Fact-check the founder of the internet’s most well-known fact-checking website and what do you find? Plagiarism under a pseudonym, for one thing.
An investigation published by BuzzFeed News on Friday revealed that David Mikkelson, controversial co-founder of Snopes, wrote and published dozens of articles on the site over four years that used material plagiarized from establishment news outlets. Some of them were written under the pseudonym “Jeff Zarronandia.”
And while Snopes’ website says it “follows all industry guidelines for transparency in reporting” and that “we think being transparent with readers is the coolest,” nowhere did it disclose that Zarronandia was actually Mikkelson.
Granted, readers probably could have guessed something was a bit different about Zarronandia from his bio, which said the name was a “pseudonym of J. Eff Zarronandia” and claimed he had won the “Pulitzer Prize for numismatics in 2006” and the “Distinguished Conflagration Award of the American Society of Muleskinners for 2005.”
This is the kind of absurdist joke that would have been considered funny in the early days of the internet, when Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice and social media consisted of IRC and Usenet.
Indeed, this is how Mikkelson first began gaining attention; BuzzFeed noted “his penchant for trolling, something he was known for in the early 1990s, when he posted on Usenet forums under the handle ‘snopes.’ At that time, he was so strongly associated with trolling — even tricking advice columnist Ann Landers into running several prank letters — that the practice was sometimes referred to as ‘snoping.'”
And yet, the website Mikkelson co-founded in 1995 with his former wife is now one of the chief arbiters of what you can and can’t say online — at least, not without having it flagged as fake news. Until BuzzFeed’s investigation, he still had editorial duties there. He’s since been suspended, according to Snopes editorial vice president and managing editor Doreen Marchionni.
“Our internal research so far has found a total of 54 stories Mikkelson published that used appropriated material, including all of the stories Buzzfeed shared with us,” Marchionni and Snopes COO Vinny Green said in a statement.
Another troubling practice revealed in the statement involved “decisions Mikkelson made years earlier to not allow Snopes stories to be archived on the Wayback Machine,” a website often used by journalists to look for deleted material or detect edits and corrections made without attribution.
“Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop,” the statement added. “It has no place in any context within this organization.”
Mikkelson himself offered little defense: “There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgement. I’m sorry,” he told BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed reported that the articles in question were published between 2015 and 2019; Snopes said most “were published roughly between 2014 and 2016.” In general, they involved the aggregation of breaking news; the plagiarism was apparently an attempt to drum up traffic on trending stories.
“That was his big … secret,” former Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski said.
“He would instruct us to copy text from other sites, post them verbatim so that it looked like we were fast and could scoop up traffic, and then change the story in real time. I hated it and wouldn’t tell any of the staff to do it, but he did it all the time.”
The practice of changing stories in real time would explain why Mikkelson didn’t want the articles archived on sites like the Wayback Machine.
In a June 3, 2016, piece about the death of Muhammad Ali, the subheadline on a story published under Mikkelson’s byline reads exactly the same as the lede of an NBC News story: “Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself ‘The Greatest’ and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead.”
In a Sept. 1, 2015, Snopes article about Kim Davis — the Kentucky county clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples — the first four paragraphs were identical to Reuters’ report.
Snopes calls itself “the internet’s definitive fact-checking site” — and even if others may lay claim to that title in 2021, Snopes still casts a long shadow over the field of internet fact-checking. Many of its biases and foibles are the same as those of more established news organizations, like The Washington Post or CNN.
In that light, Mikkelson’s self-justifications are either amusing or scary, depending on your mood.
“I didn’t come from a journalism background,” Mikkelson said. “I wasn’t used to doing news aggregation. A number of times I crossed the line to where it was copyright infringement. I own that.”
Mikkelson literally lifted a lede from NBC word for word and copied the first four paragraphs of a Reuters story. You don’t need a journalism background to realize that’s unethical; any American middle schooler has had it drummed into his head that plagiarism is the writer’s ultimate sin.
Note that from 2016 to 2019, Snopes was a fact-checking partner of Facebook — yet one of its founders and chief editorial voices claims he knew so little about journalism that he didn’t realize unattributed, copy-pasted material constitutes plagiarism.
As for his nom de plume, Mikkelson told BuzzFeed “he created the Zarronandia pseudonym as a joke intended to mislead the trolls and conspiracy theorists who frequently targeted the site and its writers in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.”
“It was kind of a stress relief thing [after] spending 20 years seeing people trying to discredit our work by just making stuff up about us,” Mikkelson said. “Let’s have some fun and watch these people vent their spleen inventing reasons why this nonexistent persona is biased.”
Boy, you showed them.
BuzzFeed said Zarronandia’s “reporting made enemies of hoaxsters and fabulists across the political spectrum, including former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone and the late ‘fake-news kingpin’ Paul Horner, both of whom were unaware of his true identity.”
Now it provides them with a modicum of vindication.
Snopes bills itself as an impartial arbiter of what’s true and what’s not. At one time in the not-too-distant past, it played a part in determining what got flagged as fake news on the world’s largest social media platform.
At the same time, one of Snopes’ founders was using a pseudonym to bait Roger Stone, inter alia.
This wasn’t unknown to others at Snopes, either; Binkowski confirmed she knew about the false name and that Mikkelson “used to write about topics he knew would get him hate mail under that assumed name. Plus it made it appear he had more staff than he had.”
Mikkelson’s tolerance for cognitive dissonance is beyond impressive.
It’s no secret that dedicated fact-checking is a rigged shell game on the boardwalk of online political discourse. What you’re usually reading on Snopes or PolitiFact is liberal commentary used as a cudgel to silence contrary views.
Even by the game’s low standards, however, Mikkelson’s conduct is particularly egregious.
Here’s a man whose organization sits on the judgment seat of journalism yet who claims he didn’t know copying the first four paragraphs of a Reuters story isn’t “news aggregation” but blatant plagiarism.
The site he founded claims to be fair, objective and transparent — except when he’s trolling Roger Stone, because, you know, lol.
Mikkelson’s fate is still up in the air; Snopes has promised “a comprehensive internal investigation,” even though Mikkelson has already copped to enough misconduct to lead to the termination of a dozen editors.
In his own apology, Mikkelson said “I’m doing everything I can to make it right.” Even now, you can tell he’s lying; anyone who wanted to set this situation right would resign and slink away from public view with all due haste.
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