THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

For debunkers, hobby turned into a job

By Brian Stelter
New York Times / April 5, 2010

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NEW YORK — No, Kenya did not erect a sign welcoming people to the “birthplace of Barack Obama.’’ No, Wal-Mart did not authorize raids to find illegal immigrants at its stores. No, Social Security numbers are not assigned by race.

Investigating such claims, and hundreds of other rumors and legends, are David and Barbara Mikkelson, an unassuming California couple who run Snopes, one of the most popular fact-checking destinations on the Web.

As the Mikkelsons know better than most, one of the paradoxes of the Internet is that, along with the freest access to knowledge the world has ever seen comes a staggering amount of untruth.

Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, once memorably declared the Web “a cesspool.’’

For well over a decade, the Mikkelsons have acted as arbiters by answering the central question raised by every chain letter — is this true? — complete with links to research.

The popularity of Snopes — it attracts 7 million to 8 million unique visitors in an average month — puts the couple in a unique position to evaluate digital society’s attitudes toward accuracy. After 13 years, they seem to have concluded that people are rather cavalier about facts.

“Rumors are a great source of comfort for people,’’ Barbara Mikkelson said.

Snopes is one of a handful of fact-checking sites. Brooks Jackson, director of one of the others, the politically oriented FactCheck.org, says news organizations should be doing more of it.

“The news that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites such as WorldNetDaily or Daily Kos,’’ he said in an e-mail message. “What readers need now, we find, are honest referees.’’

Even the White House cites fact-checking sites: It has circulated links and explanations by PolitiFact.com, a project of The St. Petersburg Times.

The Mikkelsons did not set out to fact-check the Web’s smears and screeds. The site was started in 1996 as an online encyclopedia of myths and urban legends, building off the couple’s hobby. They had met years earlier on a discussion board about urban legends.

David Mikkelson was a dogged researcher of folklore. When he needed to mail letters requesting information, he would use the letterhead of the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, an official-sounding organization he dreamed up. He would investigate the origins of classic tall tales, like the legend of the killer with a prosthetic hook who stalked Lovers’ Lane, for a small but devoted audience.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, users overwhelmed the Mikkelsons with forwarded e-mail claims and editorials, and the couple reluctantly accepted a larger role.

Less than a year later, Snopes became the family’s full-time job. Advertisements sold by a third-party network cover the $3,000-a-month bandwidth bills, with enough left over for the Mikkelsons to make a living — “despite rumors that we’re paid by, depending on your choice, the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee,’’ David Mikkelson said.

Much of the site’s resources is spent on investigating political claims, even though the Mikkelsons say politics is the last subject they want to write about.