I thought Snopes had hit rock bottom when it started fact-checking the Babylon Bee, but apparently not. The co-founder and 50% owner of the fact-check site has admitted he plagiarized dozens of articles over the past several years. Some of the articles were published under a pseudonym.
David Mikkelson, the co-founder of the fact-checking website Snopes, has long presented himself as the arbiter of truth online, a bulwark in the fight against rumors and fake news. But he has been lying to the site’s tens of millions of readers: A BuzzFeed News investigation has found that between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson wrote and published dozens of articles containing material plagiarized from news outlets such as the Guardian and the LA Times…
BuzzFeed News found dozens of articles on Snopes’ site that include language — sometimes entire paragraphs — that appear to have been copied without attribution from news outlets that include the New York Times, CNN, NBC News, and the BBC. Six of these articles were originally published under Zarronandia’s byline, three under Mikkelson’s own, and the rest under “Snopes staff.” Snopes’s subsequent internal review identified 140 articles with possible problems and 54 that were found to include appropriated material.
Any regular employee found to have plagiarized even once would be fired, but in this case there’s not much Snopes can do because the guilty party is also the owner. The site put out a memo apologizing to current and former employees. “To the staff, past, present, and future, who are undoubtedly impacted by these findings, we are deeply sorry. While an individual’s actions have caused this breach of our ethics, we hope the extraordinary writers and editors who work at Snopes do not see their efforts and reputation undermined by these missteps,” the site’s managing editor wrote.
According to Buzzfeed, plagiarism wasn’t an oversight on Mikkelson’s part, it was his business/SEO strategy for several years. In Slack messages he advised his employees to follow his example, telling them they could post entire plagiarized articles so they could get stories up fast about breaking news topics.
In one Slack message from January 2016, Mikkelson detailed his strategy for copying and then quickly rewriting articles after publishing. “Usually when a hot real news story breaks (such as a celebrity death), I just find a wire service or other news story about it and publish it on the site verbatim to quickly get a page up. Once that’s done, then I quickly start editing the page to reword it and add material from other sources to make it not plagiarized,” he wrote.
That’s quite an approach to publishing from a site that bills itself as “the internet’s go-to source for discerning what is true and what is total nonsense.” If Mikkelson was using that approach regularly then there are probably a lot more than 54 articles that are copied. I suspect that’s where the site’s own review came up with “140 articles with possible problems.”
But it seems that other people working at Snopes chose not to follow Mikkelson’s lead. One former writer who now works for one of Snopes’ competitors told Buzzfeed, “he just didn’t seem to understand that some people didn’t plagiarize.”
You can read the full memo from Snopes along with Mikkelson’s own mea culpa here. The memo suggests that Snopes does not allow the internet archive to take snapshots of its site but says that decision is being reconsidered. Obviously if there’s no archive of what you’ve published it makes it a lot easier to do what Mikkelson is accused of, i.e. put up someone else’s work and then rewrite it.