Michelle Dean Uncovers Some Truths About Snopes

David Mikkelson next to his computer monitor with a doctored storm photo in which two extra tornados were added to the original which had only one. (Photo by Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In the beginning, legendary internet fact-finding site Snopes.com answered interesting yet mundane questions such as how microwaved water affects houseplants and whether Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen after his death. (He wasn’t.) After 9/11 changed America forever, Snopes became a go-to resource for truth on everything from Obama birther conspiracy theories to keeping the facts straight on Donald Trump. For Wired, Michelle Dean profiles Snopes co-founder David Mikkelson and uncovers how a messy divorce, as well as ownership and control squabbles, have threatened the site’s existence.

Then, on September 11, 2001, out of the clear blue sky, everything changed. The planes flew into the Twin Towers and crashed at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and America turned, panicked, to the internet to try to explain those events to itself. “I posted the first of the September 11 articles just after midnight on September 12,” Barbara wrote to me. It was a post debunking the rumor that the 16th century astrologer Nostradamus had predicted the attacks. “I researched and wrote that first article only because I needed to do something other than just cry and feel helpless.” The tenor of their site was about to change.

Where once they had been conducting tests with marshmallows and houseplants, now they were debunking claims that there were 4,000 Israelis who worked in the World Trade Center who stayed home that fateful day. Traffic spiked. Suddenly the press, which had treated Snopes mostly as a curiosity, took real interest. The Mikkelsons found themselves doing newspaper interviews, appearing on television, talking about the lies Americans were telling themselves in the aftermath of the catastrophe….

David is a pretty unflappable guy, but he seemed surprised. “She certainly contributed a great deal to making it a successful business enterprise,” he said, stammering a bit. “We jointly founded Bardav.” But he told me he felt there was a distinction between the claim he alone made to the idea behind Snopes.com and the successful business partnership he was willing to allow that Barbara had participated in. I pointed out that until their divorce, Barbara’s name had often been associated with the site in the press—searches in newspaper archives reveal that until about 2010, she had given many interviews about Snopes, more than David had, and that was true even before Bardav’s founding in 2003 and the inauguration of Snopes as a business. David, evidently frustrated with this question, said, “Well, she was giving all the interviews because I was working a full-time job,” referring to his position at the HMO, “whereas she never worked at all throughout the entirety of our marriage.” But then he seemed to regret this outburst, and backtracked. “I would not in any way try to slight her or say that she was not responsible for a good deal of success of the site,” he said.

The problem is that David’s telling of the Snopes story does seem to slight his wife. However meticulous he might be in fact-­checking the errors of others, there is always this slippage in his account of his own success, an insistence that he did it by himself. It’s not a slippage that has any bearing on his dispute with Proper Media, or the contractual matters at issue there. Mikkelson went through a bad divorce and emerged from it, as it seems to me people often do, with a blind spot. It’s one we all have, to one degree or another, to fail to see the obvious when it comes to ourselves. It just stands out with David because he has spent his career being so scrupulous about facts.

Read the story