Snopes ‘Fact Checker’ Retracts 60 Articles After Co-Founder Caught Plagiarizing Them

David Mikkelson

In Brief

  • The Facts:
    • The co-founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson, was recently caught publishing nearly 60 plagiarized articles in an attempt to fact check internet content.

    • These articles were posted between 2015 and 2019.

    • Mikkelson has since been suspended while an internal investigation is completed.

  • Reflect On:
    • Are fact checking organizations truly investigating claims they try to debunk? Or are they landing upon the first piece they find that re-enforces what is thought to be true?

    • After all, most fact checking doesn't deeply explore counter culture evidence being presented by journalists.

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David Mikkelson, the co-founder of Snopes, has long presented himself as an arbiter of truth online. A BuzzFeed News investigation found that between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson wrote and published dozens of articles containing material plagiarized from other news outlets.

As a result of the recent discovery, Snopes VP of Editorial and Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni suspended Mikkelson from his duties pending “a comprehensive internal investigation.” He remains an officer and a 50% shareholder of the company.

Snopes’ editorial staff condemned Mikkelson’s behavior in a separate statement signed by eight current writers.

“We strongly condemn these poor journalistic practices…we work hard every day to uphold the highest possible journalistic and ethical standards.”

This investigation has revealed that what goes on inside Snopes may not be as rigorous as one thought. This isn’t to say every Snopes article is plagiarized, but if material is just taken from other sources, are fact checkers really investigating the facts? Or are they just quickly pumping out pieces by turning to mainstream outlets to re-inforce mainstream narratives that are being challenged?

If journalists take days or weeks to churn our well investigated pieces, how can fact checkers debunk them in a matter of hours?

This Snopes investigation is pointing to the larger issue here, these fact checkers, and the experts they call upon, are often less subject matter experts than the investigative journalists that are writing about subjects. Yet the untrained is the authority.

We’ve long talked about the usefulness of fact checking as well as the obvious damage it is causing in public discourse. In the cases where purely fabricated news is made up and disseminated, these resources can be helpful, but when they are used to cast doubt or even squash stories that aren’t false but instead challenging to mainstream narratives, they are no longer being fact checkers but instead narrative control outlets.

Take COVID for example. Many scientists, doctors and experts have been subjected to extreme amounts of censorship during this pandemic. The mainstream conversation has been dominated by experts who agree with and promote a certain narrative, while information and experts that contradict that narrative have gone unacknowledged. When they do get acknowledged, it’s usually subjected to “fact checking” and labelled as “false.”

This type of censorship has not only been strong during the pandemic, but with virtually all major global issues, most of which seem to be heavily politicized.

Fact checkers often hand out these “false” labels regardless of how much evidence exists to support claims being made. Instead of open scientific dialogue, the current accepted narrative is the default truth.

Being an independent media organization, we’ve been subjected to “fact-checking” treatment on multiple occasions.

For example, a large meta analysis was published in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health and is titled, “Is a Mask That Covers the Mouth and Nose Free from Undesirable Side Effects in Everyday Use and Free of Potential Hazards?” It looked at 65 studies pertaining to prolonged mask wearing to examine whether or not there may be any health consequences. In short, the study found that masks can lead to “relevant effects and consequences in many medical fields,” and also clearly outlined why the effectiveness of masks to stop the transmission of COVID is highly questionable.

I published a balanced article reporting on this study and it was labelled as false and ‘missing context’. The fact-checker in this case was Lead Stories, and they did not respond to my multiple inquiries asking for an explanation as to why he piece was false. I was simply presenting a peer-reviewed study, no opinion, and I provided some opposing research as well. A study good enough for publication in a peer reviewed science journal is not allowed to be written about by a journalist? And ‘fact checkers’ have the power to shut down these type of content?

We live in an age where powerful entities attempt to manipulate our consciousness with regards to various issues. We are bombarded with propaganda on a daily basis, and we are so polarized in our beliefs that we fail to have appropriate conversations about evidence that contradicts what we believe to be true. Sadly, it always seems like one side is simply ridiculing the other, while society continually becomes divided.

The solution isn’t likely to be one coming from government, but one that comes from people having to snap out of the culture wars they are being invited into. On one side we’ve lost a sense of trust in institutions, authority, and experts – and for good reason, while on the other, propaganda is pushing the idea that these bodies can do no wrong, and it’s only ‘conspiracy theory’ that is causing a loss in trust.

As always, this becomes a personal journey of exploring one’s mind, where we make meaning and how we distribute trust. It’s an inner journey to find truth ‘out there.’

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