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.