Fact-checking the fact-checkers: Snopes.com gets an 'A'

Site remains go-to destination when something seems too good or bad to be true

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What's your first thought when someone spreads an e-mail around the office claiming that Oprah is giving away a million bucks or that your penny-pinching state will no longer send out reminders about driver's license renewals?

Right: Better check Snopes.com to see if these things are true. (The first is not; the second is indeed, if you, like me, live in Massachusetts.)

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Established in 1995, Snopes has long been the go-to site for running a rumor through the BS-detector, and its proprietors, David and Barbara Mikkelson, have assumed an almost mythic stature as the most authoritative discoverers of truth and falsity online.

But who's checking the fact checkers?

Last Friday it was a similar but more narrowly focused outfit, FactCheck.org, which is funded by the Annenberg Foundation and describes itself as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics." (Why not try something easier first, like say peace in the Middle East?)

Here's the essence of a chain e-mail that FactCheck.org decided to fact check: Is Snopes.com run by a "very Democratic" duo who long hid their true identities, rarely do any real research, and blatantly fabricated a tale about a State Farm Insurance agent just because he publicly opposed the election of President Obama?

No, no, no and no were the conclusions. Employing that age-old reporter's trick of contacting the primary source -- in this case, State Farm -- FactCheck.org was able to confirm that, yes, the insurance giant had asked agent Bud Gregg to stop using its brand name as his political soapbox. The group could find no evidence of political contributions or activism on the part of the Mikkelsons -- he's a former Republican turned independent; she's a Canadian who cannot vote.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find two more apolitical people," David Mikkelson said. We checked online to see if he had given money to any federal candidates, and nothing turned up. Mikkelson even faxed us a copy of his voter registration form. He asked us not to post an image of it here, but we can confirm that it shows he declined to state a party affiliation when he registered last year, and also that when he registered in 2000 he did so as a Republican.

Do the Snopes.com articles reveal a political bias? We reviewed a sampling of their political offerings, including some on rumors about George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, and we found them to be utterly poker-faced. David does say that the site receives more complaints that it is too liberal than that it is too conservative. Nevertheless, he says, "We apply the same debunking standards to both sides."

Of course, the reason Snopes.com is more often accused of bias by conservatives than by liberals is that facts have a notoriously liberal bias.

The FactCheck fact checkers found plenty of evidence that the Mikkelsons are serious if not obsessive researchers, not exactly a revelation to fans of the site. As for hiding their identities, the first of countless press mentions of Snopes dates back to a 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times that named David Mikkelson.

Bottom line: You can go on trusting Snopes.com as much as you'd trust any other source of information on the Internet (and, no, that's not meant to be back-handed).

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Incidentally, the Mikkelsons make no claim to infallibility and insist that their highest objective is to help convince people to think critically about what they hear and read ... and to do their own fact checking.

Because you never know when someone will try to pull one over on you.

(Update: Before leaving a Snopes-like question here in the comments, please read this follow-up post. This is not -- repeat, not -- Snopes.com. Thanks.)

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