SNOPES is the oldest independent fact-checking website in the USA. Despite its success, the founder is wary of premature congratulations and the misuse of the term fake news.
David Mikkelson and his employees are busier than ever. Social media giants like Facebook have become partners and hits on his website are growing daily. Despite his success, the founder of scopes.com is despondent. The 60-year old used to love his job: debunking made-up or embellished stories on the internet used to be fun. In the days when they were called urban legends or folklore. In 1994, the first year of Snopes. These days, reality looks different.
TRUE. FALSE. MIXTURE
Snopes has become one of the primary independent fact-checking services in the USA. In part their success is attributable to the detail-oriented, pedantic work ethic with which Mikkelson’s 15- strong team debunks fake information. The transparent, accessible style of the results is equally important. At a glance, users can see if a headline, meme or post is “True”, “False” or “Mixture”, followed by a detailed depiction of the research, including original sources, such as court documents or governmental decrees, which are not only included but explained. Mikkelson, a programmer since day one, has little trouble unearthing records and files on the net – even in the face of the questionable interpretations of freedom of information in some US state agencies. Despite all his expertise, despite the praise from established media outlets, Mikkelson is discouraged. In a recent interview with Deutschlandfunk he concedes it’s increasingly difficult to keep pace with false information and politically motivated disinformation campaigns. “It’s never- ending. For every article we publish, a larger number of false news items pops up. There is no end in sight”.
The End of Fake News
It’s a trend that became apparent even before the Corona crisis. Users can submit topics to Snopes. Since Donald Trump popularised the term fake news in politics, daily submissions have exploded. Mikkelson rejects the term: it’s become a way for the US president to describe anything he objects to. No matter if it’s a political campaign, a headline or a Tweet, he now prefers to use the word disinformation, as it describes the knowing and willing creation of false information and its active spreading.
Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?
The Snopes founder urges for caution in other spheres too. On his website he acknowledges that they consult and fact check for Twitter and Facebook, testing the trustworthiness of postings. Mikkelson criticizes that these companies rely on external consultants too heavily, of which Facebook alone employs five, trying to shift responsibility. The reason: they’re still highly dependent on advertisement and attention. They neither attempted to combat illegal ads and lurring tactics, nor disinformation, as long as the related posts generated enough interactions or the originator paid for the postings.According to Mikkelson, there no longer are any gatekeepers who differentiate between verified news and disinformation ahead of the publishing. Fact checking has become a matter after the facts in many cases.However, next to Mikkelsons pessimistic assessment of the situation in the US, the importance of social media still needs to be appreciated. Especially in countries in which the freedom of press and media are being limited through censorship or pressure, social media channels remain to be an important source of information and a platform for critical voices.