Urban Legends: Did Snopes Get Snoped?

Biased sources want you to believe Snopes.com is biased

Screenshot from Snopes.com


A viral message circulating since the 2008 presidential election alleges that the hoax-debunking website Snopes.com is "owned by a flaming liberal" who is "in the tank for Obama" and can't be trusted to provide unbiased information. Is it true? Has anyone offered proof to back it up?

  • Description: Viral text / Email rumor
  • Circulating since: Oct. 2008
  • Status: Unsubstantiated (see details below)

Rumor example

Email text contributed by Elliott F., Oct. 20, 2008:

Subject: Snopes under fire
Snopes under fire
I have suspected some problems with Snopes for some time now, but I have only caught them in half-truths. If there is any subjectivity they do an immediate full left rudder.
Truth or fiction.com <http://truthorfiction.com/> is the better source for verification, in my opinion.
I have recently discovered that Snopes.com is owned by a flaming liberal and this man is in the tank for Obama. There are many things they have listed on their site as a hoax and yet you can go to Youtube yourself and find the video of Obama actually saying these things. So you see, you cannot and should not trust Snopes.com.... ever for anything that remotely resembles truth! I don't even trust them to tell me if email chains are hoaxes anymore.
A few conservative speakers on Myspace told me about snopes.com <http://snopes.com/> a few months ago and I took it upon myself to do a little research to find out if it was true. Well, I found out for myself that it is true. This website is backing Obama and is covering up for him. They will say anything that makes him look bad is a hoax and they also tell lies on the other side about McCain and Palin.
Anyway just FYI please don't use Snopes.com anymore for fact checking and make your friends aware of their political leanings as well. Many people still think Snopes.com is neutral and they can be trusted as factual. We need to make sure everyone is aware that that is a hoax in itself.


Apparently, it never occurred to this anonymous emailer to cite even one actual instance of Snopes.com promulgating "half-truths" or "lies" under the guise of providing reliable information. So much for credibility (the emailer's, we mean).

It's doubly ironic that an attack like this should be mounted against the oldest and most respected fact-checking site on the Internet at the denouement of an election year (2008) marked from beginning to end by unrestrained smear-mongering, much of which it fell to Snopes.com to debunk.

Let's examine the accusations.

  • CLAIM: Snopes.com is owned by 'a flaming liberal' with a partisan bias. First off, it's clear that whoever wrote this piece made it up as they went along. Anyone who has spent even a few minutes browsing Snopes.com knows that the website is owned by two people, not one, husband and wife David and Barbara Mikkelson of southern California. This is stated on the website and has been common knowledge since the website's inception.
    Second, the charge of partisanship is laid without evidence. At no time have the Mikkelsons publicly stated a political preference or affiliation, or expressed support for any particular party or candidate.
    Moreover, Barbara Mikkelson is a Canadian citizen, and as such cannot vote in U.S. elections or contribute to political campaigns. In a statement provided to FactCheck.org, David Mikkelson said his "sole involvement in politics" is voting on election day. In 2000 he registered as a Republican, documents provided to FactCheck.org show, and in 2008 Mikkelson didn't declare a party affiliation at all. Says Mikkelson: "I've never joined a party, worked for a campaign, or donated money to a candidate" (source: FactCheck.org).
    Anyone who claims proof to the contrary needs to come out with it.
  • A NOTE ON GEORGE SOROS: A later variant of this rumor alleges, without evidence, that Snopes.com is owned and/or financed by liberal philanthropist and hedge fund tycoon George Soros. This is false. Snopes.com is entirely self-supporting through advertising sales.
    Each time we've been confronted with this claim we've asked for evidence of any kind demonstrating a financial connection between Snopes and Soros. No one has ever provided it, much less a coherent argument as to why we should even suppose such a connection exists.
  • CLAIM: Snopes.com is 'in the tank for Obama' and 'tells lies' about Republicans. You'd think it would be easy for someone so blithely asserting that the owners of Snopes.com are "flaming liberals" to offer evidence that they're "in the tank" for Obama and "covering up" for him. None is provided.
    As of this writing, dozens of viral texts about Obama and his running mate have been analyzed on Snopes.com, each meticulously researched with copious references cited. We've perused them all, not to mention the dozens of rumors they've covered about Obama's Republican counterparts, and found no discernible pattern of bias or deception, nor any evidence of advocacy for or against any particular party or political persuasion. To the contrary, we see a consistent effort to provide even-handed analyses of texts which more often than not are themselves dripping with bias and acrimony.
    That's our assessment as a longtime competitor of Snopes.com who has been called upon to investigate many of these same rumors and can boast a better-than-average familiarity with the subject matter. We invite you to make your own.
  • CLAIM: TruthorFiction.com is less biased more reliable than Snopes. Ironically, TruthorFiction.com has refuted these attacks against Snopes.com and, in point of fact, lauds the site as an "excellent" and "authoritative" resource.
    A further irony is that when you compare the contents of the two sites their findings rarely diverge in any substantive way. Shouldn't we, therefore, conclude that TruthorFiction.com is just as biased as Snopes?
    Where Snopes.com and TruthorFiction.com do differ is in the depth and quality of their coverage. The Mikkelsons go to extraordinary lengths to address the finer details of each text, supplying critical analysis as well as background and contextual information. Most importantly, they cite sources. Not to disparage TruthorFiction.com's owners, who do maintain an up-to-date and generally trustworthy resource, but by comparison, their analyses tend to be perfunctory and their sourcing minimal at best.
    Snopes.com boasts a 15-year-plus record of providing accurate, well-researched, dependable information and analysis, and in that time has earned the confidence of the media, government agencies, the business community, and the general public alike.
    Given all of the above, Snopes is surely the preferable resource.

Update: The Bud Gregg Incident

A subsequent variant of this rumor purports to describe a verified instance of political bias on the part of Snopes.com:

Excerpt from forwarded email received Oct. 29, 2008:

A few months ago, when my State Farm agent Bud Gregg in Mandeville hoisted a political sign referencing Barack Obama and made a big splash across the internet, 'supposedly' the Mikkelson's claim to have researched this issue before posting their findings on snopes.com. In their statement they claimed the corporate office of State Farm pressured Gregg into taking down the sign, when in fact nothing of the sort 'ever' took place.
I personally contacted David Mikkelson (and he replied back to me) thinking he would want to get to the bottom of this and I gave him Bud Gregg's contact phone numbers - and Bud was going to give him phone numbers to the big exec's at State Farm in Illinois who would have been willing to speak with him about it. He never called Bud. In fact, I learned from Bud Gregg no one from snopes.com ever contacted anyone with State Farm. Yet, snopes.com issued a statement as the 'final factual word' on the issue as if they did all their homework and got to the bottom of things - not!

As claimed, the Snopes.com page in question concerns a political (anti-Obama) sign erected by Mandeville, Louisiana State Farm Insurance agent Bud Gregg. And Snopes.com indeed states that Mr. Gregg was asked by State Farm's corporate office to remove the sign. But whereas the above text asserts that "nothing of the sort ever took place," State Farm has confirmed in writing that, in fact, "Management requested the sign be removed as soon as its presence became known."

It's clear based on the actual evidence, then, that the Mikkelsons did contact State Farm headquarters during the course of their investigation, and did accurately report that the company requested removal of the sign. According to David Mikkelson, they also attempted to contact Gregg personally via email but never received a reply (source: FactCheck.org).

Is Snopes.com Infallible? Of Course Not

No one is immune to error, and that includes the folks who run Snopes.com, TruthorFiction.com, and even, God knows, yours truly.

Reader, if you take nothing else away from this commentary, at least pay heed to this one important point: no information source is infallible. Whether it be an urban legends website, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Encyclopedia Britannica, mistakes can be made, nuances missed, or unconscious biases unleashed at any point in the fact-checking process.

Rule of thumb: Wherever possible, avoid depending on any single source of information, no matter how esteemed its reputation or how reliable it has proven in the past.

To quote Snopes.com's own Barbara Mikkelson, "It's just as much a mistake to look to a usually-reliable source to do all of the thinking, judging, and weighing as it was to unquestioningly believe every unsigned email that came along."

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. That's an unbiased fact.


Too Good to Be True? It Usually Is
Washington Post, 28 September 2008

Citation Makes Snopes.com Work
Longview News-Journal, 18 October 2008

Keeping Their Opinions to Themselves
New York Times, 18 October 2008

FactCheck.org, 10 April 2009

False Authority Syndrome
Snopes.com, 16 May 2008

Evaluating Information Sources: Basic Principles
Duke University Libraries, 30 May 2007