Interviews

The Internet’s Lighthouse: Snopes Editor on Fake News and Urban Legends

Andrew Littlefield By Andrew Littlefield December 20, 2016

Have you heard about this?

Mark Zuckerberg is going to start charging for people to access Facebook, but you can keep your free account by copying and pasting this status. Just make sure you do it before December 31st at midnight, otherwise you’ll see a payment prompt when you log in on January 1st.

Oh, and you’re related to a Nigerian prince who needs your help moving millions of dollars to the U.S. If you help him out, he’ll give you a handsome reward.

Listen to this story or continue reading below.

Undoubtedly, you’ve seen dire warnings and fishy propositions like this pop-up on social media and email from time to time. And most likely, the first comment was a simple link to an article on Snopes.com, letting the original poster know they had nothing to worry about (other than, perhaps, their own gullibility).

Since 1995, Snopes has been the internet’s go-to resource for debunking digital folklore. The site has gained a massive following, netting an estimated 40 million visits in November of 2016. In many ways it’s become a sort of internet utility, much like Wikipedia or Google—indispensable tools that the internet community at large relies on just to function.

For the majority of its history, Snopes debunked chain email scams, social media share-baiting, and good old-fashioned urban legends. They were the ones that let us know that no, gang members won’t kill you for flashing your headlights at another car and Bill Gates isn’t going to cut you a check for five grand just for forwarding an email.

Yet their role has taken on new meaning and importance across the last six-months as focus has been put on what we can—and can’t—trust online. The latest election season has thrust fringe conspiracy theories into the mainstream, and Snopes has been tasked with debunking stories of far greater consequence than the latest celebrity gossip rumor.

But despite the changing landscape, Snopes’ focus remains exactly where it’s been for the last 21 years—serving as the internet’s last, best defense against bullshit.

“I think people are confused by the world around them, which is understandable, because it’s a confusing freaking place.”

Letters to the Editor

Brooke Binkowski is a seasoned journalist. She’s produced work for CNN, NPR, and Al Jazeera, just to name a few. But when she saw a job listing last year for a managing editor role at Snopes, she couldn’t pass it up.

“I found (the job listing), and I was like ‘Oh my God, Snopes is hiring?’” she recalls. “So I wrote them and said ‘I love Snopes, please hire me,’ and they did! And it’s worked out really well so far.”

jackalopeShe’s been with Snopes for about a year, writing articles, editing the work of her team, and assigning reporters to new stories. It was a stint as an academic writer that got her interested in deep, investigative work—a natural fit for the work she’s now tasked with. Snopes attempts to thoroughly investigate rumors and legends, despite how far-fetched they seem on their faces. This often requires calling local governments and police departments, digging through old newspaper stories, and speaking with expert sources—the kind of stories that take plenty of old-school reporter elbow grease.

There’s an infectious twinge of adventure in Binkowski’s voice as she talks about her work—like a kid describing the characters on her favorite TV show. Picking a favorite myth she’s researched is a challenge (“That’s like being asked my favorite ice cream flavor”), she speaks glowingly of journalistic influences (“Lydia Cacho. She is just…she’s badass!”), and she can’t hide her excitement as a writer on her staff sends updates from the field as we chat.

She sees more than her fair share of misogyny on social media, as many female journalists do, ranging from petty insults to more serious violent threats. Yet Binkowski says she feeds off the adversity—using the comments to push her to work even harder.

“I’ve found that I’m not a very nice person and I kind of thrive on adversity, so when people try to bully me, I’m like ‘Oh, now it’s on,’” she says. “As long as I direct my ‘not-niceness’ to people who deserve it, I think I’m okay.”

Like many others, Snopes was a resource she relied on for years, but now she has a chance to actually be the one doing the research to separate truth from fiction and settle thousands of Facebook arguments the world over.

But as Binkowski was coming onboard, the role of Snopes was evolving in dramatic fashion.bigfoot drawing

The 2016 election saw a perfect storm of factors that resulted in a flurry of misleading (or flatout false) stories being paraded as news—politics that had become increasingly polarized for decades, a general distrust of formerly heralded institutions, all combined with social networks specifically designed to feed us more of what we already like and believe.

Suddenly, the questions from readers weren’t just about harmless pranks, but political stories with very serious accusations—and very serious repercussions.

From Myths to Fake News

Far more intelligent writers than myself have covered the subject of fake news at length, so for the purposes of this story, we’ll stick to the fact that at some point, the questions sent in by Snopes readers shifted from harmless folklore to stories of more consequence.

But is there really a difference between those categories of bunk? Or does our penchant for urban legends feed into our acceptance of more viscous fabricated news?

“Urban legends get passed along because they teach a specific lesson,” explains Binkowski. “You know, the old hook-hand on Lover’s Lane, the underlying message is ‘Don’t go out with your boyfriend and make out in the middle of the night, because something bad will happen.’”false

While potentially antiquated, there’s not much harm in sharing a legend like this. Even urban legends of the more modern variety—the classic Facebook “copy this status” rumors—pose little threat to the general public, according to Binkowski.

“I don’t think there is any harm in that kind of thing, it just runs the risk of making you look a little dumb when you realize (it’s fake),” she says. “There are people who deplore the ‘dumbing down of America,’ but this is not a sign of that.”

Compare that to the fake news stories which are more sinister in nature, intended to discredit particular people or ideas, stating falsehoods as fact, and hosted on sites that are specifically designed to look like legitimate sources of news. Often these sites steal the branding of traditional news sources and host their sites on URLs meant to trick the user into thinking they’re looking at the original source—such sites have been known to spread malware to visitors as well.

Those stories often share an underlying theme themselves.

“With fake news, you often see this undercurrent of nationalism or racism,” says Binkowski. “Even the ones that seem innocuous seem to have that.

Even after they’ve been thoroughly debunked, fake news stories tend to stick around. They have incredible staying power, and spread with frightening speed. A recent Buzzfeed analysis showed how in the final months of the election, fabricated news stories had more engagement on Facebook than mainstream news stories. Pundits have bemoaned the difficulty in getting online readers to spend time with in depth articles—a problem marketers often face too as they choose between low-quality “snackable” content and more creative work that makes them stand out from the crowd.

The reason why this type of content is so frequently shared and spread? Because it’s been specifically designed to do just that.

“Fake news is tailormade to evoke an emotional response, because that’s how they make their money—by being shared,” says Binkowski. “If you read it, it’s going to piss you off or make you laugh at someone’s expense, or most likely, it’s going to tap into existing fears of a changing world.”loch-ness-monster

With repeated exposure to this type of emotional manipulation, it’s not hard to see how one can start to retreat into their own bubble, building walls around their worldview. And when someone presents evidence that challenges that belief system, it can cause a lot of internal strife—strife that often gets directed towards Snopes. Dozens of YouTube videos and Facebook posts now hurl unfounded accusations of corruption and conspiracy theories their way. On December 15th, it was announced that Facebook would be relying on Snopes investigations to label debunked news stories that are shared on the network. Soon after, “Snopes” was a national trend on Twitter, mostly from partisan accounts decrying the site as biased and part of a larger media plot to stifle far-right media.

“We’re not funded by George Soros, we’re not funded by the Clinton Foundation, we’re not funded by the Koch Brothers, we’re not funded by anybody except for advertisers, and we don’t do any political advertising,” Binkowski says emphatically.

hookmanThat’s not to say she or any other writer at Snopes is without their own personal biases. Detractors have attempted to pick apart tweets from the Snopes staff that point to their own personal beliefs in an attempt to discredit Snopes as a publication. But just like any other professional, Binkowski and her team have to put those aside in pursuit of the truth—a practice that has forced her to question her own belief systems at times.

“People don’t like having their belief systems challenged, and I’m there too. It makes me uncomfortable,” she says. “However, I’ve gotten a lot better about it, because I have to.”

Snopes only bias has to be towards evidence-based truth. Sometimes they get it wrong, and issue corrections. In many ways, the accusations of conspiracy speak to the reputation that the site has built over the last two decades. But the constant criticism is certainly a challenge. Binkowski says she regularly gets “hate mail” for even her more banal articles. The comments are decidedly more vicious when politics are involved.

“The level of scrutiny is something I’ve never encountered (at previous jobs), and I found it extremely intimidating when I first started,” she says. “But now I’ve got a rhinoceros hide.”

Intent on the Truth

The landscape around them has certainly changed, but at its core, Snopes is remaining true to their mission. Creators Barbara and David Mikkelson have gone to great lengths to avoid associating themselves with any end of the political spectrum—they simply present the facts and hard evidence. A simple website, light on design and whizz-bang features and born out of a hobby, guides readers towards impartial truth.

“Maybe this is too grandiose, but I think of us as a lighthouse,” says Binkowski. “We’re just there with the truth and hopefully people will come to us. I don’t want to force people to read what we have to say, I want people to know we’re available as a resource.”

In that sense, Snopes is fundamentally different than a news outlet. They’re not there to break stories, just verify the truth of the ones already out in the world. They’ve managed to outlive dozens of well-funded digital publishers by sticking to that mission, all without actively seeking big, splashy headlines and scoops. It’s just the facts—nothing more, nothing less.

“I’ve never worked at a place that’s so intent on the truth,” says Binkowski. “Snopes is very focused on the ‘Why?’”

Fear is rooted in the unknown, and the lack of facts around urban legends and fake news alike is part of what makes them so frightening to our sensibilities. The fear of losing something or someone trueimportant to us. The fear of a changing world. The fear of our own finite and temporal nature. Often times, our anxiety around these things is born simply from a lack of understanding—a forgivable ignorance that digital hucksters are all too eager to take advantage of for their own gains.

And in a world of confusion and anxiety, where the truth feels like a moving target, a beacon of evidence and fact offers comfort, calming fears and grounding us in rational thought—a lighthouse on the digital ocean.

“Everything can seem really alarming, and I would like to think we offer some sort of factual comfort. I hope.”


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