Snopes, the left-leaning fact-checking site, has been under the scanner after a Buzzfeed investigation revealed that the website’s co-founder David Mikkelson wrote over 50 articles containing plagiarised content between 2015 and 2019. Snopes was founded in 1995 by Mikkelson and has been Facebook’s fact-checking partner between December 2016 to February 2019.
An article authored by correspondent Dean Sterling Jones and published by Buzzfeed News on Friday (August 13) exposed how Mikkelson plagiarised articles using both his real name, Snopes byline, and a pseudonym called Jeff Zarronandia. The Snopes co-founder published articles on the ‘fact-checking site’ by copying text directly from news sources such as BBC, NBC, CNN, and New York Times. At times, he would copy entire paragraphs and copied an entire article in one case. Buzzfeed News reported that the ‘act of plagiarism’ by David Mikkelson was intentional and a well-thought-out strategy.
According to former Managing Editor of Snopes, Broke Binkowski, he would copy text directly from other news portals to give the false impression that the site was fast at publishing reports and thus ‘scoop up traffic’. Binkowski emphasised, “That was his big SEO/speed secret…He would instruct us to copy text from other sites, post them verbatim so that it looked like we were fast and could scoop up traffic, and then change the story in real time. She is now associated with another fact-checking site called, ‘Truth or Fiction.’
The ‘real reason’ behind plagiarising articles from other news sources
Interestingly, Buzzfeed News found that David Mikkelson had confessed about his unethical plagiarism techniques in two emails from 2014 and 2015 and a Slack message from 2016. In the contentious emails, he directed his staff members to “pop over to one of our competitor sites (urbanlegends.com or hoaxslayer.com), pick something out that they’ve recently published that we haven’t covered and rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.” A year later in 2016, he explained the objective behind his unprofessional conduct in a Slack message.
“Usually when a hot real news story breaks (such as a celebrity death), I just find a wire service or other news story about it and publish it on the site verbatim to quickly get a page up. Once that’s done, then I quickly start editing the page to reword it and add material from other sources to make it not plagiarized,” he said. This practice of quickly rewriting the text after brazenly copying it from other news sites violate several standards of ethical journalism. And the Buzzfeed investigation revealed how Mikkelson often forgot to make changes.
54 plagiarised articles by the co-founder of Snopes retracted
“After inquiries from BuzzFeed News, Snopes conducted an internal review and confirmed that under a pseudonym, the Snopes byline, and his own name, Mikkelson wrote and published 54 articles with plagiarized material. The articles include such topics as same-sex marriage licenses and the death of musician David Bowie,” Buzzfeed emphasised.
Snopes’ Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni and Vinny Green confirmed the development and said that Mikkelson has been suspended from his ‘editorial duties’ until the investigation is completed. Marchionni and Green have also praised Buzzfeed for its ‘dogged, watchdog journalism.’ At the same time, 8 staff members at Snopes condemned the ‘poor journalistic practices’ of the site’s co-founder. Based on its inputs, an internal audit by Snopes found that about 54 articles authored by Mikkelson contained plagiarised content and have been retracted from the site.
Snopes’ co-founder used a pseudonym and withheld information from readers
Mikkelson often operated using the pseudonym of Jeff Zarronadia. Ex-Managing Editor of Snopes, Brooke Binkowski, informed, “He used to write about topics he knew would get him hate mail under that assumed name. Plus it made it appear he had more staff than he had.” However, Snopes knowingly withheld the information from its readers that the account of Jeff Zarronadia belonged to the site’s co-founder.
In his defence, Mikkelson told Buzzfeed News, “It was kind of a stress-relief thing (after) spending 20 years seeing people trying to discredit our work by just making stuff up about us. Let’s have some fun and watch these people vent their spleen inventing reasons why this nonexistent persona is biased.” The bio of his pseudonym claimed that he had won the Pulitzer Prize in ‘numismatics.’
Despite plagiarism and unethical journalistic practices, Mikkelson will continue to remain the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Snopes. He owns about 50% of the Snopes Media Group.
Statement by David Mikkelson following the Buzzfeed expose
In a statement, David Mikkelson said, “The results of our internal audit confirmed that I engaged in multiple serious copyright violations of content that Snopes didn’t have rights to use. There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgment. I am sorry. I have given full authority to our managing editor, Doreen Marchionni, to take any measures needed to address these issues. While I can’t change the past, I couldn’t be prouder of how Snopes has evolved since then.”
“Snopes has grown beyond our roots as a ‘one-man band’ website into a newsroom of dedicated, professional journalists who serve the public with trustworthy information. Thanks to their efforts, Snopes has published original reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent elections, Russian disinformation efforts and so much more. The last thing I ever wanted was to have my mistakes detract from their excellent work, and I’m doing everything I can to make it right,” he concluded.