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?

Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Lessons of The Colorado ‘Trans Bathroom Harassment’ Hoax

Australian Ethics Alarms reader Zoe Brain is the site’s resident expert on transgender issues, having professional and personal experience in the field, and she pointed me to this story, which is disturbing and revealing. I know she will continue to help clarify the issues and events involved in the ongoing comment thread, but I wanted to highlight this comment, which also provides an update, as the Comment of the Day on the post, Lessons of The Colorado “Trans Bathroom Harassment” Hoax.Here’s Zoe Brain:

“A few comments –

“1) Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Fox News and others have neither retracted the story nor removed it, despite being informed that it’s false in both substance and in several technical areas. For example, this trans girl transitioned two years ago, she is not “a boy who sometimes dresses like a girl”.

“2) On the other hand, the San Jose Christian Examiner, after initially and uncritically reporting what the CBN had said (they considered it a completely reliable source) and with additional rather pungent commentary, subsequently fact-checked and retracted with apologies. They left the story up as a badge of dishonour, but prefaced it with words that did indeed amount to “WE MISLED YOU, WE WERE UNPROFESSIONAL, AND WE BEG YOUR FORGIVENESS.”. I therefore nominate them for an Ethics Hero award – section “What to do when you screw up by the numbers”.

“3) Regarding timing – Continue reading

Lessons of The Colorado “Trans Bathroom Harassment” Hoax

“It’s a liberal world gone mad at one Colorado high school, where the rights of one transgender student have trumped the rights of other students forced to share a bathroom. The transgender student, a male who identifies himself as a female, has sexually harassed female students in the girl’s bathroom at Florence High School, Pacific Justice Institute reported.Not only have parents’ complaints gone nowhere, but the female students have also been threatened with dismissal from athletic teams and hate crimes charges if the complaints don’t stop, according to the institute, a nonprofit religious-rights organization that was alerted by concerned parents.”

 

"Jane Doe": Victim

“Jane Doe”: Victim

This was the story breathlessly reported in various forms this month by conservative media sources, including Fox News. Apparently the sole source for the claim that “a male who identifies himself as a female, has sexually harassed female students in the girl’s bathroom” is the statement that this “allegedly occurred” in a letter to the school sent by the aggressively anti-transgender, ultra-conservative advocacy group, The Pacific Justice Institute.  The PJI has prominently opposed California’s transgender bathroom law, and it seem clear that it viewed this story as a means to an end.

In a case of the conservative media playing the old game of “Telephone,” the PJI letter suggesting that such harassment may have happened was morphed into media reports that it had happened, as Fox, the Examiner, The Blaze and others adopted the story published by the online version of British tabloid, The Daily Mail, as fact. It wasn’t fact, and the Daily Mail has quietly pulled its original story. What appears to have happened is that some virulently anti-trans parents who were livid that the school permitted a boy who self-identified as female to use the female rest rooms contacted the PJI with unsubstantiated and apparently fictional claims, in order to focus hostile attention on the school. Interviewed about the incident, the school’s superintendent flatly denied that any incidents of the kind hinted at by the PJI and reported in the media actually occurred, and to this day, no evidence has been presented that they did occur, no specifics, names, quotes or facts whatsoever, just vague allegations. One student in the school provided this perspective: Continue reading

GLAAD Joins The Hilaria Baldwin Ethics Lionel Wreck

model_trainwreck2

Ethics train wrecks can develop at any time, though sometimes the participants and the incidents involved limit the results to small-scale ethics damage. Let’s call these “Ethics Lionel Wrecks,” in honor of the model train sitting in a cardboard box in my basement. This week’s tale of Hilaria Baldwin’s mistimed tweets defines the genre.

The progression:

1. George Stark Starts the Train

This one began when the pregnant wife of actor/ pitchman/liberal blowhard/ bully Alec Baldwin was called out by the Daily Mail for tweeting trivial, giddy messages during the funeral of recently departed actor James Gandolfini. That would have been certifiably disrespectful conduct in the rare sub-category of Funeral Ethics; indeed Ethics Alarms certified it. The problem is that Mail reporter George Stark was wrong.

Salon explained that the error was caused by “a technical glitch on Twitter that reflected GMT instead of ET…an analysis of the source code of Hilaria Baldwin’s tweets reveals that she tweeted between 11 am and 2 pm, as opposed to 8 am to 11 am. The Daily Mail has stated that “the tweets did appear accurately timed on mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads,” but “the only way MailOnline was able to establish the REAL time the tweets were sent was by viewing the twitter web page source code, something almost no normal member of the public would ever do.”

I have no idea what the hell that means, but I was one of the people who relied on Stark’s report, which seemed convincing, with screen shots of the tweets themselves and their timestamps. Was he unethically sloppy, as Baldwin and others have claimed, or was this just an excusable mistake? Twitter is new enough that there may be some justification for not checking the source code before using the time stamp to conclude something from a tweet: I can’t determine whether there is a journalistic protocol for this at the Daily Mail or elsewhere. Before a reporter attacks the conduct of a pregnant woman at a friend’s funeral, he would presumably be obligated to be certain of his facts, since readers, like me, will assume that he was. If this really was, as Salon says, a freak Twitter glitch, then Stark was unlucky rather than unethical.

2. Ethics Alarms rides the rails Continue reading

Web Hoaxes: Not Funny, Always Unethical

P.T. Barnum’s “Fiji Mermaid:. At least in 1842,. it wasn’t on the web.

Ethics Alarms is swearing off “angry ex-boyfriend/girlfriend takes cruel outrageous revenge” stories, no matter how juicy the ethics lesson may be. First it was the tattoo artist who defaced his ex’s back with a huge and ugly drawing of steaming dog excrement that was fantasy masquerading as news, and now it’s the Polish dentist scorned…remember? The one who pulled out her cheating boyfriend’s teeth? Yes, it seems that horror story was a hoax too.

A lot of people who should know better think that web hoaxes are funny and hoaxers are clever. I regard them as the ethical equivalent of  chefs and waiters who spit in restaurant customers’ food. The web creates—a web!—of information and communication across nations and cultures, and poisoning that web with bogus stories creates a chain of unpredictable harm. At very least, hoaxes make every trusting source that passes along the lie an unwitting accomplice in a despicable act. It harms long-nurtured relationships of mutual trust between those who post on blogs and websites and those who read them. Continue reading