Ethics Quiz: The Truth About Snopes

"So what? What matters is the quality of work we do, not how we do it!"

“So what? What matters is the quality of work we do, not how we do it!”

Ethics Alarms had already declared the fact-checking website Snopes.com untrustworthy,  based on a series of partisan posts that intentionally muddied the factual waters rather than purifying them, when Facebook named it as one of its select gate-keepers to protect its readers from “fake news.” This was not wise,  since a fact-checker who slants the facts is as useful as an accounting firm that will cook the books for a price. I laid out a series of conditions before I would ever use the service again, and so should Facebook. My non-negotiable demands before I would visit the site, reference it positively, or use it as authority were:

  • Getting out of the political fact-checking business.
  • Firing researchers who have been conclusively shown to engage in biased and shoddy research
  • Confessing its betrayal of trust and capitulation to partisan bias, apologizing, and taking remedial measures.

However, there is more to consider. In an exclusive report so lurid that I assume it is credible only because publishing it without iron-clad verification would be asking for a lawsuit and worse, the Daily Mail has just revealed that…

  • When Snopes  was founded by spouses Barbara and David Mikkelson, they used a letterhead claiming they were a non-existent society to give credibility to their research.
  • The couple is divorced, and Barbara claimed in legal documents that David embezzled $98,000 of company money to spend on “himself and prostitutes.”
  • Now operating Snopes himself, David Mikkelson’s new wife Elyssa Young is employed by the website as “an administrator.” Before that, she  worked as an escort and porn actress.
  • She also ran  for Congress in 2004 as a Libertarian on a ‘Re-Defeat Bush’ platform
  • Kim LaCapria, one of the site’s  main researchers and the author of the baised and misleading “fact-check” on Hillary Clinton’s representation of a child rapist, previously had a blog called “ViceVixen.”

The article also includes this:

David Mikkelson told the Dailymail.com that Snopes does not have a “standardized procedure” for fact-checking “since the nature of this material can vary widely.’” He said the process “involves multiple stages of editorial oversight, so no output is the result of a single person’s discretion.” He also said the company has no set requirements for fact-checkers because the variety of the work “would be difficult to encompass in any single blanket set of standards. 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.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Should any or all of the items in the Daily Mail story, it it is accurately reported, disqualify Snopes from being trusted by Facebook, its readers, or anyone else?

As I said at the outset, Snopes already has proven to me by clear and convincing evidence that it cannot be trusted. Let’s assume that you are, however, like Mark Zuckerberg and all of the other partyist and partisan citizens, pundits and journalists whose own judgment is already damaged by bias, and who so far haven’t found the Snopes deception on behalf of Democrats and Hillary Clinton anything but The Truth. The over-all portrait painted in the Daily Mail piece is one of an unprofessionally-managed and operated organization, and unprofessionally-managed and operated organizations, while they can be brilliant, innovative, flexible  and occasionally productive, are not reliable. Normally we judge people and organizations on their results and not what the sausage looks like as it is made. Trust, however, requires more. If I have a babysitter I have used for years without incident, and find out that she is an alcoholic, her perfect record so far will not rescue her from my distrust.

The fact that Snopes’ founding couple are apparently lying about each other in divorce-related conflicts doesn’t trouble me too much, as experience shows that crimes of the heart can unhinge the most ethical of us. The rest of the Mirror story, however, depicts  a text book example of an organization that never grew up. Many companies and non profits start out as loosely organized enterprises that are mission-oriented and eschew traditional structure, often under near dictatorial leadership from a charismatic founder. As these organizations grow and prosper with increasing success and visibility, however, they must either professionalize or fail. Snopes has already demonstrated that integrity rot is well underway, and the Mirror exposé makes it clear why.

Ad hoc, loosely-organized entities managed by the gut and populated with autonomous and quirky staff unrestrained by traditional professional standards are ticking time-bombs for ethical misconduct, negligence and incompetence. Trusting such an organization to handle a task as fraught with pollution by bias as news story confirmation is no less than madness.

16 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Research and Scholarship

16 responses to “Ethics Quiz: The Truth About Snopes

  1. Steve-O-in-NJ

    “Many companies and non profits start out as loosely organized enterprises that are mission-oriented and eschew traditional structure, often under near dictatorial leadership from a charismatic founder. As these organizations grow and prosper with increasing success and visibility, however, they must either professionalize or fail.”

    I have been thinking this for a while, but only here have I seen it put together this neatly and concisely. I thought it mostly about artist sites, though. As I moved through the world of classical crossover artists I visited many fan sites devoted to this or that musician, some of them quite large and superficially competent. However all of them followed pretty much the same pattern: One old, single, pathetic guy for whom the artist fills an otherwise empty heart, buys the domain and a bit of bandwidth, and creates a forum in which to post news, reviews, and pictures.

    Traffic is usually not that hard to get, as fans flock to the place where they can get all this for free. As the numbers go up, the founder recruits a mix of other old, single pathetic guys and young, malleable women who are otherwise powerless in life, and makes them administrators and moderators, to enforce his will and whatever rules he decrees for discussion on the site. Anything critical of the artist or the administration of the site is quickly deleted, and anyone who dares challenge the administration, right or wrong, is eventually thrown off the site. Some even go so far as to make the true but tactless and tyrannical statement that users shed their First Amendment protections at the login button.

    Before the advent of social media, sites like this could take over, as they were the only place people could go to get information on favorite artists, and often people made friends on these sites they could not get in touch with any other way. They could also produce a skewed view of the artist, as every interview received glowing coverage, no matter what the artist said, and every show, whether it be in New York or Podunk, was hailed as yet another great achievement, no matter what actually happened, and the “he’s/she’s/they’re the greatest” posts proliferated.

    Unfortunately, artists are only human, and eventually all of them are going to slow down, hit a slump, take a break, or God forbid, make a mistake. Nine times out of ten these sites went the Baghdad Bob route, either gaslighting unfavorable facts or outright burying them and forbidding their discussion, and attacking, threatening, or outright banning those who attempted their discussion, tarring them as negative or unsupportive, and therefore not wanted. Whether it was about maintaining power, maintaining access, or just shoring up a collapsing image I can’t say, but eventually these sites all lose the one thing they can’t survive without: credibility. In the end an echo chamber is almost always seen for what it is.

    I can think of a few such pathetic old losers who could have benefited from a course in basic ethics: don’t rule your site like it’s your personal fiefdom and you are the king, don’t try to bury the truth, don’t seek special access, DON’T use the site to access young (sometimes underage) talent, and so on. Obviously only the first three apply to Snopes, but another also applies there: don’t push an agenda and try to disguise it as the truth.

    • I wish I could take credit for the observation, but it was something I learned from a brilliant Harvard Business Review article I have a cop of somewhere. It was about the five stages of business development, and at the time I had just taken over a non profit that was a classic example of an organization that was stuck in the first stage—no organization chart, informal procedures, everyone on a first name basis, loose accounting, loose deadlines, clicque-y, mission oriented, built on personal loyalty and passion, founder-worship, memos on scraps of paper, everyone “friends”…the whole thing.

      Here is what I read, I think—https://hbr.org/1983/05/the-five-stages-of-small-business-growth

    • Chris

      Comment of the day.

  2. isolumikko

    Which newspaper printed the report, the Daily Mirror, or the Daily Mail? Or both?

  3. Neil Dorr

    Jack,
    Two friendly corrections:

    – In the ethics quiz, you incorrectly identified the Daily Mirror instead of the Daily.

    – In the second paragraph after the quiz question you say “Scopes” (Darrow on the brain, perhaps?) instead of Snopes.

    Hope that helps. Best wishes!

  4. Other Bill

    “The fact that Scopes’ founding couple are apparently lying about each other in divorce-related conflicts doesn’t trouble me too much, as experience shows that crimes of the heart can unhinge the most ethical of us.”

    I’m curious. What does experience tell us about former escorts and porn actresses?

  5. Rusty Rebar

    lol. I think you Misspelled John McAfee as David Mikkelson.

    • I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.

      • Rusty Rebar

        “The couple is divorced, and Barbara claimed in legal documents that David embezzled $98,000 of company money to spend on “himself and prostitutes.”
        Now operating Snopes himself, David Mikkelson’s new wife Elyssa Young is employed by the website as “an administrator.” Before that, she worked as an escort and porn actress.”

        That sounds like John McAfee

  6. Vernon Pouncey

    Did I miss something? Has Snopes reported a false item as true or a true item as false? If not, then all this background information is moot.

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