Co-founder and CEO of the fact checking website Snopes, David Mikkelson, was found to have plagiarized dozens of articles between 2015 and 2019 from sources such as the LA Times and the Guardian.
A BuzzFeed News investigation uncovered Mikkelson’s fraud, and after inquiries, Snopes’ internal review found he had published 54 articles containing copied material. The pieces, which covered topics like same-sex marriage licenses and the passing of musician David Bowie, had been published under a pseudonym, the Snopes byline, and his own name. Mikkelson has since been suspended from editorial duties by Doreen Marchionni, Snopes VP of Editorial and Managing Editor. He is pending “a comprehensive internal investigation.”
Marchionni and Vinny Green, Snopes Chief Operating Officer, commented in a statement, “Our internal research so far has found a total of 54 stories Mikkelson published that used appropriated material, including all of the stories Buzzfeed shared with us.” Marchionni continued, “Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop. It has no place in any context within this organization.”
Mikkelson told BuzzFeed News that his mistake stemmed from his lacking journalism experience. He 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.”
Snopes was founded as “the internet’s definitive fact-checking site” in 1995 and served as a fact-checking partner for Facebook from December 2016 and February 2019. The website notes to readers that it “follows all industry guidelines for transparency in reporting,” saying, “we think being transparent with readers is the coolest.”
However, Mikkelson’s pseudonym, Jeff Zarronandia, was mentioned nowhere on the Snopes site. Under the false name, Mikkelson would write more controversial articles, using the name as a person towards whom “trolls” could direct their hate mail; topics included Donald Trump’s financial woes and false rumors about Hillary Clinton.
BuzzFeed News noted that many of the questionable articles included language and even whole paragraphs that were copied verbatim from major outlets without credit. Six of these pieces were attributed to Zarronandia, three to Mikkelson, and the rest to “Snopes Staff.”
Brooke Binkowski, Snopes’ former managing editor, spoke with BuzzFeed News: “He would instruct us to copy text from other sites, post them verbatim so that it would look like we were fast and could scoop up traffic, and then change the story in real time.” In 2020, the number of fact checking organizations showed a 200 percent increase worldwide since 2016 (Axios).