The co-founders of Snopes, a site tapped by Facebook to be the arbiter of “fake news,” stand accused of a variety of unsavory practices that call into question whether the site is as “scholarly and reliable” as it claims to be.
New accusations against the well-known fact-checking website Snopes suggest that the site’s management are not as “reliable” as they would have you think, drawing into question whether the public can ever be assured Snopes’ “checked” facts are accurate at all. Snopes made headlines just a few weeks ago when Facebook announced that Snopes, along with four other left-leaning news organizations (ABC News, Associated Press, Factcheck.Org, and Politifact). Snopes, along with these other groups, will be given the authority to mark content posted to Facebook as “disputed,” which would then allow such content to be buried without any transparency as to why the content was labeled disputed in the first place. However, these latest accusations against Snopes, laid out in their entirety by The Daily Mail, suggest that Snopes left-leaning “fact checking” should be the least of our concerns.
David and Barbara Mikkelson, co-founders of Snopes and now ex-spouses, are going through a nasty divorce that has aired out much of the couple’s past and present shady dealings as well as demonstrate that Snopes management is hardly professional. The Daily Mail reported that “They are accusing each other of financial impropriety, with Barbara claiming her ex-husband is guilty of ‘embezzlement’ and suggesting he is attempting a ‘boondoggle’ to change tax arrangements, while David claims she took millions from their joint accounts and bought property in Las Vegas.”
Barbara, in court filing accused her ex-husband of “raiding” Snopes’ accounts while also embezzling “$98,000 from our company over the course of four years.” David, now the CEO of Snopes, also stands accused of using website funds to pay for prostitutes and female escorts, one whom became his wife last month and is now one of the website’s fact-checkers despite her minimal experience in the field and her politicized past.
Legal documents, as well as past interviews, also show that the Mikkelson’s formed Snopes by using a fake identity. After the former couple met on an online message board in the early 90s, they created a fake organization called “The San Fernando Valley Folklore Society” in order to get a better response from sponsor companies. David Mikkelson confirmed this when he told the LA Times in 1997 that “When I sent letters out to companies, I found I got a much better response with an official-looking organization’s stationery.”
Beyond the Mikkelsons’ unsavory financial and immoral dealings, also of concern is the extreme greed court documents expose as a major motivator for the Snopes CEO. One of the disagreements between the Mikkelsons involved David’s salary: “David wanted his salary raised from $240,000 to $360,000 – arguing that this would still put him below the ‘industry standards’ and that he should be paid up to $720,000 a year.” The greed-tinged legal battle does not end there. In fact, it has been so vicious that the former couple fought over the arbiter assigned to settle disputes. At least one arbiter suggested that another arbiter get involved due to all the “sub-battles” that appeared relating to the ongoing war over Snopes finances.
However, probably the most concerning revelation from the airing-out of Snopes’ dirty laundry was David Mikkelson’s admission that Snopes’ “fact-checking” operation was highly disorganized. When contacted for comment by the Daily Mail, Mikkelson – who is legally unable to comment on his legal dispute with Barbara – revealed that there is no “standardized procedure” in place for Snopes fact-checking as “the nature of this material can vary widely.” However, there is “editorial oversight” so not article published is the work “of a single person’s discretion.” More concerning, however, is that there no “set requirements” for the fact-checkers themselves. Mikkelson said, “Accordingly, our editorial staff is drawn from diverse backgrounds; some of them have degrees and/or professional experience in journalism, and some of them don’t.”
It is certainly concerning that Snopes, set to make a large sum of money for its “fake” news vetting arrangement with Facebook, is so beset with problems. Its “fact-checkers” can’t agree, they once used a fake organization to appear professional, and they are in a bitter battle over every cent of the site’s money. If money if the chief motivator of Snopes’ administration, how can anyone be sure that their “checked” facts are accurate?
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