Trust, Inc.

Journalists came to the realization a while back that they could accomplish far more by toying with your emotions than by reporting facts.

In fact, by trying to stem the tide of untruths, we were probably making everything worse. Repeating a falsehood, even as part of a meticulously researched article that debunks it, actually reinforces the falsehood; the human brain seems to experience fact-checking as a statement followed by a bunch of Charlie Brown teacher noises. We knew this even then: I can probably designate a Washington Post article about the lie-repetition phenomenon as my first “lol nothing matters” moment, six years before the phrase became a meme. My most memorable illustration of this concept was the time that someone emailed to ask about a rumor on Snopes.com, forwarding along the page. It said “FALSE” boldly at the top. The person had forgotten that part but remembered the claim.

Thus was born the tyranny of the anecdote, the now de rigueur start of a putative news story with a sad story about some terrible wrong that will bring tears to your eyes, outrage to your heart, fury to your shaking fists, and leave you no choice but to realize that something must be done.

Over time, some journalists resisted this urge to manipulate their readers, believing that journalistic integrity demanded that they actually do what Fox News claimed to do, “we report, you decide.” “Advocacy journalism” became an accepted approach to reporting, where people paid to report shaped their information to lead you to what they believed to be the inexorably “correct” conclusion. Facts were for kids.

There was a right and wrong takeaway, and if they didn’t lead you by the nose to their “right” one, they failed you and society. It was their duty to make you understand what was “right.” The job was to “shine a light” on truth. Not facts, but truth. But in that Slate homage to emotion, a name is mentioned. Snopes. It was the place where partisanship, emotion, truth, held no sway. It was just about the facts. And the reason why we accepted Snopes as being the font of facts is that David Mikkelson was trusted.

Feeling depressed about the conflation of fiction and fact in the first few months of 2017, I steered a car into the hills of Calabasas to meet with one person whom many rely on to set things straight. This is an area near Los Angeles best known for its production of Kardashians, but there were no McMansions on the street where I was headed, only old, gnarled trees and a few modest houses. I spotted the one I was looking for—a ramshackle bungalow—because the car in the driveway gave it away. Its license plate read SNOPES.

David Mikkelson, the publisher of the fact-checking site Snopes.com, answered the door himself. He was wearing khakis and a polo shirt, his hair at an awkward length, somewhere between late-­career Robert Redford and early-­career Steve Carell. He had been working alone at the kitchen table, with just a laptop, a mouse, and the internet.

What did you picture Snopes to be? A big building with Snopes across the top in Palo Alto? A bustling business with oodles of fact checking gnomes wearing green visors in a room filled with desks and computers?

Since about 2010, this house has passed for a headquarters, as Snopes has no formal offices, just 16 people sitting at their laptops in different rooms across the country, trying to swim against the tide of spin, memes, and outright lies in the American public sphere.

When you think about it, imagine the havoc Mikkelson and his 15 pals could wreak if they chose to fudge the facts, declare true what was false, or what wasn’t quite real, to serve a greater good. But success, even in the trust biz, breeds questions and scandal. After his wife, Barbara, walked out, David’s reputation was called into question for the most banal of reasons: money.

The divorce became so acrimonious that David and Barbara found it impossible to run the business together. In early 2016, David asked that his salary be raised to $360,000 from $208,000. Barbara said she found this “not even in the galaxy of reasonable.” Then, when David continued to ask for a retroactive increase, Barbara told him she’d sent the matter to their arbitrator, as was the procedure provided in the divorce agreement. David subsequently claimed he’d never signed the arbitrator’s engagement letter and now suspected the arbitrator was biased.

In other words: Any business matters would result in baroque disputes that lasted months.

The story gets uglier, but note that David was fighting over a pay increase to $360,000. Snopes was bringing down $200,000 a month from advertising to its peak 3.7 million pageview visitors. Not too shabby for an online business that sells one thing only. Trust.

But the fight between David and Barbara’s successor in interest, Proper Media, put the business of Snopes in a jam.

Just days later, Mikkelson would start a fight with the new co-owners of the business, which led them to freeze the distribution of the site’s ad revenues, making Snopes so cash-poor that by July it had to resort to a “Save Snopes” GoFundMe campaign to keep operations afloat. The appeal worked. It had raised, as of late August, more than $690,000.

People don’t only vote with their feet, but with their pocketbook too. Raising that kind of money speaks to Snopes’ reputation as an honest broker, and to people’s desire to have someone to turn to whom they can trust.

There is huge money to be made pandering to core groups of partisans. The ACLU figured this out to the tune of $87 million and growing. Much as a guy like me might see this as their selling their soul for loot, they’re remaining consistent with their political beliefs, so even if they steer a bit wide of the Constitution from time to time, it’s all good as they remain on the positive side of their truth.

What Snopes has accomplished is to largely steer between the lines of undue passion and big money to keep intact the belief that it’s the real deal, that it can be trusted. That there ends up being big money in it is a plus, as Mikkelson has to eat, and you can buy a lot of ramen for $690,000. Maybe I should have put advertising on SJ and pulled down some revenue over the past decade as well.

That Snopes has maintained its integrity, in the face of its challenges and internal strife, is really quite amazing. That it has been able to turn Trust into a profit center is even more amazing. It’s something I have been unable to do.

21 comments on “Trust, Inc.

  1. B. McLeod

    What would be even more impressive would be if people gave enough of a crap to “fact check” for themselves. On one hand, SNOPES provides a handy and time-saving resource, but on the other, it is making people lazier and shifting them away from doing their own leg work.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      We all need a shorthand method of fact checking. Even for things we try to check, digging down ten tiers is enormously time consuming, too much so to make it viable except when it’s absolutely necessary. The problem, as you note, is that when it becomes too easy, we get lazy and don’t do the legwork even when it is absolutely necessary.

      Reply
  2. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Of course, it would be nice for you if SJ brought you tons of money–John Deere Gators, fine French wine, vintage watches, and well-aged sports cars with carburetors rather than computers are not free. But, to me, Scott, the essential question is whether you truly care that you have not turned SJ into a profit center?

    I have my suspicions but no facts. Enquiring minds want to know.

    All the best.

    RGK

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Do you have an idea how expensive it is to get SU carbs tuned properly? It’s never been clear to me how one manages to navigate between profit and integrity. It always struck me that trying to monetize SJ would come at the expense of its integrity (such as it is), and that would make me as much of a whore as those I criticize. How can I speak ill of shameless profiteers when I was no better?

      But then, I’ve got a lot of time into this joint, and take a lot of shit for doing this (ironic, but true), all for the vast wealth and prestige it affords me. It’s a lousy deal.

      Reply
      1. Richard Kopf

        Thanks, Scott.

        All the best.

        RGK

        PS Were the HS6 units any cheaper to clean? Of course not, and besides you got a horsepower boost from 136 bhp to 150 bhp do in part to the increased choke size. So, pay the piper and be happy!

        Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I fear you’ve confused this with the social justice echo chambers you now favor. Who gives a shit about what you really, really (if you say it twice, is it twice as true?) hope? Save your “ugh” for someplace where your virtue signalling will bring you tummy rubs. This is not the place.

      Reply
  3. Dan T.

    Snopes has long been a site best viewed with an ad blocker, since it’s gone for the most obnoxiously intrusive advertising, popping up at you constantly while you try to read the articles.

    Reply
  4. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    Money is the issue. It spoils everything, even trust. It being so commonly the problem that it is banal is the problem. Please don’t sell out even if the cash could be sweet. You’ll eat too much, rot your teeth, and upset your stomach.

    The fact that so much money can be made from partisans is also a symptom of the same issue. How would you even go about pandering to your diverse audience, Pa? From a federal judge to CDLs to lesser attorneys to big ‘ol dummies and everything in between and more. Tough task.

    Yours Truly,
    PK

    Reply
  5. Dan

    “That Snopes has maintained its integrity, in the face of its challenges and internal strife, is really quite amazing.”

    Well, it would be, if it were true. At a minimum, their reporting about their “challenges and internal strife” has omitted some pretty important details. No links because rules, but Techdirt has run a couple of pieces giving, if not “the rest of the story”, at least a lot more of the story.

    Reply
      1. Sacho

        Their fact-checking has also taken a bit of a toll, because of Trump derangement syndrome (the urge to paint Trump as a bigger monster than he already is). For example, when they were fact-checking a claim related to Charlottesville(“Is antifa as violent as the alt-right”), they couldn’t resist puffing up the situation a bit to make it look worse for Trump:

        President Donald Trump laid the blame for the violence that took the lives of three people in Charlottesville, Virginia on “many sides.”

        Even though the people who died amid the unrest have not been linked to antifa (the other two victims were police officers)…

        The police officers died in a helicopter crash near the protest – a nice conflation by Snopes which is never actually addressed in their “fact-checking”. Snopes goes on to quote an “expert on hate groups” about how the alt-right is really way more mainstream than antifa. Pfft. The whole premise of the article is a strawman(as it quotes Trump asking if antifa share any of the guilt, not if they have equal..). It never bothers to strictly define antifa or alt-right, a problem in its own right, as we don’t even know what exactly is being fact-checked.

        The article’s only “fact-checking” – the numbers on “right-wing extremism” vs “left-wing extremism” is woefully inadequate, lumping together disparate groups just to meet the simplistic partitioning(e.g. Timothy McVeigh is considered a right-wing extremist, black nationalists are left-wing extremists??). They’ve also lost track of the original question – “are antifa and the alt-right equally violent”, instead, we’re going down some rabbit hole about “left-wing extremism” vs “right-wing extremism”. Some pretty hefty guilt-by-tenuous-association.

        Snopes recently has further pressure to perform to mainstream media standards(i.e. hate Trump really hard) because Google and Facebook use it in their crusade against “fake news” – they label “unreliable” articles as such and point you to Snopes to “fact-check” them. This creates pressure to address flash-in-the-pan activities which are impossible to meaningfully fact-check. I don’t think their integrity will last very long.

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          This was a very long comment to make a simple point, which suggests you may have wanted more to tell the story rather than make the point, which could have been done in about ten words. That said, in the absence of Snopes, expect more “expertise” from SPLC in your news. Does that bring a smile to your face?

          Will media attention, which translates into eyeballs, which translates into money, corrupt snopes? It could well be.

          Reply

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