Politics & Media
Sep 21, 2020, 06:27AM

Snopes Has Credibility Issues

The fact-checking website has to resist advocacy to maintain its reputation.

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A few months back, I got into a political argument with someone who was disputing my facts. "Let's see what Snopes says," he said, picking up his phone. At the time, I knew that Democrats love the fact-checking website, but didn't have any specific examples of a particular bias. I can now see that, despite its claims of absolute neutrality, Snopes leans Democratic. Perhaps the idea of a neutral referee for the game of politics is just a pipedream.

Fact-checking websites need their facts checked too. Relying on a single source as the final arbiter of truth isn’t a sensible policy. If I wanted to discredit Snopes, here's the example I'd start with: "Did Biden Call for an 'End to Shareholder Capitalism'"? Their "What's True" section included the fact that Biden had proposed that we "put an end to the era of shareholder capitalism—the idea [that] the only responsibility a corporation has is to its shareholders." Here's Biden's verbatim quote: "It’s way past time we put an end to the era of shareholder capitalism." To my amazement, Snopes' verdict was that the claim was "mostly false." Huh?

In the "What's False" section, Snopes offered that "Biden did not propose abolishing the stock market nor barring individuals from buying and selling shares." Some kind of sleight of hand is going on here, because this is not what was fact-checked. This is what Republicans were claiming, either out of ignorance or in an attempt to spin, that Biden wanted to do. If Snopes wanted to debunk the Republican talking points surrounding Biden's statement, that's what they should’ve done. Instead, they make themselves look like partisan hacks. It's fine to avoid the "true or false" binary to recognize nuance, but in this case no nuance was involved.

One of Snopes' weaknesses is that it sticks up for certain people (especially members of the elite), and this is a blatant example. But there are more subtle ways that Snopes betrays its bias to the Democrats. While examining the claims about George Floyd's criminal history, which includes a conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon among eight other convictions, Snopes attempted to mitigate it. The website stated: "On multiple occasions, police would make sweeps through the complex [Floyd lived in] and end up detaining a large number of men, including Floyd, a neighborhood friend named Tiffany Cofield told the AP." But if they're going to include the observation of a friend in getting to the truth, they also have an obligation to find out why the police were doing the sweeps. Snopes didn't.

In 2016, the Daily Mail ran a sensational exposé on Snopes that drew heavily on the divorce proceedings between husband-and-wife team Barbara and David Mikkelson, the founders of Snopes. Barbara had accused David of embezzling $98,000, which he allegedly spent on "himself and prostitutes." David's new wife Elyssa Young was, according to the Mail, employed by the website as an administrator, but in the past she’d worked as an escort and porn actress, and once ran for political office as a Libertarian on a "Dump Bush" platform.

Forbes contributor Kalev Leetaru caught a whiff of fake news in the Mail story, but Snopes had failed to issue a denial so he contacted David Mikkelson, expecting to receive one of Snopes' point-by-point refutations of every false allegation. Instead, Mikkelson told him that a binding agreement prevented him from talking about the details of his divorce. So he couldn't deny that he was an embezzler? The co-founder of a fact-checking organization hiding behind the veil of secrecy when asked to deny allegations of criminal behavior isn’t a good look. How can Snopes ask for the public’s trust when, after being fact-checked itself, it says "no comment"?

In addition to the question of objectivity, Snopes does something else that calls its judgment into question—it has repeatedly fact- checked the Babylon Bee, a Christian/conservative satire website that makes up wild stories for entertainment. Snopes has fact-checked whether Democrats demanded that “Brett Kavanaugh submit to a DNA test to prove he’s not actually Hitler,” or whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly “guessed ‘free’ on the TV show ‘The Price is Right.’” So I suppose it's not a surprise that they actually fact-checked this Babylon Bee headline as well: “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication.” Is their target audience fifth graders?

On its website, the Babylon Bee posts this motto: "Fake news you can trust." The Onion, the longtime satire website, but not one aimed at conservatives and Christians, calls itself “America’s finest news source.” Snopes doesn't fact check The Onion, however, and it's reasonable to suspect bias as the reason. What else could it be? The Bee’s funny satire of progressive politicians apparently angers Snopes, which has chosen to beclown itself by fact-checking obvious fiction. In general, Snopes pays particular attention to correcting hits on Democratic politicians.

Snopes began as a debunker of urban legends, and it did a good job then. If you wanted to find out if Little Mikey from a famous Life cereal commercial died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with Coca-Cola, Snopes was there to say no. But the website wanted to do more important work and it turned to politics. Facebook now uses it to check facts, conferring Snopes with great power. If Snopes wants to secure a reputation as a trustworthy arbiter of truth, it has to avoid being swept up in political polarization.


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