Snopes Retracts 60 Articles Plagiarized by Co-Founder
Snopes, which has long presented itself as the internet’s premier fact-checking resource, has retracted 60 articles after a BuzzFeed News investigation found that the site’s co-founder plagiarized from news outlets as part of a strategy intended to scoop up web traffic.
“As you can imagine, our staff are gutted and appalled by this,” Vinny Green, the Snopes chief operating officer, said on Friday. He said the Snopes editorial team was conducting a review to understand just how many articles written by David Mikkelson, the site’s co-founder and chief executive, featured content plagiarized from other news sites.
As of Friday afternoon, the team had found 60, he said. By Friday morning, dozens of articles had been removed from the site, with pages that formerly featured those articles now showing the word “retracted” and an explanation that “some or all of its content was taken from other sources without proper attribution.” Ads have been removed from these articles, according to Mr. Green.
Mr. Mikkelson, who owns 50 percent of Snopes Media Group, will continue to be Snopes’s chief executive, but his ability to publish articles has been revoked, Mr. Green said.
In a statement, Mr. Mikkelson acknowledged he had engaged in “multiple serious copyright violations of content that Snopes didn’t have rights to use” and praised the work of the 20 or so “dedicated, professional journalists” employed by Snopes.
“There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgment,” he wrote, adding, “I want to express how sorry I am to those whose copyright I violated, to our staff, and to our readers.”
Doreen Marchionni, the managing editor, has been given “full authority” to address these issues, he said.
In an apology to existing staff members posted on Snopes on Friday, Mr. Green and Ms. Marchionni, who has a Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Missouri, called the BuzzFeed News investigation, which accuses their chief executive of intentionally taking credit for other people’s work to drive up web traffic, as “an example of dogged, watchdog journalism we cherish.”
Eight additional members of the editorial staff issued their own statement. “We strongly condemn these poor journalistic practices,” they said.
The BuzzFeed investigation, which was published Friday, found that from 2015 to 2019 — under the Snopes byline, his own name and another pseudonym — Mr. Mikkelson published dozens of articles that included language that appeared to have been copied directly from The New York Times, CNN, NBC News, the BBC and other news sources. The investigation also identified cases in which entire paragraphs — and in at least one case, nearly an entire article — appeared to have been copied.
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Copying text from breaking news stories on other sites was a strategy intended to scoop up traffic, the former Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski told Dean Sterling Jones, the freelance journalist who broke the story for BuzzFeed News.
“That was his big SEO/speed secret,” Ms. Binkowski, who now manages Truth or Fiction, another fact-checking site, told BuzzFeed. “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.”
In a 2016 Slack message that was quoted in the BuzzFeed article, Mr. Mikkelson explicitly outlined this strategy. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Even if he had rewritten the text a few minutes after publication, that would not be considered ethical under widely accepted journalistic standards. But as both the BuzzFeed investigation and Snopes’s internal investigation found, he frequently never got around to changing the sentences he had stolen.
Though some of the plagiarized articles were from 2019, most were from 2015 or 2016, predating the current managing editor and editorial team, Mr. Green said.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Mr. Mikkelson blamed his behavior partly on his lack of formal journalism experience. Given that his site calls itself “the definitive internet reference source for researching urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation” and has built its brand on properly sourcing information, this excuse may be hard for some to stomach.
One of the more bizarre aspects of Mr. Mikkelson’s plagiarizing tendencies is that he sometimes published the stolen articles under the pseudonym Jeff Zarronandia. His Snopes bio says that he is “an American author and journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for numismatics” — the study of coins — “in 2006 and was one of four finalists for the prize in 2008.”
As to whether writing under the cover of a pseudonym and the Snopes staff’s byline fueled Mr. Mikkelson’s sense that he had license to use other people’s words, Mr. Green said he was not sure.