Beset by legal woes and plagiarism, Snopes may be on the verge of extinction

David Mikkelson speaks on disinformation on the internet. Photo (cc) 2017 by U.S. Embassy Vienna.

The venerable fact-checking website Snopes may be on the verge of extinction.

Several weeks ago, Sara Fischer of Axios reported that Snopes had raised $1.7 million to fight a lengthy, debilitating lawsuit brought by one of its former vendors. The lawsuit stems from an ownership battle with the ex-wife of Snopes co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson.

“It’s been a tremendous strain on everyone,” Mikkelson was quoted as saying. “Encumbering a small organization to have to fork over $1 million a year for something that does not help us not at all — it means we are continually short-staffed and short of resources.”

Much worse news — as in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse worse — came last Friday.

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.

According to Heather Murphy of The New York Times, Mikkelson will cease to perform his editorial duties, but will continue as CEO. It sounds absurd — it is absurd — but Mikkelson owns half the company, so it’s unclear how much more could have been done.

So now Snopes is in the position of having to beg its readers for money in order to defend itself against a lawsuit while at the same time having to don the sackcloth of shame over Mikkelson’s unethical behavior, which has resulted in 60 articles being retracted.

Snopes has always been my favorite fact-checking site because of its comprehensiveness. Unlike sites such as PolitiFact, FactCheck.org or The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Snopes would delve into the weird memes and dangerous conspiracy theories that people would post on Facebook, providing you with ready evidence to the contrary. For instance: “Did 45K People Die Within 3 Days of Getting COVID Vaccine?” (A: No.)

But it’s hard to see how the project is going to recover from this double blow. It’s a shame, but this wound was entirely self-inflicted.

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