David Mikkelson, the co-founder of the fact-checking web site Snopes, has lengthy offered himself because the arbiter of fact on-line, a bulwark within the battle towards rumors and faux information. But he has been mendacity to the site’s tens of millions of readers: A BuzzFeed News investigation has discovered that between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson wrote and printed dozens of articles containing materials plagiarized from information retailers such because the Guardian and the LA Times.
After inquiries from BuzzFeed News, Snopes carried out an inner evaluate and confirmed that beneath a pseudonym, the Snopes byline, and his personal title, Mikkelson wrote and printed 54 articles with plagiarized materials. The articles embrace such matters as same-sex marriage licenses and the demise of musician David Bowie.
Snopes VP of Editorial and Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni suspended Mikkelson from editorial duties pending “a comprehensive internal investigation.” He stays an officer and a 50% shareholder of the corporate.
“Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop,” Marchionni added. “It has no place in any context within this organization.”
Snopes advised BuzzFeed News it plans to retract the entire offending tales and disable promoting on them. It may even append an editor’s word of clarification to every.
“So I was browsing the news and came across an article on the CBS News web site about a horrific crime involving a Memphis woman charged with killing four of her children by slitting their throats with a butcher knife: Hmm, I wondered, as I pondered the headline (“Memphis mom charged with grizzly butchering of 4 of her kids”), did this woman murder her children in bear-like fashion? Or was the mother of extremely advanced age?”
Meet Jeff Zarronandia. During a quick however memorable profession, his byline, which linked to a bio detailing his Pulitzer Prize and his ability at mule-skinning, appeared on at least 23 Snopes articles on matters like Donald Trump’s monetary woes and false rumors about Hillary Clinton. His reporting made enemies of hoaxsters and fabulists throughout the political spectrum, together with former Trump marketing campaign adviser Roger Stone and the late “fake-news kingpin” Paul Horner, each of whom have been unaware of his true id.
“It’s only a David Mikkelson alt,” Snopes’ former managing editor Brooke Binkowski defined when BuzzFeed News inquired. “He used to jot down about matters he knew would get him hate mail beneath that assumed title. Plus it made it seem he had extra employees than he had.”
Between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson commonly plagiarized reporting from different information retailers in an effort, he stated, to scoop up site visitors.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mikkelson attributed this habits to his lack of formal journalism expertise. “I didn’t come from a journalism background,” he stated. “I wasn’t used to doing news aggregation. A number of times I crossed the line to where it was copyright infringement. I own that.”
In an explanation about the website’s practices, Snopes informs readers that it “follows all industry guidelines for transparency in reporting” including, “we think being transparent with readers is the coolest.” But the truth that Zarronandia was in reality Mikkelson was not disclosed anyplace on the positioning. Following BuzzFeed News’ inquiry, the Zarronandia creator web page has been eliminated, and the Zarronandia byline has been changed with “Snopes staff.”
Founded in 1995 by Mikkelson and his then-wife, Barbara Hamel, Snopes bills itself as “the internet’s definitive fact-checking site,” and is a two-time Webby Award winner cited by the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post. It served as one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners between December 2016 and February 2019. But in recent years, the site has been troubled by a bitter ownership dispute.
Mikkelson’s alias flies in the face of the site’s mission, once described by the New York Times as “a quest to debunk misinformation online.” It also highlights his penchant for trolling, something he was known for in the early 1990s, when he posted on Usenet forums under the handle “snopes.” At that point, he was so strongly related to trolling — even tricking recommendation columnist Ann Landers into working a number of prank letters — that the apply was typically referred to as “snoping.”
Similar pranks and allusions to trolling are littered all through Snopes’ web site. For instance, a piece referred to as “The Repository of Lost Legends,” which types the acronym “TROLL,” comprises spoof fact-checks with titles like “Mister Ed was a Zebra.” Another article, “Do People Swallow Eight Spiders Per Year?” which was penned by Mikkelson as a lesson to readers to at all times examine their sources, contains reference to nonexistent tech columnist “Lisa Birgit Holst,” whose name is, in fact, an anagram for “it is a huge troll.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mikkelson stated that he created the Zarronandia pseudonym as a joke meant to mislead the trolls and conspiracy theorists who continuously focused the positioning and its writers within the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.
“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,” Mikkelson stated. “Let’s have some fun and watch these people vent their spleen inventing reasons why this nonexistent persona is biased.”
Knowingly deceptive readers by utilizing a faux title is taken into account unethical for a lot of information retailers — particularly one which markets itself as a bulwark of fact and transparency. Far worse is plagiarism.
BuzzFeed News discovered dozens of articles on Snopes’ web site that embrace language — typically complete paragraphs — that seem to have been copied with out attribution from information retailers that embrace the New York Times, CNN, NBC News, and the BBC. Six of those articles have been initially printed beneath Zarronandia’s byline, three beneath Mikkelson’s personal, and the remainder beneath “Snopes staff.” Snopes’s subsequent inner evaluate recognized 140 articles with attainable issues and 54 that have been discovered to incorporate appropriated materials.
“That was his big SEO/speed secret,” stated Binkowski, whom Snopes fired without explanation in 2018 (she at the moment manages the fact-checking web site Truth or Fiction). “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. I hated it and wouldn’t tell any of the staff to do it, but he did it all the time.”
Two different former workers additionally stated that copying and rewriting content material was a part of Mikkelson’s technique for driving site visitors to Snopes’ web site. One, who requested to stay nameless, advised BuzzFeed News that “taking credit for other people’s work” was “a part of his mannequin.”
Edward Wasserman, professor of journalism on the University of California, Berkeley who makes a speciality of ethics, stated that utilizing different individuals’s work “must be conducted subject to rules of attribution, so that the reader isn’t misled into crediting the current writer with finding the information first, which is an important claim to credibility and proficiency.” Many outstanding information organizations, together with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and BuzzFeed News, have acknowledged plagiarism in their own pages and publicly corrected the record, as Snopes is doing now.
The Zarronandia byline first appeared on the site in 2015 on an article that appears to have been plagiarized in its entirety, aside from a number of minor phrase modifications, from a Reuters bulletin about Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who refused to challenge same-sex marriage licenses.
Reuters confirmed it doesn’t at the moment have any licensing settlement with Snopes, however declined to reply questions on any previous agreements. A spokesperson advised BuzzFeed News, “Any use of Reuters material that is not licensed for publication must abide by applicable copyright laws and must, at a minimum, be clearly attributed.”
Emails and Slack messages seen by BuzzFeed News counsel that, over the course of a minimum of two years beginning September 2014, plagiarism might have been routine apply for Mikkelson.
In one Slack message from January 2016, Mikkelson detailed his technique for copying after which rapidly rewriting articles after publishing. “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 wrote.
In two emails from 2014 and 2015, Mikkelson advised employees 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.”
“Rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.”
In different emails from across the identical time, Mikkelson described his imaginative and prescient for the positioning’s future “as a platform for traffic-generating junk that people would complain about if it were on ‘classic’ snopes,” together with articles copied from “viral item of the day” websites. Mikkelson didn’t dispute the authenticity of any of those exchanges and attributed them to his poor understanding of how information gathering works. “I don’t think rewriting news stories is all that remarkable,” he stated. “It’s a reasonably widespread apply when achieved appropriately.” But, he added, “I really sucked at it.”
Speaking with BuzzFeed News, former Snopes author Kim LaCapria — now with Truth or Fiction — stated she by no means complied with any of Mikkelson’s instructions to repeat content material, as she was used to doing authentic journalism “without copying in a short period of time.”
“I remember explaining that we didn’t need to ‘rewrite’ because we’d always done this stuff quickly,” she stated, including that “he just didn’t seem to understand that some people didn’t plagiarize.”
In preserving with Snopes’ tradition of giving its writers zany backstories, Zarronandia’s bio jokingly claimed that he “won the Pulitzer Prize for numismatics in 2006” and was “also the winner of the Distinguished Conflagration Award of the American Society of Muleskinners for 2005.” (There is no Pulitzer prize for numismatics — commonly known as coin collecting — and the “American Society of Muleskinners” does not exist.) A fake Twitter profile helped to embellish his backstory, describing him as a “Pop culture buff” and “Proud bacon fanatic” from Pocatello, Idaho.
But it wasn’t until Zarronandia began covering the 2016 US presidential election that the eccentric persona seemed to develop a life of his own.
There was much to debunk. Russia’s infamous troll factory was working extra time to sow discord. A bunch of Macedonian teens have been making a small fortune in advert income working pro-Trump faux information websites. Trump’s personal marketing campaign strategist Steve Bannon was busy “flood[ing] the zone with shit.”
That August, the Zarronandia byline appeared on an article defending Khizr Khan, who’d made headlines after denouncing then-candidate Trump in an impassioned speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The speech spawned a slew of right-wing conspiracy theories, among them one that claimed Khan was a deep state operative on the Clinton Foundation payroll.
“Completely lacking from this narrative is any actual evidence whatsoever that Khizr Khan has, or has ever had, any ‘deep legal and financial connections’ to Hillary Clinton,” Zarronandia wrote.
The article caught the eye of former Trump adviser and self-professed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who in his guide The Making of the President 2016 recognized Zarronandia as one in all Clinton’s “supporters in the media” — apparently unaware that no particular person by that title existed. (Stone additionally referenced Zarronandia in his 2019 guide, The Myth of Russian Collusion: The Inside Story of How Donald Trump REALLY Won.)
“Everything Snopes has ever reported regarding me has been boilerplate bullshit,” Stone advised BuzzFeed News after this text was printed. “If the guy using a pseudonym wrote about me I am completely unaware of it so I guess you can tell him to cancel his victory lap. … He has no credibility. Reporters who cite him as a source are laughed at, shouted down and their credibility is pummeled. Sorry but you are giving these ineffective asswipes far too much credit.”
The Zarronandia byline appeared once more in November 2016, in an article debunking unfounded claims that then-president Barack Obama had overruled Trump’s election victory and scheduled a revote.
“There was no truth to this story,” Zarronandia defined, including that the false declare had “originated with a malware site that uses the illegally appropriated trademarks of legitimate news organizations in order to spread fake news on social media and generate advertising revenues.”
Although Zarronandia didn’t specify the “malware site” in query, a search optimization tag on the backside of the web page suggests he was referring to “abcnews.com.co,” a faux information web site created by self-proclaimed “hoax artist” Paul Horner, who relished in trolling inattentive readers with clearly fabricated information tales.
Horner was furious, and in a Facebook post shortly earlier than his demise stated he deliberate to sue Zarronandia for claiming “my website has malware, when of course it doesn’t.”
BuzzFeed News was unable to search out any proof for Snopes’ malware declare. Asked for remark, Horner’s youthful brother JJ stated he did not recall Horner “using anything like that or him mentioning it,” though Horner would have discovered it “hilarious” to study of Zarronandia’s true id. His brother, JJ stated, “fucking hated Snopes.”
“Jeff Zarronandia at Snopes should return the Pulitzer he won.”
Other highlights from Zarronandia’s faux profession embrace an honorary mention within the on-line journal of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, which appeared to acknowledge the joke, and a critique of his work by the right-wing web site Newsbusters, which did not, arguing with a straight face that he “should return the Pulitzer prize he won in 2006.”
The apply of utilizing faux bylines isn’t new. In 2012, This American Life discovered pseudonyms on greater than 350 tales, printed throughout a number of main US newspapers, that have been sourced from now-defunct content material farm Journatic and its sister firm Blockshopper. Though some journalists might declare to have professional causes for utilizing a pseudonym — a dissident reporting from an authoritarian nation, for instance — the apply is extensively frowned upon. It is particularly uncommon for the top of a web site like Snopes to jot down tales utilizing each his personal byline and a pseudonym, probably implicating Mikkelson in the identical type of misleading habits that the positioning has spent greater than 25 years interrogating. The state of affairs has left Snopes’ present staffers mortified.
“Although none of us was to blame for the actions of Snopes’ co-founder, we empathize with the journalists whose work was appropriated,” they wrote. “This simply should never have happened.”
In late July/early August, members of this firm started a complete inner investigation into allegations of plagiarism leveled towards Snopes Founder/CEO David Mikkelson after a journalist received in contact with us about his personal analysis for a narrative.
The journalist, Dean Sterling Jones, shared with Snopes Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni greater than two dozen examples of what seemed to be sentences or paragraphs from varied information websites pasted into Snopes information tales with out applicable attribution. Most of the tales have been printed roughly between 2014 and 2016 beneath a generic “Snopes Staff” byline or beneath the defunct pseudonym “Jeff Zarronandia.”
The offending content material was usually usually aggregated “breaking” and “odd” tales on varied topics initially reported on by different information organizations. In his analysis, Jones stated he additionally spoke with former workers, who alleged Mikkelson had despatched memos to employees throughout that point that could possibly be construed as him encouraging unethical reporting practices.
Marchionni contacted Snopes COO Vinny Green and the corporate’s outdoors human useful resource guide, Mary Jo Ray, about how finest to proceed. Upon informing Mikkelson of the allegations, Marchionni has had free rein to conduct an investigation into the difficulty. Mikkelson has been cooperating with the newsroom on all associated efforts.
We need to thank Jones for his reporting. It’s an instance of dogged, watchdog journalism we cherish. Our employees has moved rapidly to repair the issue, and we now need to share with our neighborhood what we’ve got achieved:
● Marchionni suspended Mikkelson from all editorial manufacturing pending a last final result to the interior evaluate and eliminated his entry to our content material administration system,PhrasePress, for story manufacturing/publishing.
● Expanding on Jones’ findings, Green flagged all 140 information articles beneath the generic bylines for evaluate and recognized different attainable points past Buzzfeed’s findings.
● A employees reporter, who additionally works as an adjunct journalism professor, examined every flagged put up for plagiarism. Marchionni then verified her preliminary findings with the assistance ofplagiarism detection software program. Our inner analysis up to now has discovered a complete of 54 tales Mikkelson printed that used appropriated materials, together with the entire tales Buzzfeed shared with us.
● On Snopes.com, the offending content material will likely be eliminated whereas the web page itself will stay accessible. An editor’s word on every put up will clarify the source-attribution downside within the authentic story and hyperlink to the unique information supply(s) (Associated Press, ABC News, and many others.) that ought to have been credited.
● We are within the means of archiving and retracting the entire offending tales, together with disabling any monetization options on these posts. We will try to contact every information outlet whose reporting we appropriated to challenge an apology.
● The Snopes employees has launched into a complete evaluate of the web site’s archives, focusing initially on the creator archives, to determine some other discrepancies or room for enchancment.
● Marchionni is growing a complete byline coverage that solutions any questions the neighborhood may need about how the generic “Snopes Staff” byline has been used previously and the way it’s used right this moment, amongst different points.
● Marchionni is reevaluating choices Mikkelson made years earlier to not permit Snopes tales to be archived on the Wayback Machine and is empowered to make any modifications mandatory.
Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full cease. It has no place in any context inside this group. We invite readers to tell us right here in the event that they discover some other examples of plagiarized content material in order that we will apply the identical remedy as above.
We speak usually within the newsroom concerning the priceless worth of popularity — that we’re price not more than the credibility we preserve with our neighborhood. Our popularity relies on our means to get issues proper, and extra importantly, to rapidly appropriate the document once we are incorrect. We are dedicated to a lifetime of atonement by the rigorous pursuit of the info, particularly in eventualities equivalent to this.
To the employees, previous, current, and future, who’re undoubtedly impacted by these findings, we’re deeply sorry. While a person’s actions have brought on this breach of our ethics, we hope the extraordinary writers and editors who work at Snopes don’t see their efforts and popularity undermined by these missteps. We can say with out hesitation they’re among the many most gifted, devoted, and brightest workers we’ve got ever had the glory to work with, and we study from them day by day.
—Doreen Marchionni, vice chairman of editorial/managing editor Snopes.com
—Vinny Green, chief operations officer for Snopes Media Group
We, the writers of Snopes, really feel it’s incumbent upon us to obviously and publicly acknowledge that Buzzfeed has found incontrovertible proof that the co-founder and CEO of Snopes, David Mikkelson, has written and printed a number of articles which contained sentences taken from different sources with out correct attribution. We strongly condemn these poor journalistic practices. No author participated on this habits, nor did any editors — Doreen Marchionni, Camille Knox, and David Emery — assist or encourage these practices. We have all been held to very excessive journalistic requirements, each by our editors and by our viewers. Although none of us was responsible for the actions of Snopes’ co-founder, we empathize with the journalists whose work was appropriated. This merely ought to by no means have occurred.
Under the management and steerage of Marchionni, Knox, and Emery, we work laborious each day to uphold the best attainable journalistic and moral requirements, and we consider our truth checks, authentic reporting and investigative work are a testomony to these excessive requirements. We are pleased with our editors and pleased with the work we do.
—Alex Kasprak, Dan Evon, Jessica Lee, Nur Ibrahim , Jordan Liles, Madison Dapcevich, Dan Mac Guill, Bethania Palma
The outcomes of our inner audit confirmed that I engaged in a number of critical copyright violations of content material that Snopes didn’t have rights to make use of. There isn’t any excuse for my critical lapses in judgement. I’m sorry. I’ve given full authority to our managing editor, Doreen Marchionni, to take any measures wanted to handle these points.
While I can’t change the previous, I couldn’t be prouder of how Snopes has developed since then. Snopes has grown past our roots as a “one-man band” web site right into a newsroom of devoted, skilled journalists who serve the general public with reliable info. Thanks to their efforts, Snopes has printed authentic reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest elections, Russian disinformation efforts and a lot extra. The very last thing I ever wished was to have my errors detract from their glorious work, and I’m doing every part I can to make it proper.
This story has been up to date with remark from Roger Stone.