Can mythbusters like Snopes.com keep up in a post-truth era?

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The fact-checking website was launched to correct urban legends and false rumors. Now, with even presidential candidates repeating fake stories from the web, its co-founder David Mikkelson tells the bilge is rising faster than you can pump

The most scenic style to find truth on the internet is to drive north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, blue ocean froth to the left, sunlit mounds cresting to the right, until Malibu Canyon Road, where you take a sharp right and gust for a few miles through the oak-lined knolls and dips of Calabasas, past gated estates that are home to the likes of Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Mel Gibson, and keep going until you reach an odd-looking wood-and-brick house with a US flag on the porch: the home of David Mikkelson.

It feels like a good jumping off point for a hike, or a pony trek. But truly it is the ideal place to explore fibs like whether Hillary Clinton stole $200,000 in White House furnishings, or whether Donald Trump called Republican the dumbest group of voters, or whether Black Lives Matter protesters chanted for dead cops, or whether Nicolas Cage died in a motorcycle collision, or whether chewing gum takes seven years to pass through the digestive system, or whether hair grows back thicker after being shaved, or, if you really, truly must know, whether Richard Gere had an emergency gerbilectomy at Cedars-Sinai hospital.

Mikkelson owns and operates Snopes.com, a hugely popular fact-checking site which debunks urban legends, old wives tales, fake news, shoddy journalism and political spin. It started as a hobby in the internets Pleistocene epoch two decades ago and evolved into a professional site that millions now rely on as a lie-detector. Every day its team of writers and editors interrogate asserts ricocheting around the internet to determine if they are false, true or somewhere in the middle a cleaning of the Augean stables for the digital era.

There are more and more people piling on to the internet and the number of entities pumping out material holds growing, tells Mikkelson, who turns out to be a wry, soft-spoken sleuth. Im not sure Id call it a post-truth age but theres been an opening of the sluice-gate and everything is pour through. The bilge holds coming faster than you can pump.

The
The patron saint of fact-checking … David Mikkelson, co-founder of Snopes.com at his desk in Calabasas, California. Photo: Rory Carroll

In the midst of terror attacks, policing protests, Brexit, and Trumps run for chairman the need for precise information has seldom felt most urgent or forlorn. Here we are with the freest access to knowledge in history, troves of data and facts at our fingertips and HG Wellss dream of a world brain a reality, yet a tide of truthiness, propaganda and nonsense surges ever higher. Bogus claims about Barack Obamas citizenship, say, or Britains pays to the European Union, are exposed, yet the claim-pedlars breeze on, unimpeded they win.

We need such sites more than ever, tells Jack Pitney, a politic prof at Claremont McKenna College, California, who uses Snopes in his blog. In Trump, we have a major presidential candidate who doesnt only parse terms, conceal facts, or shade the truth, but constantly tells big blatant lies.

In person Mikkelson, 56, is boyish, with a toothy smile and shy demeanour. On the working day we fulfilled his site sieves a typical stew of online stories: Trump sent $ 10,000 to a bus driver who saved a woman from jumping off a bridge? True. Chinese eateries in Pretoria, South Africa have been authorised to sell dog meat? False. Evangelist Franklin Graham told Christians faced death camp if they didnt support Trump? False. Transgender students in Wisconsin must wear identifying wristbands? Undetermined.

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In the midst of terror attacks, Brexit and Trumps run for chairman the need for precise information has seldom felt most urgent. Photo: David Zalubowski/ AP

Several periods during the interview at his home, and later over lunch, Mikkelson consults his tablet because news, or what masquerades as news, is relentless. Such is the public hunger for reliable information he is treated, on the rare occasions he is recognised in public, as a celebrity the patron saint of fact-checking. It leaves him chuffed and a little mystify, because his inbox seethes with angry emails accusing him of bias. I get lots of negative emails but the people I gratify are always friendly.

The existence of Snopes and similar sites like FactCheck.Org, TruthOrFiction.com and PolitiFact.com raises several questions: who makes the bilge? Why do people share it? And how much should we trust the individuals who blow the whistle?

Mikkelsons home, tucked in the San Fernando valley mounds, is an incongruous base to referee the worlds brawling, squalling system of interconnected computer networks. The phone signal is feeble and the internet connect sometimes fells( Mikkelson had to use nearby hotels Wi-Fi during the 2008 general elections ). A previous owned tacked on additional rooms apparently at random, giving the impression of a mad, elongated cottage with an internal maze.

Mikkelson works in a small kitchenette-cum-office that he shares with his cat. His half a dozen writers and editors are scattered across the US, with another dozen IT workers in San Diego, all funded through ad revenue. Bookcases line the property: there are tomes on Hitler, Disney, Titanic, J Edgar Hoover, proverb, quotations, fables, grammar, the Beach Boys, top 40 pop makes, baseball, Charlie Chaplin any and every topic. In the living room, stacked floor-to-ceiling, are boardgames, hundreds of them: Africana, Parfum, Pirates Cove, Whitechapel, Tzolkin, Goa, Hacienda.

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Must transgender students in Wisconsin wear ID wristbands? Photo: Alamy

Mikkelsons restless mind stems from a challenging childhood. His mom was a hoarder and his father moved out, leaving young David to seek solace in reading and obsessively in accordance with the LA Dodgers. I was trying to find ways to impose order in response to home difficulties. I was always trying to organise and categorise. A computer science degree led to a task with Digital Equipment Corporation and embrace of the nascent internet, which he and his wife Barbara who is no longer involved with the site used to research a passion for folklore.

He adopted Snopes the name of a venal household in a trilogy of William Faulkner novels as a nom-de-net. The couple transferred the name to the site they started in 1994 to explore myths and urban legends UFOs, fake moon landings for a small, devoted following. When Mikkelson was laid off from his task he utilized the redundancy money, and extra hour, to upgrade the site.

Then al-Qaida destroyed the World Trade Center. There was a huge protrusion after 9/11. The ensuing convulsions tilted Snopes into politics, fact-checking a nations increasingly shrill, bitter partisanship, and in the process winning legions of fans known as Snopesters.

Mikkelson says he is not political, only sceptical. I dont believe I set a lot of trust in politicians. Presidential candidates I would vote for is the one that would stand above the fray. Hes still waiting.

Mainstream media, for all its flaws, tended to not crank out any old nonsense, he tells, but the social media explosion diffused gatekeepers by allowing anyone to self-publish and upload content. There is, for example, a cottage industry of Facebook posts detailing supposed attempts by human traffickers to snatch victims from shopping malls, autoes, job interviews, firework displays and ice-cream trucks. Snopes tend to classify them as false or unproven.

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UFOs, perhaps, over Salem, Massachusetts in 1952. Snopes began as a site to explore urban legends. Photo: Popperfoto

Some social media reports are faster and slicker than traditional news outlets, which often react to rather than report news, amplifying misinformation. If someone posts something controversial on Facebook and 20 minutes later its a headline in the Daily Mail or New York Post it only stimulates things worse. So we need to create new types of gatekeepers.

The convergence of a wild US election, terror attacks and police shootings has unleashed a flood of misinformation but also sharpened appetite for verification, according to Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.Org. There is evidence that the demand to hold politicians accountable for making false statements has never been higher. Our website set a record last year for web traffic, and this year our page positions are up 146%. This has been true for the other fact-checking operations, as well. Sharing investigations with outlets such as USA Today and MSN.com further boosts the audience, tells Kiely. Trump and Hillary Clintons dismal honesty ratings, he tells, depict scrutiny is work. I think thats evidence that the public is holding nominees accountable.

Mikkelson sighs at perennial gossip such as the US government planning internment camp or gun confiscations, or signing away national parks to the United Nations. It gets tiresome having to do the same thing over and over. Most of the stuff we debunk is so distorted from its source its hard to think its done accidentally. Even so, he is philosophical. The bilge is contaminating , not destroying, public discourse. He shudders at Trump but shrugs off dreads of fascism. The chairman is not really that powerful. Toiling in the bowels of online muck has no discernible impact on Mikkelsons equanimity. He does not touch alcohol or coffee. The closest he comes to profanity is holy heck.

Snopes regularly interrogates Trumps lies and boasts but also the smears against him. The leaked photo of a bald, pasty-faced Donald? False. The audio clip calling Abraham Lincoln a dishonest traitor? A fabricated compiling of sound snippets from a campaign speech. The 1998 People interview quote calling Republican the dumbest group of voters? False.

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Trump and Clintons dismal honesty ratings depict scrutiny is work … Photo:/ AFP/ Getty Images
Mikkelson lists four principal misinformation sources 😛 TAGEND

1 Legitimate satire sites such as the Onion, which deceives the truly credulous, involving occasional intervention. No, SeaWorld isnt drowning live elephants as part of a new attraction. Are the parents of teen Caitlin Teagart going to euthanise her because she is only capable of texting and rolling her eyes? False.

2 Legitimate news organisations that regurgitate stories without checking, such as the $200 Bill Clinton haircut on Air Force One which supposedly snarled air traffic at LAX in 1993.

3 Political sites that distort, such as Breitbart.com twisting an Obama quote about the contributions of Muslim Americans to constructing the very fabric of our nation into the headline Obama: Muslims Built The Very Fabric of Our Nation.

4 Fake news sites fabricating click-bait stories. Such as: Ted Cruz sent shockwaves through the Republican Party today when he announced he would endorse Donald Trump for President, but only if the GOP nominee would publicly support a ban on masturbation,( saying) without swift action the country was doomed to slide down a slippery slope of debauchery and self-satisfaction. Snopes sourced this to a site that mimicked ABC News to seduce clicks to an underlying malware site, producing ad revenue. It named and dishonor the worst offenders earlier this year.

Such sites have targeted Mikkelson himself. Google his name and you swiftly learn the FBI busted him for involvement in a pitbull fighting ring. News 4 KTLA reported this with photos of a mauled, bloodied puppy, and of Mikkelson being arrested. All fake. News 4 KTLA does not exist. The scene manipulated Mikkelsons head on to that of Victor Bout, the arms trader. Fake sites resent Snopes, he tells, partly because Facebook utilized it as a metric to restriction the reach of fake news.

Misinformation pedlars appear to be shy woodland animals. Of half a dozen private individuals and sites contacted for this article , none replied.

Jenna LeFever, an Arizona-based activist and novelist, is not accused of wrongdoing but did reply. Snopes criticised an article , not written by her, on a site she works for, Winning Democrat. Regardless if Snopes or any other fact-checking site wants to ding my site for not telling the absolute truth, theyre still providing this country with a great service , no matter how obsolete the truth seems to have become. But she believes Snopes can go overboard disproving satirical asserts. I just think its sad that we live in an age where people cant for the life of them tell if something is irony or not.

The internet is the great enabler but what drives misinformation is human nature, and that is hardly new. A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get onto pants on, said Winston Churchill. Except he didnt. It was allegedly Mark Twain. And the evidence for that is patchy. On this, as so much else, truth is still reaching for its pants.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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