July 28, 2017

#Snopes is "saved"? And, so what if it is?

Recently, David Mikkelson, co-owner of the iconic rumor-busting website Snopes, launched a GoFundMe account, asking for $500,000. And, he appears to have been successful.

But why did he need this?

Well, there's a certain amount of history behind this, and the media source that first broke it gets ad hominemed by some skeptics when they reject anything it writes because the source is itself accused of doing little other than ad homineming.


I'll quickly straighten it out.

The Atlantic has the current state of the issue.

In summary, Snopes was founded a number of years ago by David and Barbara Mikkelson. They eventually divorced. They split ownership of Snopes 50-50, having created a company vehicle for it, Bardav, long before the divorce. Eventually, whether they had a private Chinese auction agreement or whatever, Barbara sold her half to five people, who owned a company called Proper Media, with which Bardav/Snopes had entered some sort of agreement the year before.

It gets more fun from there. Essentially, one person was forced out from Proper Media, and because of the interlocking relationship with Snopes, that threatened David's control of it. There's sidebar issues as to who is or is not a director of both Proper Media and Bardav.

The two are now at the point of dueling legal motions, which is part of why DM launched the GoFundMe.

Now, Atlantic refers to "titillating details" of the divorce becoming public.

Out of prudery or whatever, it won't refer to this Daily Mail article, now updated in light of the current situation, which is where they became public.

And, that's the "media source" above.

For people familiar with the Daily Mail, it is what it is. And? The National Enquirer got John Edwards' love child right long before the MSM would even start to look at the claims there. A true skeptic, a true critical thinker, approaches the story as a story, noting its source while at the same time trying to partially follow Husserl's idea of "bracketing."

Anyway, to that Daily Mail story.

What got the DM going was that Facebook named Snopes to be one of its arbiters on "fake news." While Snopes is good at busting straight-up urban legends, including political ones (it rightly noted Jill Stein is not an antivaxxer), when it comes to larger, deeper, in the woods political analysis like that of Politifact et al, it's not always that good. And, its staffers to do this very likely are not trained journalists, or trained in general. (That said, Politifact et al aren't always that great themselves.)

I already figured that, once Snopes announced this mission creep. And a few truly skeptical friends (not "movement skepticism" or "scientific skepticism" players) felt the same.

The original DM story's essence (lightly updated) is about halfway down the page. It reports that David Mikkelson wanted a salary of $720K a year. No wonder, per the Atlantic, it has overhead of more than $100K a month.

And, sorry, Atlantic, but it's relevant that his second wife was a Vegas "escort" who charged $500 an hour before they got married. Goes to fiduciary duty, per Proper Media's claims of his alleged wastrel nature.

There's more yet at DM's original story from last December. Lots more. Yes, with more titillation.

DM delves even more into the divorce paperwork. Both Mikkelsons accused each other of financial impropriety and Barbara accused David of embezzlement, among other things.

David was already making $240K a year back then. Pretty high cotton. Both were to get $20K a month as draws against profit after the split. Both had plenty of bank account money from Snopes' years of existence.

Finally, relevant to the issue of fact-checking, whether more narrow urban legend debunking or bigger Politifact work, David admitted staffers have no specific training.

Note that NONE of this was in the prudish Atlantic piece.

But it DID get a Forbes blogger, Kalev Leetru, to wondering. He sent a series of emails to David, from which he wrote this piece. David denied none of the fact checking issues and hid behind "divorce settlement" on other questions.

Oh, and claims the Daily Mail supported Hitler in 1938? The Democratic Party, at least large chunks of it, supported racism still in the 1950s. THAT's an ad hominem.

So, people who are in love with Snopes, here's my skinny of notes and rhetorical questions.
1. Since other institutions exist, like Truth or Fiction, which recently, for other reasons, replaced Snopes on my blogroll, what makes Snopes so special?
2. Snopes also never really delved into woo-debunking, or larger issues of critical thinking. The late Bob Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary remains my gold standard there.
3. If a couple, then one half of a couple, screwed up a company because of a marital and post-marital clusterfuck, why should I help bail them out? Even if they put out a product or service that I thought was more important than Snopes?
4. That's even more true since it was an "S" company with a two-person board of directors, originally, existing 20 years with no more fiduciary oversight than the two Mikkelsons.
5. If you don't know that most "fake news" analyzers have bias (like Google using the term "low-quality news" and downgrading stuff that's more than 3 degrees left of Bernie Sanders), Snopes as a fake news analyzer isn't going to help you anyway.
6. A lot of "movement skeptics" reject extending their movement outside "scientific skepticism," so shouldn't really care about the "new Snopes," anyway. (This sets aside the ongoing problems the movement has with libertarians in the tent confusing and conflating libertarianism with skepticism.)
7. If you're going to repeat claims about the Daily Mail supporting fascism from back in the 1930s (while I counter that the majority of Senate Democrats were racists in the 1950s to undermine such stupidity), try overcoming the tribalism that's a hallmark of movement skepticism and one reason why I'm not a player in it.

In other words, try being more skeptical yourselves.

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