way humans are wired. And thus the key to the Snopes approach remains a skeptical scrutiny of any piece of information’s origins.
University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Timothy Tangherlini studies and teaches folklore, literature and cultural studies. As he points out, scholars of modern folklore, urban legend and the like are interested “not so much whether people are telling a factually true story, but rather why they might be telling the story.” A legend can be defined partly as a “story told as true,” he continues, and one that generally has a structure ending in some resolution. (Trump rewards the Good Samaritan, for instance.) Rumors, on the other hand, often lack resolution, and may even include an implicit call to action. (“Tanks are on the streets of Ferguson, we’ve got to do something!”) Graph a rumor against, say, social media chatter, and its spread is “bursty,” as Tangherlini puts it—appearing suddenly, fading rapidly.
“Snopes allows people, then, to rapidly challenge a bursty topic,” he says. “The rumor breaks onto the scene but is met quickly by people tweeting the counter or the debunking information, often sourced at Snopes. So, Snopes realizes what drives their traffic, and focuses then on quickly doing the fact checking on a bursty event.”
Thus Snopes today seems to fit into the mission of the broader wave of fact-check sites: to use technology to help set the record straight. But over lunch in Calabasas, Mikkelson sounds appropriately skeptical about any grand claims in turning back the tide of false rumors and other bad information. “For the most part,” he says, “people are determined to believe what they want to believe, and no amount of telling them otherwise is going to change it.”
Finally, debunking has itself become a more contentious matter. Mikkelson has tended to ignore attacks that accuse his site of having a political agenda. But he recently wrote a scorching and comprehensive rebuttal of a Daily Caller columnist’s allegation that LaCapria had a pro-Democrat bias, based on posts she’d written for another site earlier in her career. “David is funny,” LaCapria says. “When he gets mad, he gets mad.” (Discussing this later, Mikkelson simply dismissed the columnist’s “distorted” sourcing methods and added, “You need to let employees know you have their backs.”)
Mikkelson avoids partisan comments and, notably, its ad platform is tweaked to keep political messages off the site. But when pressed, he points to the Trump phenomenon as an example of the limits of even the most earnest fact-checking efforts. “[Trump is] impervious to fact-checking,” Mikkelson says with a laugh. “Much of what he says isn’t true, and there’s a whole bunch of people on the Internet dedicated to pointing that out—and it has zero effect on his popularity.”
Perhaps the most significant psychological factor fueling modern misinformation culture is the notion that social psychologist Leon Festinger dubbed “cognitive dissonance.” This idea originated in his study of a cult that believed an alien visitation to Earth would happen on a certain date. When it didn’t, the cult members actually became more fervent in their insistence that while this event had been postponed, it would definitely happen—and that they must persuade others with more energy than ever. In a series of subsequent experiments, Festinger showed how subjects confronted with evidence contradicting their beliefs often doubled down, and devised cognitive strategies to rationalize this dissonance away. Something similar may be at work when we spar over “truth” on the Internet. “The more you attack something,” Mikkelson muses, “the more it demonstrates”—to some people, at least—“that it’s an idea worthy of defending.”
Indeed, Snopes crept up on current events from an odd angle that had more to do with timeless myths, slowly evolving into something like a veracity conscience for an Internet that has as much trouble with “truth” as ever—if not more.
“We often get people who write to us, ‘I just want to know the facts. I don’t want to read a bunch of other stuff,’” Mikkelson says. “But ‘facts’ are almost meaningless,” he argues, “without being put into some kind of context.”
And that’s why right now, faced with an insanely volatile and uncertain future, it’s precisely the best time to have Snopes. And an even better time to be Snopes.
Author Rob Walker (@notrobwalker) writes about technology, design and other subjects. He is the Workologist columnist for The New York Times Sunday business section.
The history of the Internet is filled with inspiring eureka moments, crackpot ideas that changed the world, and, yes, fantastic failures. We’re honored to publish these Webby Exclusives which are led by David Pescovitz, Co-Editor at Boing Boing and a Research Director at Institute for the Future.
ICYMI—check out the first installment of “The Internet Illustrated: Twitter’s First Chirps”.