The co-founder of fact-checking website Snopes has been apologized for plagiarizing at least 60 articles and writing under a fake name.
David Mikkelson, a computer science graduate who founded the site in 1994, blamed the behavior on a lack of journalistic training.
‘I didn’t come from a journalism background,’ he said. ‘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.’
Following an investigation by BuzzFeed News, he is no longer allowed to publish articles on the page – although he retains his position as chief executive.
David Mikkelson on Friday admitted plagiarizing at least 54 articles on the fact-checking site he co-founded, Snopes
‘As you can imagine, our staff are gutted and appalled by this,’ said Vinny Green, Snopes’s chief operating officer.
Mikkelson acknowledged he had committed ‘multiple serious copyright violations of content that Snopes didn’t have rights to use’, and said he was embarrassed to have angered the 20 ‘dedicated, professional journalists’ employed by Snopes.
Doreen Marchionni, the managing editor of Snopes, said that Mikkelson has been suspended from editorial duties
‘There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgment,’ he wrote.
‘I want to express how sorry I am to those whose copyright I violated, to our staff, and to our readers.’
Doreen Marchionni, the managing editor, has been given ‘full authority’ to address these issues, he 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‘The post was retracted because some or all of its content was taken from other sources without proper attribution,’ the site states.
It then links to the plagiarized story, saying: ‘Read the original reporting behind the headline.’
Among the stories Mikkelson took verbatim were articles published by NBC, CNN, the BBC, New York Times and others. He also took wire copy from sources such as Reuters, despite not paying for a subscription to their service.
BuzzFeed cited this NBC story as an example of one which Mikkelson had plagiarized. The introduction to the story was copied verbatim
Snopes has retracted Mikkelson’s plagiarized articles and issued an apology
BuzzFeed obtained Slack messages in which Mikkelson detailed his approach.
‘Usually when a hot real news story breaks (such as a celebrity death), I just find a wire service or other news story about it and publish it on the site verbatim to quickly get a page up,’ he wrote in January 2016.
‘Once that’s done, then I quickly start editing the page to reword it and add material from other sources to make it not plagiarized.’
In two emails from 2014 and 2015, Mikkelson told staff to ‘pop over to one of our competitor sites (urbanlegends.com or hoaxslayer.com), pick something out that they’ve recently published that we haven’t covered,’ and ‘rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.’
Mikkelson, who graduated in computer science, said the plagiarism was in part a lack of journalistic training
Brooke Binkowski, the former managing editor at Snopes, who now manages rival site Truth or Fiction, said: ‘That was his big SEO/speed secret.
‘He would instruct us 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.’
Mikkelson would also use a pseudonym, Jeff Zarronandia, for no legitimate reason.
His biography on the site said that he is ‘an American author and journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for numismatics’ — the study of coins.
Mikkelson told BuzzFeed that he created the Zarronandia pseudonym as a joke in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, as a way of poking fun at conspiracy theorists.
‘It was kind of a stress-relief thing [after] spending 20 years seeing people trying to discredit our work by just making stuff up about us,’ he said.
‘Let’s have some fun and watch these people vent their spleen inventing reasons why this nonexistent persona is biased.’
Marchionni, the managing editor, said Mikkelson has been suspended from editorial duties pending ‘a comprehensive internal investigation.’
‘Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop,’ Marchionni added.
‘It has no place in any context within this organization.’