Snopes.com creator David Mikkelson has been calling out bullshit on the Internet for two decades. (There's no antifreeze in Fireball, people ... merely the makings of a very regrettable hangover.) We caught up with Mikkelson to find out where Snopes came from, and what's next for the site.
Above, photo of a Bigfoot sighting in Pennsylvania (Snopes debunked the "shooting" of Bigfoot in San Antonio last year).
Mikkelson named the site after an early Internet alias, itself a nod to the Snopes family of criminals and tenant farmers in several William Faulkner novels. With a long-planned redesign and expansion of the site finally in the works, he'll soon have an even better platform for disproving all those wild stories in your Facebook feed.
io9.com: When and why did you start the site?
David Mikkelson: It started about 20 years ago. I worked for a large computer company back in the days when only universities, the Department of Defense, and computer companies were on the Internet. I was a participant in an old Usenet newsgroup that had to do with urban legends. But in newsgroups, things would scroll off and disappear after a few weeks. So when the first graphical browser came out, I started writing up things for the web.
Since I was an early adopter, it quickly became the place where everybody sent every questionable thing they saw on the Internet. It took a left turn from what I was intending it to be. It became more of a reference and fact-checking site than just an urban-legends site.
What's it like, knowing you oversee the reference point for anyone needing to debunk anything online?
It's kind of interesting to be sort of anonymously famous. Everywhere you go, even in other countries, you run into people who know about [Snopes.com], but of course no one recognizes me! People are always trying to tell me that it has vastly more influence than I realize. [Laughs.] I hope not!
How have urban legends changed along with the Internet, now that so much "news" is disseminated via social media?
Technically all those [viral news stories] aren't urban legends, because urban legends are stories, narratives with a moral.
Like the killer with the hook!
Yeah! [Laughs.] It's pretty much, everything that's questionable gets turned into an urban legend. Of course, things spread much more quickly now. Debunkings never keep pace with the original false items, because the corrections aren't nearly as interesting. A lot has changed, even with what I do — it used to be, say, for a picture or video to go viral, people would forward it to each other by email, and it took weeks for it to build up. There'd be plenty of lead time to try and figure out where it came from, and whether it was real.
Now, it's much more ephemeral; things come and go so quickly. People post a funny video on Facebook, and 20 minutes later it's a headline in the New York Post or something. There's much less time to identify them and write about them.
Are people more gullible than they used to be?
No. Technology changes, but human nature doesn't. But perhaps it's made it a lot easier for others to exploit people's gullibility.
Do you still get most of your tips via email?
It used to be mostly seeing what people were sending in email, and seeing what terms people were entering into our search engine. But, again, that's greatly changed. We have to be scanning what's hitting on Facebook, and what's going around on Twitter. We can't depend on people coming to us, necessarily, so we have to know how to mine social media, Reddit, things like that, and see what's popular.
How do you go about debunking rumors (or proving them)? Is each post kind of its own exercise in investigative journalism?
It's a common question, but it's hard to say, because it can be quite different depending on what the nature of the item is. Some of it's just basic reading comprehension — like, someone's asking if there's a bill before Congress makes it legal to run over frogs or something. [Laughs.] If you actually read the text of the bill, you can determine that it doesn't actually say that.
Other items are fairly easy to research online. But other things, you actually have to track down people, email them or call them. Older stories might involve traditional methods, like books and magazines. It's pretty varied. But certainly things are a lot easier now — with, like, image search, you can trace back the origins of an image without having to hope you just stumble across it like we did 20 years ago. Really, there's nothing magical or surprising about it. People often seem to think that we have some mystical ability to divine the truth. A Magic 8-Ball or something. But it's all the kind of stuff you'd expect.
What changes do you envision for Snopes.com, now that you're adding more staff and planning a redesign?
Just in a design sense, in a cosmetic sense, hopefully it'll finally be more mobile friendly and faster to update and navigate, things like that. In terms of content, I suspect we're going to try moving from everything being textual to [using more multimedia]. I'm guessing that a lot of what we're covering right now is fake news — these sites keep popping up, and I'm expecting some technological development in the near future will eliminate that. Facebook tried that, with tagging certain things as "satire," but that seems to be kind of inconsistent and not closely followed.
We'll be trying to get back to more what I had envisioned [for Snopes.com], which was not being just a reference site where people come and they have something specific to look up. It would be more of a general entertainment-information site, where people come to find interesting things to read. Sort of more along the lines of Mental Floss might be a good analogy. That's where we started out, but those kind of articles don't get nearly as much attention as the latest political screed or fake news item. It's the challenge between art and commerce, I guess.
In your opinion, what was the most outrageous story that turned out to actually be true?
I hesitate to repeat any because I'm not sure you can print them! [Laughs.] There was one I just sort of dusted off and re-published, but it dates way back to when I first started. Back in the early days of the Internet, there was this text that used to circulate via email that was supposedly a medical journal article. It had to do with a doctor who treated a patient whose scrotum was all swollen, and discolored, and had metal bits in it.
They eventually coax the story out of the patient: he worked in a machine shop, and when everyone else went to lunch, he would use the belt sander or some piece of machinery to pleasure himself. He ended up catching his scrotum in the machinery and it tore open, but instead of going to the emergency room like most other people would, he picked up an industrial stapler and stapled his scrotum back closed, and didn't seek medical treatment for several days after that.
So, since this was way back when, I had to track down the medical journal to verify that the article had actually been published — which meant trekking out to UCLA, because those things weren't online yet. But once I verified it was a real article, I still had to eliminate the possibility that it was just something published as a joke, or something like that. I had to track down the doctor who had written it, who was retired back in Pennsylvania. I sent him a letter and he replied, saying that yes, he'd treated that patient, and that he'd seen the article tacked up on bulletin boards all over the world. That was one of the ones I did not expect to be true! There's also one about a deer tongue, which I will not repeat.