So 2016 has come and gone, and what a trail of wreckage it left. Today started out stormy in my neck of the woods -- there's a 30-foot-long tree limb, knocked down by the wind, in our backyard -- but it turned into a brilliant and lovely day, as if to proclaim, "Hey, it's the very first Monday of a brand new year, and the world should look fresh and new and bright and happy!" But in reality there is no such thing as a clean slate just because the calendar turns over to a new year. It doesn't work that way. In reality Leonard Cohen is still dead (as are Princess Leia and her mom and a host of others). And even worse, Donald J. Trump is still the not-my-president-elect.
Granted, more rational heads have pointed out that 2016 was not a record year for celebrity deaths, and that despite the horrors of 2016, lots of good stuff happened too (and hopefully Drumpf and his wrecking crew won't be able to reverse all of it). Even so, Leonard Cohen is... well, you know. And Drumpf... well, you know. Not to belabor a point or anything.
But let's get down to business. 2016 also stands out as the year that fake news finally came into its own (which arguably played a part propelling the Orange Blowfish to electoral victory). And the mention of fake news brings us to the point of this post.
On several occasions on past blog posts and on Facebook, I have cited the fact-checking/mythbusting site Snopes.com, and have defended it against its many critical-thinking-impaired detractors who proudly and defiantly proclaim that (1) they never trust anything they read on Snopes; and (2) anyone who does believe or cite Snopes is a gullible sheeple or an idiot. I have written that although I don't consider Snopes infallible, even as I don't consider any source infallible, I believe it to be a reliable source and a good starting point for doing one's own research about silly social media memes and too-bad-to-be-true Internet rumors.
Accordingly some folks might be wondering if some recent Snopes buzz -- regarding founders David and Barbara Mikkelson's highly contentious divorce, David Mikkelson's remarriage to a former sex worker, and a couple of Snopes fact checkers' political affiliations, kinky proclivities and (oh, the horror!) pot smoking -- constitutes an elephant-in-the-room situation for my Whirled.
Indeed, there's a whole lot of what I see as completely unjustified schadenfreude bubbling up in the fever swamps of the alt-right and the conspiracy industry, some of whose true believers have jeered at me and called me an idiot (or a paid shill of George Soros/Hillary Clinton/the New World Order) for being a Snopes fan. It's not a stretch to imagine some of them snickering at me -- and at other Snopes supporters -- right about now.
I'm sorry to disappoint any detractors, but I welcome that elephant and am more than happy to discuss it. The reason I haven't addressed the issue before now is that I was preoccupied with the holidaze, work deadlines and other stuff related to my real life. Now that I have a bit of a breather, let's talk about the Snopes "scandal" that has so many right-wing haters and conspiracy nutcakes foaming at the mouth (and perhaps secretly masturbating -- admit it, Lenny).
The big story was "broken" by the notorious right-wing UK tabloid The Daily Mail, aka The Daily Fail (here's that link again). This, I feel compelled to point out, is the same tabloid whose online tentacle is a co-defendant in a $150 million lawsuit by incoming First Lady Melania Trump. The suit concerns a story about suggestions (mere suggestions, mind you, not accusations) that Melania might have once been a sex worker herself, as in "paid escort." (Here's a link to that September 2016 complaint.) The Mail retracted and apologized (or apologised, as the case may be), but the suit has gone forward. Melania made her first appearance in court on December 12, 2016.
Anyway. The headline on the Snopes story is as lurid as one might expect from The Fail:
EXCLUSIVE: Facebook 'fact checker' who will arbitrate on 'fake news' is accused of defrauding website to pay for prostitutes - and its staff includes an escort-porn star and 'Vice Vixen domme'As per its usual practice, The Fail precedes the actual article with a bulleted list, for the benefit, I suppose, of people who are in too much of a hurry, or too reading-challenged, to wade through the typo-ridden main article:
The embezzlement accusations are more serious, but that's between the Mikkelsons and their lawyers. And frankly I don't know enough about the details of the case to make a comment. I'm not trying to let Dave Mikkelson off the hook for anything, and if I were going to take sides I'd be inclined to take sides with Barbara at this point. But if you read The Fail's report you will notice that they did not provide a link to the actual legal documents that were cited in the piece, although they did display what presumably are screen shots of snippets of said documents. So I can't really address the documents or the conflicts they supposedly describe with any authority. And neither can you, and neither can the writers on any of the alt-right hate sites that picked up the story, unless any of you have actually read all of the documents.
And the alt-right/conspiracy nutter sites did indeed take this story and run, and run, and run with it.
The alt-right blog Zero Hedge was even less subtle than The Fail with its headline:
Snopes Co-Founder Embezzles $98,000, Drops Weight, Leaves Fat Wife And Marries Actual WhoreAnd this piece, which appears on racist, hatemonger and conspiracy nut Jeff Rense's site (though not authored by Rense himself), is downright pornographic. You can almost see the writer, "journalist" Yoichi Shimatsu, salivating. Shimatsu is a yuuuge believer in the idiotic Pizzagate fake scandal, and so apparently is Rense. Here are the two of them blathering on video.
The stupidest and most evil man in Scamworld, Not-Doktor Leonard Coldwell, who is a passionate Snopes hater (and Trump lover), curated a piece from the right-wing Daily Caller for his "blog."
And not surprisingly, the self-proclaimed king of the (fact)free press, Mike "The Health Ranger" Adams, bubbled over with righteous glee about the Snopes dramas, with this headline:
Prostitutes for the Presstitutes: SNOPES fact-checkers revealed to be actual whores, fraudsters and deviant left-wing fetish bloggersNaturally, Mikey inserted himself into the drama.
Facebook recently announced it would rely on SNOPES to “fact-check” news articles to make sure Facebook operated with high integrity standards and full transparency. In reality, the announcement was a thinly-veiled attempt to censor independent journalism by labeling real news “fake news” with the help of all the left-wing (actual) whores and fraudsters at SNOPES.
Now, Mikey's sites are prime examples of fake news, pseudo-science, conspiracy lunacy, dirty SEO tricks and right-wing propaganda (regarding the latter, so much for political neutrality, which so many of the Snopesophobes, including Adams, claim is missing from Snopes). His Natural News site was once described by a blogger on the Rational Wiki site as being the Daily Mail of Alternative Medicine. So it stands to reason that he might feel threatened by Facebook's attempts to crack down on the phonies. But hey, Mikey, you want "deviant?" You want "fraudster?" Have you taken a look at your pudgy little pal Lenny? For that matter, have you delved into the personal lives and private and public failings of the "independent journalists" whom you claim to be the real guardians of truth and morality? No, I didn't think so.
But I digress. Where Natural News is concerned, it seems that Snopes can give as good as it gets. So it's perfectly understandable that Mikey would hate them so much.
Let's look at this a little more closely. First off, the disagreements between two people involved in a rancorous divorce do not necessarily invalidate those people's efforts in other aspects of their lives. So The Fail's snarky bullet point (i.e., "The [Mikkelsons] also dispute what are basic facts of their case - despite Snopes.com saying its 'ownership' is committed to 'accuracy and impartiality'") is irrelevant. Even if it is true that Barbara and David Mikkelson can't agree on the "basic facts" about their personal affairs, this does not invalidate the fact-checking and mythbusting work done over the years by the Mikkelsons, Kim LaCapria, or any other Snopes "staffer."
And the "whore" that the right-wingers are jeering about -- David Mikkelson's new wife, Elyssa Young -- is not a fact-checker on Snopes; she is just an administrative assistant. Not that being a sex worker would render someone incapable of being a fact checker, but I think the haters are making much too big a deal out of Young's position (ahem) at Snopes.
In fact The Fail seems to be making much too big a deal out of a lot of things about Mikkelson's new bride. Take this bullet point (please): "She has worked as an escort and porn actress and despite claims website is non-political ran as a Libertarian for Congress on a 'Dump Bush' platform."
Elyssa Young was an unsuccessful Libertarian candidate in 2004 -- nearly 13 years ago. But again, she was not then and is not now (to my knowledge) a Snopes fact-checker. And even if she had been, and assuming that she allowed her Libertarian tendencies to influence her work, that would have actually made the common allegation that Snopes has a "liberal bias" even sillier. Libertarians may skew liberal on certain social issues, but they're pretty much in sync with the right wing and the Tea Party on everything else.
Then there's the much-criticized Kim LaCapria, who is often described as the top fact-checker on Snopes. The alt-right haters have long accused her of leftist tendencies, though quite a few of her stories have debunked left-wing memes and have effectively defended people such as Donald Trump. Now the haters are drooling over the fact that she has some sexy web sites and that she claimed to have posted on Snopes after smoking pot. Meh. LaCapria clearly has a life apart from Snopes, and if that offends you, hey, don't visit her web sites. If you think her work is affected by her pot smoking and you don't trust her because of that, keep in mind that her pieces on Snopes, like all the articles on the site, provide links to other sources, so you can do further research on your own. So c'mon, put down that bottle of bourbon, Lenny, and learn to use the Internet for something besides reinforcing your own biases.
The big but
I did find one critical piece about the Snopes "scandal" that made a few valid points about Snopes and its fact-checking methods. This article by Kalev Leetaru on Forbes.com is worth reading, although I think that Leetaru, like other critics, made too big a deal out of Elyssa Young's past political activities. I think he also reacted too strongly to David Mikkelson's reluctance to divulge details of his personal legal troubles.
But at least Leetaru made an effort to reach out to Mikkelson, and he made some excellent suggestions about how Snopes could improve by being more forthcoming about its assessment process. So while I don't expect either Barbara or David Mikkelson to air all of their personal dirty laundry to the world, I do think that there's room for improvement on Snopes.com.
Separating real fake news from fake fake news
I don't want to veer too far off-track from the main point of this post, but since fake news has become such a force, and fighting fake news has now become a thing as well, and Snopes has been front and center in that fight since long before "fake news" became a trending topic, here's another piece that bears sharing. It's partly about how the fake-news perps and believers have gone all Pee-Wee Herman ("I know you are, but what am I?") on their accusers in the mainstream media.
And that's a pretty dangerous trend. I only hope that Snopes can survive this latest round of attacks so it can continue to be a force in the fight against fakery. We need you now more than ever, Snopes.Some supporters of President-elect Donald J. Trump have also taken up the call. As reporters were walking out of a Trump rally this month in Orlando, Fla., a man heckled them with shouts of “Fake news!”
Until now, that term had been widely understood to refer to fabricated news accounts that are meant to spread virally online. But conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself, incredulous about suggestions that fake stories may have helped swing the election, have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.
In defining “fake news” so broadly and seeking to dilute its meaning, they are capitalizing on the declining credibility of all purveyors of information, one product of the country’s increasing political polarization. And conservatives, seeing an opening to undermine the mainstream media, a longtime foe, are more than happy to dig the hole deeper.
Carry it on
Snopes.com started out as a hobby on the old-school newsgroup circuit -- in those ancient days before social media and really, even before blogs -- and over the years it grew from there. It is possible that at some level its founders may have always considered it a hobby, albeit a lucrative hobby. But at some point along the way Snopes managed to also become a legitimate and much-cited source of information about misinformation, perhaps surprising its founders more than anyone else. Yet to my knowledge neither Barbara nor David Mikkelson ever pretended to be infallible or to be experts in anything.
This October 19, 2016 piece on the Webby Awards site gives a more balanced perspective about Snopes' history.
And here's a December 25, 2016 piece in the New York Times about Snopes and David Mikkelson.
You might also be interested in this December 2015 Washington Post interview with David Mikkelson, in which he discusses, among other things, Snopes' role as a political reporter and fact-checker. (Keep in mind that even though the vast majority of the right-wing bitching and whining and griping about Snopes is based on its political content, Snopes did not start out as a political site, and it still reports on many topics besides politics.)
As far as I'm concerned, Snopes remains a legitimate source of information, despite the allegations about hookers and pot smoking and yes, even despite the allegations of David Mikkelson's embezzlement. I hope the Mikkelsons get that latter bit worked out soon and that they can get on with their lives.
Is Snopes a perfect source? Of course not. Is there room for improvement? You bet (see Forbes.com article linked to above). But let's separate the salacious from the serious, the voyeur fodder from the valid criticism about Snopes' methods. Even though in his private life David Mikkelson may be a complete sleazeball, and although some of the Snopes "staff" may be involved in kinky activities on their own time, Snopes, with all of its imperfections and juicy non-scandals, still beats the pants off of the army of alt-right wingnutters and misinformation mongers such as Natural News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, WorldNut Daily, The Daily Caller, Pamela Geller, Stormfront, Jeff Rense and, of course, anything by Leonard Coldwell.
And one more point: I find it utterly astounding that many of the same people who are so scandalized by David Mikkelson's private life, and those of some of the Snopes staffers, apparently aren't scandalized at all by the garish, lurid spectacle that is Donald John Trump. Just saying.
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