Sometimes the facts are stranger than fiction — and sometimes the facts are plagiarized.
David Mikkelson, who launched Snopes in 1995 with a mission to be “the internet’s definitive fact-checking site,” was suspended by his company, Doreen Marchionni, Snopes’ VP of editorial and its managing editor, confirmed to BuzzFeed, after their reporters uncovered no less than 54 plagiarized articles by Mikkelson.
“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, “There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgement. I’m sorry.”
BuzzFeed wrote that Mikkelson’s Snopes posts contained phrasing — even entire paragraphs — lifted from outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, the Guardian, the LA Times and the BBC between 2015 and 2019, often under the byline “Snopes staff” or while using the pseudonym Jeff Zarronandia.
“Zarronandia” was illustriously described in his Snopes bio as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and someone talented at “mule-skinning,” whose seemingly informed stories on everything from arts and culture to national politics had in the past drawn ridicule from the likes of former Donald Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, BuzzFeed said.
Snopes’ reporters have also jointly issued a statement, writing that they “strongly condemn these poor journalistic practices,” adding that they “work hard every day to uphold the highest possible journalistic and ethical standards.”
As of late Friday, Snopes had retracted 60 articles and disable advertisements on those webpages, according to the New York Times, and will continue making retractions as they conduct their own internal investigation. The company was said to have already flagged 140 articles for review.
One such cribbed passage, written by Jon Schuppe for NBC News, appeared on Snopes.com under Mikkelson’s own byline: “Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself ‘The Greatest’ and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead.”
Mikkelson attempted to explain for his crimes in an interview with BuzzFeed. “I didn’t come from a journalism background,” he told them. “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.”
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.
However, insiders revealed to BuzzFeed that Mikkelson’s habit was driven by a need to drive traffic to the website — 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. “I hated it and wouldn’t tell any of the staff to do it, but he did it all the time.”
The revelation comes in the aftermath of the heated divorce between Mikkelson and Snopes’ co-founder Barbara Hamel in 2015, which led to Hamel’s share of the company being sold to tech firm Proper Media. In 2017, the company filed suit against Mikkelson, claiming he’d mismanaged Snopes’ finances — and at the same time Mikkelson launched his own GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the website.