Fact-checking has become a big thing. Everyone is talking about fake news these days. But it’s not like it is a new thing.
The earliest newspapers in America were famous for inventing stories and printing slanderous attack pieces. Benjamin Franklin would create various pseudonyms to write under and then offer fake accounts of events and such. Franklin, as First Postmaster General, used his position to disallow his adversaries to mail their newspapers. The Federalists went so far as to get mobs to smash the printing presses used by the Anti-Federalists. The media back then fought dirty in a way we can barely imagine these days.
The modern mainstream media, however, has gotten sneakier in some ways. An example of this is how some people in the media were working directly with the DNC and Clinton campaign, such as sending them articles to edit before publishing. And it doesn’t take long to observe right-wing media to realize they are also working close with Republicans, such as all repeating talking points that were put out by right-wing think tanks. If you really want to get angry about the moral failure of journalism, read about the propaganda model which Noam Chomsky (among others) has written about.
In response, many Americans turn to fact-checking websites. One of these is Snopes. It’s been around for more than a couple of decades, debunking rumors online long before most people knew much about the existence of an internet. But what qualifications does Snopes have? Why should we trust them to tell us who to trust?
It’s not as if Snopes does investigative journalism. The couple that started the website had no education or experience that would be relevant. They simply felt that someone had to do it. The reality is that, beyond motivation to do so, their opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s. They don’t necessarily have access to any info that isn’t available to you. They do have some decent people on their staff, but some of their writers are questionable. Take this bio, for example:
“Dan Evon is a Chicago-based writer and longtime truth enthusiast. His work has appeared somewhere, and he earned a degree at the University of His Choosing. His exploration of Internet truth has been supported by grants from the Facebook Drug Task Force.”
I came across one of his Snopes articles recently: Same Paper, Different Story. The topic of the article is two different front pages and headlines for the Wall Street Journal from the same day. Evon judged to be false the claim that they were printed for two different marketing regions and target audiences. In making this conclusion, he bases his opinion on the statement of one source: “Colleen Schwartz, the Vice President of Communications at The Wall Street Journal, confirmed that these editions were printed at different times, not in different markets.” That is the equivalent of Trump’s Press Secretary denying that Trump has small hands.
The funny thing is that right-wingers predictably claim Snopes has a liberal bias. Any person or organization that is part of the reality-based community, to the right-wing mind, has a liberal bias. It’s hard to see how relying on a WSJ representative as your sole source indicates a liberal bias. Besides, the founder and operator of Snopes was formerly registered as a Republican and now registered as an independent, not exactly a part of a liberal media conspiracy. But we don’t need to speculate about biases, in such cases. The writer, Dan Evon, was just being intellectually lazy because it would have been a lot of work to actually confirm or disconfirm the claims being made.
So, this particular article is completely worthless, even if the explanation is true. The point is that, going by the article itself, you can’t know what is true. There simply is no useful evidence offered. Anyone could look up what was stated by a representative of Wall Street Journal. That is the opposite of helpful info, without the context of info from other sources. The explanation is plausible, which is the most that can be said about it. But Snopes ranks claims according to their truth value, not their plausibility.
That said, Snopes is considered reliable according to other fact-checking websites. It’s important, though, to remember fact-checking organizations are part of the media. They aren’t final arbiters of truth, standing above all biases and errors. Reading a Snopes article doesn’t relieve you of responsibility for determining the truth for yourself, if you seriously consider it important enough to know about. Never rely on a single source, not even a single fact-checker, especially not a single fact-checker relying on a single source.
David Emery, from About.com, has praised Snopes for their quality. But he has also wisely pointed out that,
“In the thorny search for truth, there’s no substitute for doing one’s own research and applying one’s own considered judgment before thinking oneself informed.”
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