The co-founder of fact-checking website Snopes has been exposed as a plagiarist, according to a BuzzFeed investigation and has apologized to the readers. Following that, Snopes, the website that projects itself as, "the internet's definitive fact-checking resource," has pulled down more than 50 articles that supposedly were plagiarized by David Mikkelson.
The plagiarism scandal comes as a major blow as the website over the years had built an image of trust when it came to checking facts or debunking myths. Mikkelson, a computer science graduate who founded the site in 1994, blamed the behavior on a lack of journalistic training in his defense while tendering an apology.
Following an investigation by BuzzFeed News, Mikkelson was suspended by his company, Doreen Marchionni, Snopes' VP of editorial and its managing editor, confirmed to BuzzFeed. The investigation found that Mikkelson plagiarized at least 54 articles over the years.
The suspension means he won't any longer be allowed to publish articles on the page. However, he will continue to retain his position as chief executive.
"Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop," Marchionni said in a statement on Friday. "It has no place in any context within this organization."
In response to the investigation Mikkelson said, "I didn't come from a journalism background. I wasn't used to doing news aggregation. A number of times I crossed the line to where it was copyright infringement. I own that."
He also accepted that he had plagiarized multiple articles but that was because of his ignorance. He acknowledged to have committed "multiple serious copyright violations of content that Snopes didn't have rights to use", and said that he was embarrassed to have angered all the "professional journalists" employed by Snopes.
Tarnishing Everyone's Image
The revelation not only tarnishes Mikkelson's image but also puts a question on the credibility of the website. Following the investigation, BuzzFeed wrote Mikkelson's reports on Snopes often contained phrasing entire paragraphs lifted from outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, the Guardian, the LA Times and the BBC between 2015 and 2019.
Mikkelson would most of the time use the byline "Snopes staff" or while the pseudonym Jeff Zarronandia in those articles. Interestingly, "Zarronandia" was described in his Snopes bio as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and someone who is an expert in delivering fact-based stories on everything from arts and culture to national politics and had in the past and had even been ridiculed by former Donald Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, BuzzFeed said.
Snopes is currently conducting a review of the site, and stories from 2015-19 that BuzzFeed highlighted as plagiarized now feature an error message.
"The post was retracted because some or all of its content was taken from other sources without proper attribution," the site states.
Mikkelson insists that Zarronandia was created as a "stress-relief thing" during the fraught 2016 presidential election, when the concept of "fact-checking" became an ethical beacon for some, and a political bane to others.
"Let's have some fun and watch these people vent their spleen inventing reasons why this nonexistent persona is biased," he said.
Understandably, Mikkelson's idea was to drive traffic to the Snopes website but by being one of the first sites to rehash the most trending news headlines. "He would instruct [writers] to copy text from other sites, post them verbatim so that it looked like we were fast and could scoop up traffic, and then change the story in real time," Snopes' former managing editor Brooke Binkowski told BuzzFeed.