Applicant: David Mikkelson
Assessor: Margot Susca
Conclusion and recommendations
Margot Susca wrote:
My assessment is to accept the 2nd year application as compliant in all areas.
I appreciate that Snopes goes so far as to include video in its fact checks, which I believe is a way to enhance fact checking by building on reader/viewer engagement. I also find its setup easy to navigate, and I believe it would be easy for a member of the public (who isn’t spending the time evaluating the site like me) to do so as well.
Snopes states a claim, gives it a clear rating [False, Mostly True, True, Mixture, Mostly False, Unproven are offered as options (I only saw one Unproven and that was on the recent Amelia Earhart-maybe-it’s-her?-bones-on-an-island piece)], and offers an origin of the claim, whether that’s from urban legends, MSM or social media. Not only does Snopes provide the evaluation of the claim with one of the aforementioned terms, but it’s graphically shown, too, using either red and/or green, and that feels helpful since today’s consumers are so visual. Its methodology arriving at the distinctions are clear and explained in lay terms.
A reader recently emailed Poynter to complain about Snopes having a left-leaning agenda and wondered why the site was allowed to display the IFCN moniker. She (the email address says her name is “kristen mccabe”) noted a fact check that Snopes did with the headline “Did Newsweek Report That Trump Will Be Impeached and Replaced by Hillary Clinton” was questionable and provided evidence of this so-called bias.
I went back and checked the Snopes presentation of that piece she mentioned, and I do not see anything that supports her claim. Snopes stated the claim, explained it was a think piece done by a Harvard University professor and noted that it is FALSE. She brought another matter to Poynter’s attention about a fact check about a second shooter in Parkland and in that one it’s tough to understand exactly what her concern is. She noted in that email that Newsweek is “run by a literal cult.”
Further, she noted in one of her emailed complaints that Snopes is not transparent in its funding section, according to IFCN principles. As I note in Section 4a below, I do not find support for this claim, and note that Snopes does have incorporation documents with the state of California included in its 2nd year review. The complainant takes issue with $700,000 Snopes raised from GoFundMe, noting it’s hard to know who could have donated money and that that is suspect. IFCN asks for disclosure of funding sources, and I believe Snopes noting that the money comes from the GoFundMe site is sufficient to meet the IFCN principles, and I do not believe that accepting money in this way to run the Snopes site has any influence on content or the nature of the fact checks it completes. It clearly lists its funding sources and how that money is spent in a spot online where any member of the public could find it, access it and, if necessary, inquire about it.
Its methodology, also, is clear and, perhaps more importantly, thorough and rigorous, with fact checks passing through a copy editor and at least two content editors. At times, Snopes notes online that it will reach out to relevant subject-area experts and historical documents to fact check claims. When that process fails, Snopes provides a clear, transparent corrections policy, and leaves corrections on its online content to note that the record has been updated stating what its error was.
Another issue that had Snopes in the news since its first-year review was completed, is a matter related to fact-checking satire, which, in today’s social and online media climate, seems like an interesting and, in my opinion, hefty endeavor. Satire site The Babylon Bee had a headline that read, “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication.” Snopes debunked the satire as a fake news story, leading Facebook to flag it and slowing The Babylon Bee’s diffusion of the piece (and therefore its ability to profit from it). The Bee’s founder told Poynter that it’s a satire site meant to entertain. But, Snopes weighed in on the industrial washing machine and called it out. Other satire sites like The Onion have also been the subject of Snopes’ reviews, mainly because members of the public have asked Snopes to fact check claims they see online directly or circulated through social media.
Snopes founder David Mikkelson told Poynter in an email over that dustup: “Our standard has always been that we tackle whatever people are asking about or questioning at the moment; we don't make any value judgments about what's too silly or obvious or unimportant to cover. There are scads of web articles and websites dedicated to poking fun at people who mistook Onion material for literal news reporting, so clearly nothing is so obvious that at least some portion of the audience won't question or believe it.”
As that Poynter piece noted, there is a fine line between satire and misinformation. One that requires transparency on the part of the satire site and some understanding by the audience of what satire is. But, it seems clear in the last two years that audiences more and more have a tough time distinguishing real news, fake news and satire. That’s a media literacy issue on the part of the audience, in my opinion, and I give credit to Snopes for its transparency saying, “it was flagged to us, we checked it and it’s false.” That seems to be what IFCN wants from its certified sites.
Perhaps this is another issue for Facebook, and one that I think is important enough to note here because it will be an issue beyond Snopes-The Babylon Bee that IFCN will need to work through. That is, should IFCN-designated groups that flag satire receive some different qualification or warning on Facebook than, say, a flat-out falsehood related to politics or government? Or, should the IFCN work on strengthening its principles for fact checking groups on news sites that ONLY deal with government actions or official statements, leaving the sites that it earmarks as accredited by IFCN that deal with urban legend or satire another designation? Further, does Snopes fact-checking two people playing tennis on the wings of an airplane deserve the same designation from IFCN as The Washington Post’s fact-checking apparatus?
These may be questions that IFCN must address in the future as it seems likely that satire and purposeful misinformation will likely be more of what some websites are forced to try to debunk. But, I do not see those as issues for this review. Snopes, in my opinion, meets all of what IFCN asks of its groups and I recommend approval.