Is the attack on fact checking site Snopes valid? 25


The UK’s Daily Mail has published a story regarding the founders of the fact-checking site snopes.com. This merits a closer look and so we shall take a peek to see what is happening here.

Generally seeing the words, “Daily Mail” is a bit of a red flag. They are not the worst, but you can never wholly trust anything they publish, their credibility is really not good. However, it does warrant some examination because so many rely upon sites such as snopes.com to fact check.

Forbes also picked it up, ponders over it all being fake news, but does not do all that well.

The Daily Mail article starts with a typical tabloid headline …

EXCLUSIVE: Facebook ‘fact checker’ who will arbitrate on ‘fake news’ is accused of defrauding website to pay for prostitutes – and its staff includes an escort-porn star and ‘Vice Vixen domme’

First, let’s make an assumption that might or might not be correct, let’s assume that each and every word within both the Daily Mail story and also the Forbes story is wholly and completely 100% factual. What then does that tell us about the credibility of the fact-checking on snopes.com?

The answer is simple – absolutely nothing at all.

It is all an ad hominem

Let’s clarify exactly what the term “ad hominem” means.

If you present an argument and I then respond to your argument by telling you that your argument is invalid because you are an idiot, then that is a classic ad hominem. In essence, I am attacking you and I am not addressing the argument.

It might indeed be correct that you are an idiot, but your argument may also be completely correct as well.

If the response was, “Your argument is not valid because of fact A and fact B, oh and by the way you are also an idiot“. That is not an “ad hominem”. Instead it is a fact-based rebuttal to the argument with an additional opinion tacked on at the end.

The principle argument being presented is that we are supposed to believe that the fact-checking presented on snopes.com is not reliable because ….

  • The founders are going through a messy divorce. (it happens)
  • When directly contacted they have declined to comment (that is common sense and also standard legal guidance if you are in the middle of a divorce)
  • The personal lives of some who have fact-checked on snopes.com
  • One of the authors who fact-checks for snopes.com has a political opinion … (gasp, oh the horror).

Regardless of what you might think about divorce or peoples personal lives … facts are facts. If evidence is cited that either verifies something or acts as a rebuttal to something, then the personal life of the person writing that rebuttal is completely irrelevant.

The Right-wing hate fact-checkers

Note that earlier we made an assumption that the Daily Mail story is accurate. However, we should also consider the bigger picture here. Their reputation for honesty, integrity and accuracy is not exactly great, so even assuming it is all factual on the sole basis of one Daily Mail story is a highly dubious thing to do.

They have a rather obvious vested interest in discrediting fact-checking sites. Publications such as the Daily Mail not only have a great deal to lose, but also have a bit of an axe to grind.

If you go to snopes.com and search using the term “Daily Mail” you get a very long list of Daily Mail stories that are mostly false. Clearly the Daily Mail has a huge undeclared conflict of interest here in publishing this hatchet job.

Side note: It is also rather ironic to observe the right-wing discrediting a fact-checking site because the founders are getting divorced. A one-word rebuttal to this is perhaps sufficient to seriously break your irony meter – Trump.

Has Snopes.com been fact checked?

Basically yes …

Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist who has written a number of books on urban legends and modern folklore, considered the site so comprehensive in 2004 as to obviate launching one of his own.[10]

David Mikkelson, the creator of the site, has said that the site receives more complaints of liberal bias than conservative bias,[23] but insists that the same debunking standards are applied to all political urban legends. In 2012, FactCheck.org reviewed a sample of Snopes’ responses to political rumors regarding George W. BushSarah Palin, and Barack Obama, and found them to be free from bias in all cases. FactCheck noted that Barbara Mikkelson was a Canadian citizen (and thus unable to vote in US elections) and David Mikkelson was an independent who was once registered as a Republican. “You’d be hard-pressed to find two more apolitical people,” David Mikkelson told them.[23][24] In 2012, The Florida Times-Union reported that About.com‘s urban legends researcher found a “consistent effort to provide even-handed analyses” and that Snopes’ cited sources and numerous reputable analyses of its content confirm its accuracy.[25]

What do others make of this?

The UK’s Guardian clearly takes the stance that this attack on the fact-checkers by the Daily Mail is very much motivated by a specific hidden agenda that plays to its own specific financial interests …

The purpose of the article appears to be to sow doubt about measures to deal with, or at least mitigate, the impact of fake news and falsehoods on social media, long before they have even got off the ground.

The Mail, of course, has skin in this game. It is far from the worst offenders when it comes to falsehoods – those tend to be the sorts of sites set up by Macedonian teenagers to create completely fabricated stories – but it has come under Snopes’ microscope enough times to be called in July “Britain’s highly unreliable Daily Mail” by a Snopes writer who just happens to be named in the Mail story.

If Facebook’s plans go ahead and Snopes helps it fact check, the Mail would expect that some of its more tenuous stories will be flagged. That could make a small but not insignificant impact on its online audience, which is the largest for any English-language newspaper by some margin.

Bottom Line – Can we still trust Snopes.com?

Basically yes. They don’t just tell you what to think, nor do they have a specific leaning.

  • Both Trump and also Clinton myths have been debunked
  • Their rebuttals cite sources, and are not simply manufactured mythology.

Number of Snopes rebuttals debunked by the Daily Mail? – exactly zero.

the Mail has attempted to cast doubt on the notion of fact checking. In the battle between those who profit from playing fast and loose with the truth and those trying to fix the fake news problem, the Mail has made it clear in which camp it sits

– Jasper Jackson, Guardian media editor and journalist


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25 thoughts on “Is the attack on fact checking site Snopes valid?

  • Tracy

    Let’s be honest here, The Daily Mail is a tawdry little rag with some sort of agenda to rile up right wing hatred, so you could fact check all you liked, they have zero credibility with me. Their “news reporting” (term used with a wry grimace) during Brexit was absolutely appalling but they have been descending in quality for a couple of decades. So basically I couldn’t give a fig what TDM has to say about anything.

  • I'd rather watch paint dry

    Mr RexRed:
    – That snopes page makes no mention of a radio station
    – It mentions several inaccuracies about the original story, one of which was that it was a local Fox affiliate that was involved, not the Fox News cable channel as claimed in the original story. Yes, both are ultimately owned by Fox, so are many things, it doesn’t mean a legal case or FCC ruling has any further relevance than otherwise.
    – Read the Snopes page to the end. Regardless of ownership, the legal case and the ruling by the FCC do not support the assertions made in the original story:
    “Ultimately, the FCC concluded in 2007 that the conflict between Akre and Wilson and the affiliate boiled down to an “editorial dispute … rather than a deliberate effort by [WTVT] to distort news.”
    – The claims made in the original story “legal appeal that declared..”, “the court agreed… ultimately agreed…”, have no basis in fact.

    I’m no fan of Fox News (and I’m pretty unenthusiastic about Monsanto and BGH), but Snopes has made a perfectly valid assessment that the claims made in the original story have no basis in fact.

    If you really have some better evidence to support any of the claims made, please post it here, and even better, send it to Snopes so they can correct the story.

  • RexRed (@RexRed)

    Snopes said this was FALSE. http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/foxlies.asp Because it was a radio station not Fox who sued. A tiny 1-minute search on Wikipedia shows us who owns WVTV. Excerpt Wikipedia: WTVT, virtual channel 13 (VHF digital channel 12), is a Fox owned-and-operated television station located in Tampa, Florida, United States and also serving the nearby city of St. Petersburg. The station is owned by the Fox Television Stations subsidiary of 21st Fox. Snopes is WRONG! And it takes only a small search to debunk their partisanship. WVTW Fox OWNED AND OPERATED.

    • Pieter B, FCD, OMG

      The snopes article to which you link includes this statement: “the case at hand did not involve the national Fox News cable channel (the case substantially predates the Fox News cable channel’s current 24-hour coverage), but rather a local Tampa Bay television station (WTVT) that was an affiliate station of the Fox network.” That seems to answer your objections; did you actually read the Snopes article, or are you simply copying and pasting an anti-Snopes attack piece?

  • Pame Ashley

    NationalPitBullVictimAwareness.org

    SNOPES posted a piece denying the danger of pit breeds. As one of thousands of people affected by pit bull attacks that killed or severely injured people and animals, the SNOPES stance was utterly shameful.

    Animals24-7.org
    Daxtonsfriends.com
    Dogsbite.org

    If SNOPES wants credibility in the political fact checking, the pit bull stance must be retracted.

    The victims of these horrific, daily pit bull maulings deserve recognition and legislation.

    Fact check that.

  • Jeremy Jay Lee Austin-Skidmore

    ¡BASICALLY BULLSHIT!
    The issue of the owner’s involvement or not with a prostitute or not is irrelevant, IDGAF.
    But Snopes HAS been caught twisting facts to advance agenda, usually with the dishonest (but blandly so) “no known record” cop out. This cop out is doubled when there is, in fact, a known record, they get called on their lie, and refuse to admit it.
    Snopes is irredeemably DISHONEST.

    • RBNews

      You have not provided any evidence or facts supporting the claims you’ve made regarding Snopes being “irredemably dishonest.” Only your opinion, ad hominum, and clearly biased. I have used Snopes for years in support of accuracy of my own writing, in conjunction with other fact-checking and research methods, and have found no errors in any pronouncements they’ve made. There also does not appear to be bias towards left or right but an equal treatment of questions posed to them. Cite your evidence.

    • JNC

      And are you going to provide some articles where they have purposely ‘hid’ evidence and direct quotes where they refused to back down when called out on it or are you just going to trow out claims without any evidence?

      • RexRed (@RexRed)

        Snopes said this was FALSE. http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/foxlies.asp Because it was a radio station not Fox who sued. A tiny 1-minute search on Wikipedia shows us who owns WVTV. Excerpt Wikipedia: WTVT, virtual channel 13 (VHF digital channel 12), is a Fox owned-and-operated television station located in Tampa, Florida, United States and also serving the nearby city of St. Petersburg. The station is owned by the Fox Television Stations subsidiary of 21st Fox. Snopes is WRONG! And it takes only a small search to debunk their partisanship. WVTW Fox OWNED AND OPERATED.

  • Michael Q. Rudnin

    I’ve yet to find a reputable journalistic source that has anything bad to say about Snopes ~ the right-wing bubble lacks credibility, so they do what they can to smear those who expose their oft repeated lies … `The Right-wing hate fact-checkers / If you go to Snopes and search using the term “Daily Mail” you get a very long list of Daily Mail stories that are mostly false. Clearly the Daily Mail has a huge undeclared conflict of interest here in publishing this hatchet job.`

  • musanim

    An ad hominem argument does not prove or disprove a proposition, but that doesn’t mean that it tells you nothing at all. If the majority of climate scientists had IQs below 80, it wouldn’t prove that global warming was a hoax (and using their IQs as proof of that would indeed be an ad hominem argument), but it would be reason to take their beliefs less seriously. Likewise, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of a person’s integrity in one aspect of their life if they’ve demonstrated a lack of integrity in another part.

    If Snopes were presenting arguments for a logical proposition, their integrity would not be an issue; the arguments would stand or fall on their own merit. But Snopes is presenting evidence, and it’s not always possible for the casual reader to verify the truth, accuracy, bias, and completeness of that evidence. So, issues of motivation and trust are relevant.

    What is the source for this: “Number of Snopes rebuttals debunked by the Daily Mail? – exactly zero.” ?

    I think you mean “principal argument” not “principle argument.”

    • stevewithaq

      “An ad hominem argument does not prove or disprove a proposition, but that doesn’t mean that it tells you nothing at all.”
      Correct. One of the primary things that it tells you is that the one making the argument either doesn’t understand or doesn’t respect logic. It also tells you that the one making the argument has likely run out of substantives arguments (or never had one to begin with.)

      “If the majority of climate scientists had IQs below 80, it wouldn’t prove that global warming was a hoax (and using their IQs as proof of that would indeed be an ad hominem argument), but it would be reason to take their beliefs less seriously.”
      Which “beliefs”? Do you mean their scientific conclusions? Those should not be evaluated based on the source of the conclusions, but based on the original data and methods of analysis. That’s how science works — belief (and IQ for that matter) doesn’t enter into it. If you mean some other belief, not based on scientific research, why did you find it necessary to select the group “climate scientists” for your hypothetical ad hominem?

      “Likewise, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of a person’s integrity in one aspect of their life if they’ve demonstrated a lack of integrity in another part.”
      Actually, no it’s not. Our history is full of respectable people who show integrity in all aspects of their lives, except when it comes to one, e.g, gambling, or addiction, or murder, or rape. Humans are incredibly good at compartmentalizing aspects of their lives, so integrity in one area does not imply integrity in others. Similarly lack of integrity in one area does not in any way imply lack of integrity in another.
      But this is avoiding the real issue. Say you’re a rational skeptic, and you’re tasked with evaluating Snopes as a source for fact checking. Why would you waste time on the personal lives of the staff, when there’s a treasure trove of statements of fact on record on their site which can easily be debunked? A true rational skeptic does not look at irrelevant factors when evaluating a specific issue; they distract from the real evidence — such as the easily evaluated statements on Snopes.

      “But Snopes is presenting evidence, and it’s not always possible for the casual reader to verify the truth, accuracy, bias, and completeness of that evidence.”
      When evaluating evidence, it’s never advisable to be a casual reader. This is why Snopes generally includes hyperlinks to their sources. There are also numerous other online sources any interested critical thinker can easily check to verify what Snopes presents.
      However, if someone chooses to read casually, is that not their choice? Why do you presume that Snopes is responsible for shepherding people who have elected to not carefully vet what they read? (I’m assuming here, of course, that you actually mean “casual reader” and aren’t using it, as I have seen it used before, as elitist shorthand for “people incapable of critical analysis [such capability, of course, always judged by the speaker with little to no evidence presented.]” If you meant something other than a reader who has chosen not to closely analyze what they’re reading and research the original sources, please clarify.)

      “What is the source for this: “Number of Snopes rebuttals debunked by the Daily Mail? – exactly zero.” ?”
      If I had to guess, I’d say the Daily Mail article linked in this piece — that certainly debunked nothing. Do you have a source for a single Snopes rebuttal debunked by the Daily Mail?

      • frippo

        “But Snopes is presenting evidence, and it’s not always possible for the casual reader to verify the truth, accuracy, bias, and completeness of that evidence.”

        In addition to what stevewithaq has said above — it sounds like your problem is ultimately with the readers — I’d also add that any site that actually presents evidence that can be checked is already well ahead of the reliability game. Even a site with an obvious bias that makes it possible to check its sources can be used with care, although an unscrupulous one can indeed rely on “causal readers” not to bother to check. However, whenever anyone without an axe of their own to grind fact-checks the fact-checkers, Snopes checks out as reliable.

    • Jack

      “Likewise, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of a person’s integrity in one aspect of their life if they’ve demonstrated a lack of integrity in another part.”

      These axes always cut both ways.

      By this reasoning, the long history of the Daily Mail for misleading falsehoods should lead us to dismiss this headline outright – nevermind accepting it uncritically at face value.