For anyone curious about how we got here—and by here we mean this era where truth is relative and phony news Facebook bots can help swing an election—Snopes.com is a crucial case study. The creation of California native David Mikkelson along with his then-wife Barbara, the site burbled to life in 1994, in the early days of the internet, when text-only discussion groups debated the veracity of urban legends, conspiracy theories, and other rumors of the day. It grew into one of the world’s leading fact-checking entities, digging into everything from the fates of missing persons to the contents of congressional bills. Today Mikkelson runs Snopes from his Tacoma home, where he relocated two years ago. And in a time of constant confusion over what’s real and what’s not, Snopes remains a rare source of reliable truth. —JV
Technology changes. But human nature? Not so much.
Until I moved to Tacoma, I spent virtually the entirety of my life in the Thousand Oaks, [California] area.
It was not a particularly enjoyable childhood. We kind of lived like you see on cable TV now, the hoarders with the houses full of junk.
I obsessively followed baseball and the Dodgers from age nine. I developed a habit of collecting and organizing things, from baseball cards to matchbox cars to books that come in a series.
I think that’s a typical response for a child who lives in a home environment where things don’t make sense. You find small things that you can control.
In the 1980s, I was working for what was then a really large computer company, so I was connected to the internet before most people had heard of it. One of the prominent features was what they called Usenet discussion groups.
When the first graphical browser came out, I designed a site and put up a collection of Disney legends. Once I ran through all the Disney legends, I spread out into other subject areas, like college and music.
It morphed from an encyclopedia [of] urban legends to a site where anyone sends anything on the internet that is questionable.
Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, political upheaval—those are the things that give rise to rumors and conspiracy theories, and drive people to check out all the things they’re hearing.
If there’s a report of a chemical attack in Syria or some other country, typically that’ll prompt a flurry of rumors.
People die in those kinds of attacks. Discerning exactly who perpetrated them is a serious issue. But it gets very little play, while a dumb fake news story about a woman giving birth to a litter of kittens is racking up millions of views.
Sometimes it’s dismaying to see what kind of ephemera people focus on while ignoring much more substantial issues, but that’s how it works.
What do people typically get out of their work beyond supporting themselves? They like the feeling of being connected to something larger.
We have people following us from all over the world. People like a sense of purpose, that they’re making a difference. Based on our audience response, I’d say we do that.
News is kind of like housework. It’s not a finite task. It’s not something you finish.