A Buzzfeed investigation concludes that David Mikkelson, co-founder of the fact-checking site Snopes, published plagiarized articles under a pseudonym name there for at least four years. The articles were news items, not the debunkings: content hastily-generated to goose traffic that contained "entire paragraphs copied without attribution" from other news sources. Here's Dean Sterling Jones:
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.
Snopes VP of Editorial and Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni suspended Mikkelson from editorial duties pending "a comprehensive internal investigation." He remains an officer and a 50% shareholder of the company.
"Our internal research so far has found a total of 54 stories Mikkelson published that used appropriated material, including all of the stories Buzzfeed shared with us," Marchionni and Snopes Chief Operating Officer Vinny Green said in a statement.
"Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop," Marchionni added. "It has no place in any context within this organization."
Mikkelson claims that he wasn't a trained journalist and didn't understand the norms for attributing cited and quoted material, but Buzzfeed got at least three other staff or former staff at the site on the record saying it was an ongoing SEO ploy: publish plagiarized material immediately to fool news aggregators into thinking it was the breaking news source, then rewrite so the lifting wouldn't be noticed.
"That was his big SEO/speed secret," said Binkowski, whom Snopes fired without explanation in 2018 (she currently manages the fact-checking 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."
That no-one seemed to cotton on for four years is testament to the ephemerality of news content at even popular sites. Snopes' blocking of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine appears to have raised suspicions.
Snopes raised nearly $2m in a GoFundMe, which saved it from a hostile takeover and SLAPP litigation but also bought it space to scale 'n' fail.
Check this out:
In other emails from around the same time, Mikkelson described his vision for the site's future "as a platform for traffic-generating junk that people would complain about if it were on 'classic' snopes," including articles copied from "viral item of the day" sites.
Compare to my traffic-generating junk, all fastidiously linked, blockquoted and written from scratch!