Fact-check site Snopes.com launched in the 1990s, an eon ago in Internet time, and is one of the Internet’s organic success stories. Having never been marketed through formal or paid channels, it has nonetheless managed to remain relevant and grow in popularity.
We spoke with editor Brooke Binkowski about the site’s history and processes, as well as its staying power and plans for the future as it takes a more journalistic role:
IJNet: Tell us about Snopes’ origins.
Binkowski: Snopes was founded by David Mikkelson, who's the publisher and often a writer at the site. He started it because he had a real thing for folklore and urban legends, and started collecting a sort of repository for them on the web — he was especially interested in how a story gets passed around and why some stories have staying power and others don't. Over time, it has changed into a sort of rumor-busting site.
Snopes has been pivoting toward a more journalistic/real-time info approach. Can you comment on that?
Well, there's a real need for it. Newsrooms keep collapsing for a variety of reasons, which is very dangerous. People are always hungry for information, and in the absence of vetted facts, they'll spread misinformation or disinformation. We try to combat that as much as we possibly can. I, personally, try to write up news stories that I think have a possibility of ending up as half-truths or rumors later, sort of nipping the problem in the bud, as it were.
But also, that's where the Internet is now — everything is interactive; people don't like the one-way flow of information as much as they used to. They want real-time, they want response, they expect to see the real people behind the writing. It's not at all like it was 20 years ago, and for the most part, that's a good thing.
Could you walk us through the fact-check process for Snopes?
We do a lot of boots-on-the-ground research: pulling files, going to the local universities, that sort of thing. It's a lot easier than it used to be, because everything's online, but it's still time-consuming. One thing that makes me laugh is when people send us nasty emails saying we're just amateurs using Google. If they had used Google like they say we do, they'd see our collective credentials.
I'm a former academic (I don't talk about it much because the memory of university makes my eye twitch) and a current journalist. I'm constantly pushing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, harassing politicians via phone and email, going to the library to look things up, calling in favors, talking to people. It's great, but it's exhaustive — and exhausting.
What projects are you working on outside the U.S.?
I am trying to expand our work into stories about Latin America. There's so much misinformation about Mexico, for example, that people will believe any and all [BS] about it. Take that "El Chapo threatens ISIS" story, for example. It was viral; it got picked up and reprinted as fact. Well, we tracked down the guy who wrote it, and he said, "Yep, I just made it up.” I thought it was great that he did such a fantastic job, intentionally or not, of spotlighting exactly what's wrong with Mexico and cartel coverage.
To much of the world, Latin America is treated like a cartoon — a really dangerous, third-world cartoon filled with scary people who are firing guns into the air and feeding packets of cocaine to their pet tigers. One of my pet peeves is that any coverage of the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, has to be "gritty." I hope to be able to bust those rumors.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Kit.