Snopes Retracts 60 Articles Plagiarized by Co-Founder

Long standing as the leading fact-checking resource on the Internet, Snopes withdrew 60 articles after a BuzzFeed News investigation found the site’s co-founder was plagiarized by news outlets as part of a strategy to increase web traffic.

“As you can imagine, our employees are appalled and appalled by this,” said Vinny Green, Snopes’ chief operating officer, on Friday. He said the Snopes editorial team was doing a review to understand how many articles by David Mikkelson, the site’s co-founder and executive director, contained content that was copied from other news sites.

By Friday afternoon, the team had found 60, he said. Dozens of articles had been removed from the site by Friday morning, with pages that used to contain those articles now bearing the word “withdrawn” and a statement that “some or all of the content is from other sources without being properly attributed” . According to Mr. Green, ads have been removed from these articles.

Mr. Mikkelson, who owns 50 percent of Snopes Media Group, will continue to be the CEO of Snopes but his ability to publish articles has been revoked, Mr. Green said.

In a statement, Mr. Mikkelson admitted that he “had committed several serious copyright infringements on content that Snopes had no rights to use” and praised the work of the approximately 20 “dedicated, professional journalists” who worked for Snopes.

“There is no excuse for my grave misjudgments,” he wrote, adding, “I would like to express my condolences to our staff and our readers to those whose copyrights I have violated.”

Doreen Marchionni, the executive editor, has been given “full authority” to address these issues, he said.

In an apology to existing staff posted on Snopes Friday, Mr. Green and Ms. Marchionni, who have a Ph.D. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, cited the BuzzFeed News investigation, which accuses its chairman of deliberately recognizing other people’s work to increase web traffic, as “an example of dogged watchdog journalism we value.”

Eight other members of the editorial team gave their own statements. “We strongly condemn these bad journalistic practices,” they said.

The BuzzFeed investigation, which was released on Friday, found that from 2015 to 2019 – under the Snopes byline, his own name, and another pseudonym – Mr Mikkelson published dozens of articles containing language apparently straight from the New York Times had been copied, CNN, NBC News, the BBC and other news sources. The research also identified cases where entire paragraphs – and in at least one case, nearly an entire article – appeared to have been copied.

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Aug. 12, 2021, 4:26 p.m. ET

Copying text from breaking news on other websites was a strategy aimed at collecting traffic, former Snopes editor-in-chief Brooke Binkowski told Dean Sterling Jones, the freelance journalist who published the story for BuzzFeed News.

“That was his big SEO / speed secret,” Ms. Binkowski, who now runs Truth or Fiction, another fact-checking website, told BuzzFeed. “He directed us to copy text from other sites, post it verbatim so it looked like we were fast and able to pick up the traffic, and then change the story in real time.”

In a 2016 Slack message quoted in the BuzzFeed article, Mr. Mikkelson explicitly outlined this strategy. “Usually when a hot, real news story is published (like the death of a celebrity) I just find a news service or other piece of news about it and put it verbatim on the site for a quick page upload,” he wrote. “Once that’s done, I’ll quickly start editing the page to rephrase it and add material from other sources so it doesn’t get plagiarized.”

Even if he had rewritten the text a few minutes after it was published, that would not be ethical by generally accepted journalistic standards. But both the BuzzFeed investigation and Snopes’ internal investigation found that he often never got around to changing the sentences he stole.

Although some of the counterfeit articles were from 2019, most were from 2015 or 2016, before the current editor-in-chief and editorial team, Mr. Green said.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, Mr. Mikkelson attributed his behavior in part to his lack of formal journalistic experience. Given that his website has billed itself as “the definitive internet reference source for researching urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation” and has built its brand on getting information right, this excuse may be difficult for some to be endured.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Mr. Mikkelson’s plagiarism is that he sometimes published the stolen articles under the pseudonym Jeff Zarronandia. His biography of Snopes states that he is “an American author and journalist who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Numismatics” – the study of coins – “and was one of four finalists for the award in 2008”.

As to whether the pseudonym writing and the byline from the Snopes staff made Mr. Mikkelsons feel that he was allowed to use other people’s words, Mr. Green said he was not sure.

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