Ryan: Welcome to Rumor Flies. I'm Ryan.
Josh: I'm Josh.
Greg: I am Greg.
Ryan: Welcome to the season seven finale.
Greg: Whatever season it is.
Ryan: We're doing something quite a bit different than usual. We landed an interview with one of our best sources, the head and founder or co-founder of Snopes.com, David Mikkelson. This is-
Greg: Not to be mixed up with Phil Mickelson, the noted golfer.
Ryan: Or Matt Mickelson.
Josh: The lefty.
Ryan: Yes. It's going to be an awesome interview. It's going to be straight through. Right after this, we're going to go in with him, and we hope you enjoy it. Just some quick overhead stuff. Thank you, once again, everybody, for supporting us on Patreon. If you're not a Patreon member already, we have another way for you guys to possibly support us.
Greg: Drum roll.
Ryan: We got merch now.
Ryan: Yes. We have a Threadless shop now where you can get shirts.
Greg: They only sell shower curtains.
Ryan: Well, we do have shower curtains on there. We have shower curtains, shirts, mugs, just about anything you want. We have a baby jumper. Josh, I saw you haven't bought it yet, but I know you're going to. Yeah, everybody go check that out, and just enjoy the interview.
Ryan: Hello, David Mikkelson. You are currently the CEO and founder of Snopes. Am I getting that right?
David Mikkelson: That's correct, yes.
Ryan: Okay. Number one, nice to meet you. I'm not sure if you're too familiar with our podcast, but pretty much we usually tackle things like modern-day myth that kind of just keep propagating throughout just the times. We try to source everything, so I think we are very much in-line and also very thankful for the service that you and all the people at Snopes.com have set up for us, because it has been invaluable in what we've been able to accomplish with this podcast.
Greg: We've had to go out of our way to not use you every single episode.
David Mikkelson: I'm glad to be helpful.
Ryan: Is there anything you'd like to say about yourself before we go ahead and start with just lobbing questions at you left and right?
David Mikkelson: Well, just kind of just followed from what you said, it's just kind of an interesting tidbit that today, people have been tweeting at us that there was some FBI Intelligence bulletin on the Internet that came out recently about, "Do fringe political conspiracy theories motivate domestic extremists to commit criminal and violent acts?" They cited Snopes as one of the sources that they drew from in that Intelligence bulletin, so people are either tweeting at us, "Yay, Snopes!" Or they're tweeting, "I think it's fake, because they cited Snopes."
Greg: I'm sure you probably get the fake news tag a lot attached to stuff that y'all do.
David Mikkelson: Correct, yeah. It is the oldest trick in the book is ... You know.
Ryan: We're going to talk about that a little bit further into the interview. Greg, you want to start out with a question or so? Also, we were talking about that exact topic you were talking about, like right before we stated this, we were recording a different episode, so how appropriate.
Greg: Indeed. First off, once again, thank you for doing this. I guess our first question is, the title, Snopes. What does it mean? What does it reference? What exactly, where did the name come from?
David Mikkelson: Okay, well, the name, Snopes. Actually, that was something, it comes from the works of Williams Faulkner. It's the name of a family of characters who appear throughout his novels and short stories. It really has no connection to the purpose of the site itself. It's kind of like, I knew from reading his books about Snopes. I had a cat named Snopes. I think I had that on my license plate when I was in college, and that was all in the pre-Internet days. Then a few years later, when I finished college and I was working for a large computer company and was actually on the Internet before most people had heard of it. I was on the old Usenet newsgroups, starting posting and I just kind-
Ryan: The bulletin board systems?
David Mikkelson: Yeah, exactly. I just kind of, there's what? 20 million Davids out there. It was the most common boy's name the year I was born. Who's going to remember that? I need a noms de note, so to speak, and so I used Snope, it was kind of short and catchy, and people kind of got to know me on the Internet by that name, and by participating in groups where we discussed rumors and legends, so it was just kind of a natural when I started the site.
David Mikkelson: I mean, it's also been kind of fortuitous. It's one of those names like Amazon or Google or something. It has no connection to the underlying service, but everybody remembers it, and it distinguishes you from your competitors. Everybody else in this space is Fact something or something Check or, and we're the one that's not.
Ryan: It sounds like you've got ahead of the branding marketing and you nailed it with that, with Snopes.com.
David Mikkelson: Yeah. I mean, kind of completely unintentionally.
Greg: It's just, pretty much your handle became your website.
Josh: Yeah. I was going to say. It sounds like you built a reputation and just, it became it.
Ryan: Blossomed. Yeah, just blossomed there. That's awesome.
Ryan: What was the actual motivation for starting Snopes? Because it seems like you guys were ahead of the ball. Because it seems like, this was before smartphones. People had to log on and go onto this. It was kind of like you were the only one around doing it. What just gave you the inspiration to start this out of nowhere?
David Mikkelson: Well, I wish I could claim that I had the foresight 25 years ago, "Oh, fact checking's going to become really important with this Internet thing." No. It was just something, it's kind of a long, evolutionary process. It sort of grew out of, again, just my participation in the old Usenet newsgroups, kind of in the pre-Web days, just looking up, and writing and posting about urban legends and things. Those groups are kind of ephemeral. You write stuff that expires, it goes away, sort of when the first graphical browser really hit. I was introduced ...
David Mikkelson: Well, I had been on the Web before, but it was like text-based browser and who's doing that? When the first graphical browser came out, I just started writing up legends. I went through like a set of Disney related legends. "Is he frozen? Is there a basketball court in the Matterhorn?" All these risque things supposedly hidden in Disney films. Those were my two interests at the time, urban legends and Disney. I kind of just charted as many as I could think of. Developed a format with examples.
Ryan: It's funny that you mention that because our very first episode, and generally, just about every season that we do, we try to do a Disney episode. Not even because of there being a specific Disney category listed on Snopes.com, but solely for the fact that Josh and I were big Disney fans for the longest time, so it was just kind of a perfect coincidence that we were able to source that so easily and use your site as a jumping off point for that.
Josh: We've literally covered every single thing you just mentioned about Disney.
Greg: The Matterhorn was the first, was like on our first episode of this podcast, yeah.
Ryan: It seems so innocuous at first, but you can really get deep into the weeds of just like making Disney become such a macabre seeming topic just from all the rumors that come out from it.
David Mikkelson: Yeah. In fact, the very early days of the site, possibly even before we started using the Snopes.com domain, it used to be attributed to the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society organization, which was really something I'd made up. I didn't actually exist outside of- [crosstalk 00:08:33] I actually saw in the early days, I saw some pretty serious scholarly articles that suggested this site and that Society was really a front for Disney. That we were writing about these Disney things to debunk all these rumors about risque things in Disney movies, because we were actually fronting for Disney.
David Mikkelson: I mean so, it's like that was there from the very beginning, "Not who you say you are, you're being paid by somebody else." Anyway, I ran through a bunch of Disney legends, and then I added a few more categories, like all the college related legends and music related ones that I can think of. My wife, at the time, Barbara, started contributing things. My original intent in creating the site was to be, I guess, what you would now call maybe Wikipedia for urban legends, right?
Greg: Yeah, absolutely.
David Mikkelson: Not with the Wiki part though. I mean, having other people edit it, but just kind of multiply linked, categorized, a chronicle of all sorts of urban legends, but like so many things in life, it kind of took a left turn. Because it was such an early adopter. Started doing this before search engines even, back when Yahoo was still hand-compiling like phone directories of the Internet.
David Mikkelson: It just kind of became a place where everybody started sending anything questionable they came across online or even offline, because the online world wasn't that big yet. It's kind of interesting to see how much things have changed over the years, that when we started doing this, when everything that went viral was pretty much going viral because people were emailing it to each other, even before YouTube or photo sharing sites. It was all email.
Greg: Just chain emails, exactly.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, and it was all, a lot of it was like computer virus warnings, I mean, many of which were hoaxes, and missing child alerts, many of which were hoaxes, or weren't really missing children. All these appeals for dying children, who wanted to collect the most business cards or Christmas cards or birthday cards, or what have you.
Ryan: We see that today with likes on Facebook. Like, "Get a million likes for this person, and then their cancer's cured."
David Mikkelson: Yeah, and eventually, a lot of that got taken care of sort of by as the Internet grew and became more centralized, when there became like clearing houses for missing children, missing and exploited children reports. All these computer security sites sprang up that tracked all the various viruses and what you needed to do patch your operating system or browser, so all of that stuff died down. It's like, oh, people discovered Photoshop and that was a whole new realm of stuff out there. Eventually, politics discovered the Internet, and that was a whole new realm.
Ryan: I really didn't think about asking you this question until you mentioned these things. I was just thinking about the same way that, oh, if somebody has their lights off and you flash them, it's a gang initiation, they're going to kill ... That type of urban legend, versus a computer virus that doesn't exist, potentially. What do you think really gets these people to create these hoaxes in their head? When there's really no benefit to them, that I can see. Have you found some sort of underlying thread to why these things just come into play? When it seems to just be no benefit to these people that would start them.
Greg: Especially the chain email stage. Like in the age of social media and ads, it's a little more obvious, but in the '90s, what benefit's a chain email?
David Mikkelson: Yeah. It's hard to say definitely, because it's so rare you can track anything back to its actual source. I would just say from experience, I don't think most of them sprang from anybody consciously sitting down and saying, "Let me craft a hoax that I can get to go viral." Because in fact, it's a lot ... At least it used to be a lot harder to do than you would think. People who wanted to start urban legends, it really wasn't easy to get one that people would buy into widely.
David Mikkelson: I think they were just combinations of people being mistaken, people mishearing things, or just getting on to other people who added details and added things they'd heard, and people misinterpret things the police say, and that gets put in there as, "The police say that this is real." Again, it's like a long game of telephone where just people keep piling on the details, and then, so eventually it arrives in an almost fixed form, the one that's most appealing to the audience for various reasons.
Ryan: You have a more positive view of it, I think. It seems like, it might be kind of like a very misguided, good faith attempt that just got out of hand.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's a good way of describing it. You can see, certain areas, as you've probably experienced in doing this, there are certain kind of like hot button topics that will really, did really and still really help things spread. Like anything that posits a personal danger to the reader or to their children or to their pets, to their safety. Those are things that really grab people's attention and they also feel kind of like almost obligated to share with people, even if they are skeptical about it. Even if they're not sure if it's true. Even if they're kind of sure it's not true. It's just like, "Better safe than sorry. I would hate for someone I know to be murdered because they didn't get this gang initiation warning in time."
Greg: Right, exactly.
David Mikkelson: Like, "If I don't forward this latest political scream to all of my friends, what's the bad result going to be?" Probably nothing really.
Greg: Even something like, "If you don't send this email to 10 people, you'll have bad luck for seven years." Something like that.
Ryan: I think that was more of a way to get it to spread like out of necessity in some way.
Greg: Yeah, absolutely.
David Mikkelson: I mean, like nobody circulates anything, "If you don't forward this to 100 friends, Donald Trump will be reelected." I mean, it just doesn't work that way.
Ryan: I heard about a videotape where if you watch it, "Unless you give it to somebody else within seven days, you might die."
Greg: Yeah, exactly. Oh, that documentary, The Ring?
Greg: Yeah, that one.
David Mikkelson: It sounds [inaudible 00:15:55].
Greg: Another question we have is what's kind of your standard operating procedure for fact checking? You've picked a topic, and you're trying to assess the validity. We go to Snopes, so where do you go?
David Mikkelson: Yeah, well, kind of like it starts with topic selection, which of course, I would like to fully debunk the idea that we target or pick on anyone or anything like that, any particular subject or source. Different fact checking entities have different selection criteria. Ours has kind of always been that we tackle whatever the most people are asking about or questioning at any given time, based on a variety of metrics and inputs. We don't make any judgment ourselves about whether it's important or too obvious or silly or frivolous. Just if people are asking, there's a reason, so we'll go after it.
David Mikkelson: I have to say given that that is our method, it's often kind of dismaying to see what actually holds people's attention or at least what grabs it or what they think they should be looking up or asking about. It's like, an example I often use, it's say, oh, there's a chemical attack in Syria, a couple hundred people died. All these theories and maybe conspiracy theories about this. "Did this attack really happen? Is it propaganda? Who did it? Did the government do it? Did some outside group do it? Did some faction do it and blame it on somebody else?" I mean, these are like real world matters of life and death, and it's barely a blip, nobody's asking about this, but there's some stupid story out there about, "Woman gives birth to kangaroo in elevator."
Greg: That's preposterous. That would never fit in there.
Ryan: Please tell me that that was an actual rumor that you had to address.
David Mikkelson: That one, no. No, I'd say it's probably, there have been umpteen different stories that all have those same elements about women giving birth to strange things and in strange places.
Greg: Bat boy.
Ryan: Yeah, bat boy.
David Mikkelson: It's like, oh, if a chemical attack in Syria made gasoline prices spike to $8 a gallon tomorrow, then people would probably pay attention to that story, but otherwise, it's no. It's like, "Oh, did President Trump really get poopy pants on the golf course?" That's what they laughed about, so it's sometimes a matter, just disappointing or distressing things about the human condition, I think.
Ryan: It's either sensational, or it directly affects your life immediately for you to want to get to the bottom of it then.
David Mikkelson: Yeah. I mean, there are other argumentative topics like the immigration issue. It doesn't really affect a whole lot of people directly, at least the ones who are already here, but it's just such a symbolic political debate between the two sides that anything having to do with that ... The Central American caravans of the last year, it's just, every photo, every video, everybody claiming, everything about what they shot, or where they came from, what's happening, it's just all over the place.
Greg: Well, it sounds like there's kind of an issue with incentive to figure it out. It's like, the classic like, "Well, I kind of don't want to look into this black box or look under the hood of this, because it might not, I might then have to reassess what I was thinking. That seems to be a ... You seem to be kind of hinting at that a lot.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, although it might be described as one of those kind of topics where people just get so bombarded with so much contradictory information, besides, they just really don't know what to believe. It's one of the, kind of the perils of, we've seen in this sort of new era of post truth or fake news or junk news, whatever you want to call it. The dangers of just getting people suffused with the feeling like there's just no way to objectively determine truth. "There's no reliable source out there, so I just don't know what to believe. I'm not going to believe anything, or, I'm going to believe whatever I want." It's kind of frightening at times.
Josh: Kind of piggybacking off of that, who actually does your research? Is it all in-house? Do y'all outsource it, or what is the process for that?
David Mikkelson: Yeah, well, it's all in-house, at least to an extent that it's people who work for Snopes who are doing the research and the writing. Of course, we will use outside experts or contacts or things as necessary. Then like any, of course, any journalist, of course, we're trying to get hold of people for comment and question typically about political stuff. Although, you can see, probably, you've actually read through the content we produce. 95% of the time or something, it will say, "We contacted so-and-so, or so-and-so's office for comment on the matter, and received no response."
Josh: That's exactly ... One of the things that we try to find here a lot on our podcast is the origin of these things. One of the things I really like about you guys, and I notice that when you try to find the origin of something, you do go to, you'll talk to professor so-and-so at the university of whatsoever, who was a doctor in this field or an expert on this subject, and you get their opinion on it, and you get that, the best first-hand sourcing that you can.
Ryan: Because you can't always find the origin of these things, which we definitely have trouble with. Finding the origin of these things, and I like the fact that when we go through the information, when we read it, we can see that, what avenue you went down to try to find where all these things were coming from, where it was propagated, what made it go to the extent of, "This woman gave birth to a kangaroo," or whatever the subject may be.
David Mikkelson: Yeah. I wish we had more time and resources to do more of that. Like with the last election cycle, it's all we can do to keep up with and debunk all the rumors that were flying on social media. It's not like we also have the extra time and resources, as some people, afterwards at least, to try and track them down to teenagers in Macedonia. [inaudible 00:23:13] agency. It was all we could do to let people know this stuff wasn't true, and move on to the next one and not spend all that time figuring out exactly where it came from.
Greg: Right. My next question is, how do you kind of like, I guess rather, who watches the watchman? How do you have internal accountability? Say maybe you have an article that comes out and then you're like, "You know what? I'm not sure that's right." Or, maybe something has been around for a while and other people point it out. What do you do to kind of, one, avoid those situations in the first place? Like really re-double and check your efforts, but I'm sure you put so much stuff out that some stuff's just going to slip through the cracks. How do you handle that?
David Mikkelson: Are you asking, "How do you avoid being wrong?"
Greg: Well, how do you avoid being wrong? But also, how do you like-
David Mikkelson: [inaudible 00:24:06].
Greg: Yeah, but how do you avoid that? Also, what do you do when something is wrong? I'm sure it's happened occasionally.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, well, I said, kind of like your initial question, "Who watches the watchman?" Well, It's kind of like the audience. I mean, if we were [crosstalk 00:24:23] it's not like, we don't hear from 80 million people, although, of course, we frequently hear people, we frequently hear from a lot of people that we're wrong, even when we're not wrong.
Greg: I'm sure there's a lot of noise there.
David Mikkelson: Yeah. Given that we're pretty cautious in our approach, like especially having learned from long experience with just everything from, who knows? Jussie Smollett and Seth Rich and all of those things. It's like you don't make any conclusions about anything really, until the end of the story. I mean, even today, like what went on with Jussie Smollett, I don't know. I wouldn't hazard to guess until there's more definitive evidence about, out there, that gets released about what happened. We're not shy about just saying something's indefinite or unproven, while discussing as much as we know. We were pretty careful about not making assumptions or filling in gaps.
David Mikkelson: I think, for the most part, it's, as far as I remember, I mean, it's been a long time, but I don't think there's been much, or if anything, where we just, like we totally blew something, we totally said, "This was false," and it was true, or vice-versa. I mean, there have been occasions where it's kind of like the supporting information that we've offered may have been inaccurate or incomplete or something came along that later contradicted it, where we needed to fix that up and note it, but it didn't change the overall thrust of the story. Whatever we were saying was false was still false. It's an occupational hazard. It's also, sometimes, it creates the impression that you're wrong when something is false at the time you're writing about it, and then later events, it happens, or like in folklore terms, ostension, right? That's-
Ryan: Yeah, so there's no defacto internal affairs, like fact cop at Snopes. It's more of just a, "Be as careful as possible so you don't have to retract." You guys do have an unverified status for a lot of the things I've seen on ... Especially with recent articles on the website where it's developing or something. I would say that's a pretty fair way to do it without having to have the complete accountability of having egg on your face.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, well, it's like any other newsroom. I mean, it's not as though we have writers who just go out and write something and publish it and that's it, no oversight. Of course, there are, there's an editorial staff with editors involved in the process from beginning to end, topic selection and approach and, "What rating should we give this?" Reading and editing everything before it gets published, so it's not ... Unfortunately, it's kind of funny that we, alternately, have to deal with claims that we are two people and a cat in a basement, to we are some super shadowy organization, funded by George Soros.
Ryan: Well, that was our next question, so you just got ahead of us, so I mean ...
Greg: That's what someone being funded by them would say.
Ryan: Yeah, exactly.
Greg: Kind of in the vein of that, and what you were talking about earlier some. Obviously, in the last few years, there's been an increased awareness and varying definitions of fake news. Whether people think it's a real problem or not, it's become something that the public has become very aware of and media skepticism has, obviously, risen with it. How has this impacted Snopes, if at all? I mean, you've kind of talked about this some, but do you find that the increased culture of fake news has had a particular ripple effect on your work?
David Mikkelson: Well, there's a lot of answers to that question just in terms of, say, credibility or believability with the audience. It's kind of hard to say whether that's actually a cause or a symptom. I mean, you could say that this proliferation of fake news is just really a symptom of the polarization of politics in our country, and sort of the technology that's enabled it.
David Mikkelson: Like narrow casting with cable, so that people can just watch Fox News or just watch MSNBC, and not encounter anything that contradicts their political beliefs, and it's just, that's just given rise to increasingly polarized viewpoints. More people in filter bubbles where it's just, they don't even believe that there's a middle ground there, so they're not going to trust anybody who's telling them anything that they don't want to believe. You know, it's ...
Ryan: Yeah, it seems to be an ever-increasing problem or maybe just we're noticing it more now. I'm not sure what the answer to that is, but the polarization is definitely there. Piggybacking off of Greg's question, it's just like has Snopes become, in your eyes, whether by choice or circumstance, a political vehicle? Like do you find groups misrepresenting or weaponizing your work for a certain means? Whether justly or unjustly. Have you noticed that being a bigger trend nowadays? Especially since 2015, I would say.
David Mikkelson: It's kind of funny. The staff, the other day, we were kicking around that we should start a feature called Even Snopes. What that refers to, typically, there's some subset of the audience which is typically Right leaning, with will disdain anything that comes from us. Then, when we verify something that's advantageous for their side, they'll tweet it out that, "Snopes says this is true." It's like, "Oh, well, you'll believe us when it advantages you, but not otherwise." I mean, that's really some selective work on our part, that we could so neatly fit into that, so it's kind of funny. "Let's collect all the 'Even Snopes' tweets."
Ryan: I guess their logic is that, "It must be so overwhelmingly true if the, 'quote, unquote,' shills over at Snopes believe it." It's that kind of thing?
David Mikkelson: Or it's like it's just so undeniable that they won't even pretend it's false. They have to maintain some shred of credibility, and throw out a few bones, and not deny things that are just so obviously ...
Ryan: It's funny when it becomes convenient when that site agrees with you.
Greg: Can we start saying, "People come on our show, Even Snopes"?
Ryan: That's the title of this episode now.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, so, I mean, to answer the other broader question, well, yes. People weaponize pretty much every bit of information that's out there. Either just using the things that agree with them disdaining the rest, or to using things out of context, to claiming things, say something that they don't really say. I mean, it's all a big ... I don't want to give a plug to Alex Jones, but it's all a big info war out there, so to speak.
Greg: The globalists, of course. Yeah, we all know that. [Joke]
Josh: I was just about to say it. Let me ask you this. This is something that I'm finding really fascinating, what your answer might be. What would you say is the biggest distinction between your Website, Snopes, and something like Wikipedia?
David Mikkelson: Well, part of it is just focus.
Greg: I get that. I get that as well, yeah.
David Mikkelson: Ignoring the obvious things, like scope and size and number of contributors. I mean, obviously, we're not open ... We're not a Wiki, we're not open to editing, so ...
David Mikkelson: That has advantages and disadvantages. Our focus is a lot narrower. It's probably, in a lot of senses, more ephemeral. It's more, at least, well I'll say the fact checking, it's aimed at giving people a conclusion about something, rather than just presenting a discussion of something. I mean, it's not ... If you go to Wikipedia and you want to read about the Kennedy assassination, "Was it really Lee Harvey Oswald?" You'll find a bunch of discussion on Wikipedia, but it's not like they're going to have a true rating, Oswald-
Ryan: Right, right.
Greg: I'd like to zero in, the ephemeral comment was really interesting. Is that you mostly remarking on how a lot of your stuff has to do with current events and stuff like that? Is that what you kind of meant by that?
David Mikkelson: Well, yeah. J mean, to some extent, even Wikipedia will end up starting a page about maybe just a current Internet trend or fad or something like that. I mean, when we get a photograph, people are asking, "Is this real or not?" It's probably not something that's going to end up with a Wikipedia entry of its own, or any particular rumor. Something like Pizzagate that has such scope and such durability is going to end up on Wikipedia.
David Mikkelson: Like after, something that was pretty common during the last election was every time there was a debate that Hillary Clinton took part in, the next day, there'd be all these photographs on the Internet with squiggly red and yellow lines and arrows on them, indicating how she was being fed the questions, being fed the answers, being supplied by an insulin pump, had a port, a defibrillator, or it was like ...
Ryan: I guess, on that note, before we get on to some more lighthearted questions, has your team ever really faced any particular like blowback or controversy for their work? In-particular, have there been any threats, legal, physical or, et cetera, that you've had to directly deal with for the work that Snopes has published?
David Mikkelson: Well, unfortunately, we do sometimes get, well, we get a lot of, of course, insults and veiled threats in the mail. We have, on occasion, gotten ones that were specific enough or frightening enough that we forwarded them to the FBI.
Ryan: Like physical mail?
David Mikkelson: E-mail.
Ryan: Okay, okay.
David Mikkelson: I don't think anybody physically mails things.
Greg: Yeah, that's probably fair.
David Mikkelson: Kind of like, "What is that?" Yeah, but I mean there's one class of threat, which is just like, "I hope you all die," or "You guys are all going to die," or something, but when somebody says, "Well, I've got guns and I'm coming," or something like that, that's kind of a more tangible threat that you've got to report. There's always people trying to do hit pieces on us or individual writers, or trying to dredge up something about them or claim that they're all liberal, or they're all whatever supporters of some given politician or whatever trying to-
Ryan: They're all not me.
David Mikkelson: Yeah- [crosstalk 00:36:21]
Ryan: Yeah, I remember the one that I saw particularly was by the Food Babe and she said something, but she is one of the people that we skip over every time we're looking for any sort of credible information, I guess, when it comes to doing like food episodes and such, so that's kind of the one that really made me think about it. Because it seems like it's more of an ad hominem for a lot of these things as opposed to really the work that you guys have done in disputing the actual facts.
David Mikkelson: Well, yeah. I mean, there was one particular episode where Alex and our science writer did something. He wrote a pieces and, oh, low and behold, after more and better information came along, he updated his piece. "Oh, paid Monsanto shill, got you to change this article."
Ryan: I'm surprised we haven't been called paid Monsanto shills yet either.
David Mikkelson: Maybe it's just like the scientific process, more and better information comes along, so you use it rather than ignoring it. I mean, the site, what motivation do we have, really? Monsanto does not pay us, right?
David Mikkelson: What? We're just like closet Monsanto fans?
Josh: "Just a fan of the company. I'm just there for the brand."
David Mikkelson: I am such a fan boy for some of the- [crosstalk 00:37:44]
Ryan: "Their logo is so sleek."
David Mikkelson: Yeah, it's one of the, kind of the laughable things, like people not really thinking things through. It's like, what is our motivation for that? I mean, why, really would we want to be helping Amazon or any other, I don't know, multinational corporation you could pick? I mean, they're not paying us, they're not sponsoring us.
Greg: They're doing just fine without you.
David Mikkelson: Yeah.
Ryan: I heard y'all got fast passes for life at Disney World.
Greg: Yeah, exactly.
David Mikkelson: I wish, yeah.
Josh: Yeah. Me too. Just to kind of get into some more lighthearted topics now. What is the one rumor, misinformation, whatever you want to call it, that just won't die, that you keep seeing popping up over and over again?
David Mikkelson: Well, it's kind of interesting, having done this for so many years, to see patterns and cycles. The things where, like a lot of rumors are just like supernovas. They pop, they show up, they flair brightly, blindingly, and then they just burn out and die and go away, never to return. Some things kind of like pop up almost on predictable cycles. Some things disappear for like seven years, and then inexplicably resurface.
Ryan: Oh, Mars is a good example. Mars being the size of the moon, something like that.
David Mikkelson: Right, and just like some things never really completely go away. Even if they die down a bit, they're still bubbling under the surface. Just off the top of my head, I mean, some of them are just like the, "Enter your PIN backwards into an ATM to summon the police." It's just like you're never going to drive a stake through the heart of that vampire. It's coming back, it's undead.
Ryan: We have never covered that one.
Greg: No, but I like that one a lot.
Ryan: It's false, right?
David Mikkelson: Yeah. Yes.
Ryan: You better hope backwards isn't someone else's PIN number.
David Mikkelson: Yeah, "Enter your ATM backwards if you're being threatened to, and forced to withdraw money, and it will automatically summon the police to your location." I mean, that's been out there for 15, 20 years. It just never goes away.
Josh: I wonder if the banks are like, "How come we haven't done that"?
Ryan: Actually, I bet I know where that comes from. There are some alarm systems that are designed that if you enter, you can set it up that if you enter your code backwards, it does a silent alarm to the police.
Greg: Yeah. I've seen in that in security systems before, so it's not a ... It's a real concept, it just does not apply to ATMs at all.
Ryan: Would we call that nixed, as the result for Snopes?
Greg: Yeah, I think that's ...
David Mikkelson: There actually was a person who patented this idea used by ATMs and much to his disgruntlement, could not interest any banks in adopting it. In fact, we periodically get email from him where he accuses us of being responsible for some number of murders-
David Mikkelson: ... deaths per year, because banks won't adopt this system. It's not like we've ever said it's a bad idea. We just tell the audience, "No, this won't work. Nobody's actually using this system." Banks have given reasons why they don't see it as being useful, that people could possibly get into more, even more difficulty, struggling to remember a PIN and trying to enter it backwards, or something like that. Yeah, it's a real concept. Nobody's ever used it. Some of the other sort of like zombie rumors. That one about Burundanga, Skopolamine, or whatever it's called that ...
Ryan: Yeah, Skopolamine. That we've, the zombie powder with the, what was it? Tetrodotoxin.
David Mikkelson: Somebody just handing you a business card, being knocked unconscious and turned into a zombie and can be easily robbed or assaulted. It's kind of funny. It's kind of like every genre of sort of like science fiction or action thrillers needs a way to quickly render people unconscious, whether it's like anesthetic balls or Spock's nerve pinch or something.
David Mikkelson: I'm just continually amused by how many people think that actually works in real life, that there are just so many techniques that will render people unconscious in two or three seconds.
Ryan: I see an anthology series, like Netflix collaboration with Snopes, covering some of these rumors. I just, get on that Netflix money with that, because that would be so interesting.
David Mikkelson: What's kind of a related one, the idea that those people who sell knockoff perfumes in like parking lots of Walmarts and grocery stores, it's like, "Don't sample them. It'll knock you out." It's like, again, "No, it doesn't work like that." There isn't anything you can just sniff and be rendered instantly unconscious. I mean, it could eventually, but it's not, you can't do it in a few seconds. It's pretty hard to hide that you've got somebody here who's slowly falling into a prone state and people are going to be looking at that wondering, "What's going on?" It's not that easy to do.
Greg: Okay, so now, the next part of that is, what is the most surprising truth that your staff has encountered? Like one that you obviously thought was fake but you had to eat crow and you're like, "Wow. This did not go the direction we thought it would"? Because we find that a lot on our podcast.
David Mikkelson: Well, I'm going to have to warn you, it's a little risque.
Ryan: Oh, we are very okay with that.
Greg: Yeah, that's fine.
David Mikkelson: I wouldn't say it's a case of having egg, like egg on our face afterwards, because we didn't write it up, so-
Greg: Yeah, well, like defy your expectations.
Josh: Yeah. That's a good way of putting it.
David Mikkelson: This actually goes back, kind of way to the early days of the site. Back when there was still stuff that used to be referred to as like fax lore or xerox lore because it antedated the Internet and that's kind of the way people spread stuff. They faxed it to each other or they photocopied it, and then put it up on bulletin boards. I mean, all the kinds of stuff you would find on social media today that was like the social media of the mid-20th century.
David Mikkelson: Bulletin boards and fax machines. There was this piece that used to circulate by fax and photocopier that eventually got transcribed and emailed in the early days of the Internet, that purported to be a medical journal article. It was a case study from a doctor who talked about a patient who came to him in some pain and distress. Upon examination, his scrotum was just swollen up to the size of a basketball. It was black and blue, it was oozing fluid and puss.
David Mikkelson: The doctor started working on to debride it and clean out the wound, he encountered like staples. Like the scrotum was torn and there were staples there. Eventually, in this process, he got the story from the patient of what had happened, which was that the patient worked in a machine shop and like at lunch breaks when most of the other workers or all of the others workers left to eat lunch, he was in the habit of pleasuring himself using the machinery.
David Mikkelson: He had been using a belt sander and kind of caught his scrotum in the gears of the wheels and it ripped-
David Mikkelson: It ripped his scrotum open and it ejected, avulsed, in medical terminology, avulsed one of his testicles.
Greg: Oh, no.
David Mikkelson: He was too embarrassed to tell anyone or seek medical help, so he picked up an industrial stapler and stapled his scrotum closed, and then predictably, within a few days, it got quite infected and painful, and he finally sought medical attention. Anyway, so this is out there on photocopies or transcribed Internet emails. Now the question is, "Is this a real medical journal article or did somebody make this up?" That was back in the days before all the handy online databases of everything, when we still had to trudge out to the research library at UCLA to look things up. I eventually tracked down the medical journal. It was [inaudible 00:47:06] found, and found out, well, yeah, somebody did publish this case study, but you can't stop there.
David Mikkelson: Okay, was it a medical journal? Was this a joke? Did maybe somebody make this up to see if he could actually get it published? Do we know that it really happened? There was a doctor, his name listed as the author and the city he was working in. I went to, again, another artifact, another obsolete artifact of days past, go to the library and pull a phone directory, a print directory for that area, and look up the name. Find somebody with the same name in the right area, and send him a letter in the U.S. mail. Eventually, I did get a letter back from the doctor who had written the article saying that, yes, this was true. He had treated that patient. I'm trying to remember some of the other details. He said he actually did see the same patient again five years later in the hospital for some completely unrelated problem.
Greg: That's not somebody you forget though. You remember that face.
Ryan: "So, how's that thing?"
David Mikkelson: He also mentioned that it's been, he said that, his line was ... Incidentally, the Navy has xeroxes of that article in every bar along the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to Tel Aviv. My son's girlfriend saw one in Greece two years ago.
David Mikkelson: It's just kind of funny that, to just kind of have a moment of even in the pre-Internet days, this same kind of stuff circulated, and it really circulated around the world, it was just a different form.
Greg: Well, the thing that I find fascinating about that story is I loved hearing it, but it's also a very good time capsule of how things used to be and the process of what you used to undergo in order to check these facts and these stories and try to get as much first-had sourcing as you possibly could. I was expecting you to say that you were just going to pull out a phone book, but the fact that you had to go to a library to pull out a phone directory was even one step farther back than I expected you to have to go.
Ryan: That is much more elucidating than I was even expecting.
Greg: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ryan: I had never heard that one. That's, wow!
David Mikkelson: I didn't actually, I didn't do him justice. If you go to our site and actually read the case study, I mean, the language that he uses is kind of funny, but it's just kind of funny to see something so bizarre written up in like straight-laced medical terminology about, "How I treated this injury, and how it was described to me by the patient." You should look up that one afterwards, because it's pretty funny.
Ryan: Yeah, we're going, we'll check that out, and we'll actually, we'll make sure we reference it in our show notes so that way when people look at our show notes, they can check it out as well.
David Mikkelson: Yeah.
Ryan: Really quick. What is the white whale of the Snopes team? Like what is the rumor, or just if you have more than one, that's fine too, that you really want to get to the bottom of but have been unable to verify or debunk thus far, that has just been bothering you guys for such a long time?
David Mikkelson: Oh, wow. That's a tough one. There are lots of things that we've had to leave in an unproven state. Again, a lot of them are ephemera. It's not like it really bugs us that we never know. It's really, I could reel off some things, but they would just be like obvious classics. Like did Babe Ruth really call his shot? Or something like that. Just like you're never really going to know that anyway.
Ryan: Well, with every year, somebody dies that could have given you the actual answer. The farther away you get from the incident, it's not going to ... The farther away you're able to make a definitive proof on, unless somebody wrote it down, but ...
David Mikkelson: I'd say there's a lot of them where it's like, I don't really have any doubts about them, but it would be great if we had the actual evidence that would convince people once and for all, but we don't. Because, unfortunately, a lot of it's negative evidence that's ... It's kind of like when people, there's like a quote attributed to a particular person, and we offer umpteen different reasons why this person didn't really say it, and people still don't believe us. It's like, "Well, do we need to dig up a recording of him not saying it?" I mean, negative evidence.
David Mikkelson: I just kind of, one of my personal favorite categories is like the broadcast legends. The apocryphal radio and television bloopers that everybody knows and everybody swears they've seen, and you know they never happened because it just, if they had happened, it would have popped up in the press. If it had happened, it would have been cut out because it was nothing anybody could have said on television at the time, and it's just like you can't prove it didn't happen because if you want to prove Johnny Carson never said this, you'd have to have an extended tape of every single episode of The Tonight Show, and then people would still swear that it got cut out after the fact.
Ryan: Do you have one on the top of your head that like sticks out the most? It's okay. We don't really ... We're okay with any sort of coarse language. It's fine. Any one you have thought of in-particular in terms of the false broadcasting?
David Mikkelson: Well, I'll offer this one just because it's interesting how easy it is to demonstrate that people's memories are mistaken and fabricated. There was a classic legend about Groucho Marx back in the You Bet Your Life Days, where he's interviewing this couple who has some extraordinarily large number of children, like 18. He, Groucho, supposedly asks the wife, "Why do you have so many children?" The wife answers, "Oh, well, because I love my husband." To which Groucho quips, "Well, I love my cigar, but I take it out every once in a while." Or, "I take it out of my mouth every once in a while."
David Mikkelson: Of course, again, first of all, you know that nobody was putting that on television in the 1950s, right? I mean, that could only possibly exist on something that Groucho may have said, that never made it on air, in which case, like a handful of people who were in the studio would know about it, and not the world at-large. What's really fascinating about this legend is that people, there are people who've seen You Bet Your Life. They remember it from its original run, or they've since seen it on DVD.
David Mikkelson: That show started as a radio program and then for a period of time, it was both a radio and a television program because, frankly, the visuals weren't that compelling. Then eventually, it became TV only. That rumor is traceable, I mean, it's traceable to an actual couple who appeared on the show, who were selected because they had a large number of children. There's an extended recording of that show and there's no such question or answer there, but the important point is though, that even if that exchange had happened and had been cut out, it dates to the radio only days of the show, so when 18,000 people are emailing us and telling us, no, we're wrong, "I saw that on television. I remember watching it the day after I graduated from high school," it's like, what do you say? Like, "Really? You saw a radio program on television?"
Greg: Yeah, it's true.
David Mikkelson: "Excuse me for doubting that your memories might be something less than 100% accurate."
Ryan: That one's a great example.
Greg: I love that. Just the last question of the night to round it out, because we have all been victim to this. Have you ever just caught yourself on your website, on Snopes.com, just going down a rabbit hole? Clicking topic after topic, reading article after article, just going, "When did we cover this? Why was I not aware that we covered this?" Or anything like that. Do you ever just browse the website and find yourself just finding new information that you didn't know was there?
David Mikkelson: On our own website, you mean?
Greg: Yes, sir.
David Mikkelson: Well, yeah, well, one, of course, because I'm not necessarily involved ... In the early days, of course, I was writing pretty much everything. Now, it's kind of rare that I actually get to write something myself, so we're churning out a lot of stuff by other people.
David Mikkelson: I may not even remember or have seen at the time. I will say that it's kind of frightening. There have been, on occasions, where I come across articles on the site that I and I alone wrote, and I look at it and go, "I have absolutely no memory of having written that article, or ever having addressed that subject." It's like I know I wrote this because it's there in the editing log. It's got my name, and it's so far back that there's no one else who could possibly have written this. There was nobody else working here.
Ryan: Oh, yeah. I think there's like a one month rent space in our brains for a lot of the information that we cover before it's just gone, and I'm just like, "We covered that?"
Josh: Yeah, exactly. Happens all the time.
Greg: All the time. Someone will mention something, I go like, "We covered that on Rumor Flies." They'll go, "Oh, what's the answer?" I'm like, "I have no fucking idea."
David Mikkelson: It's kind of either a charming or a quaint example, I suppose, of how things have evolved. It used to be, back in the days when Barbara and I were gathering all the content for the site, sometimes, like if we were on a long car drive, it's like, find something to pass the time, we'd kind of do, like play 20 questions, but it would be, specifically, 20 questions about articles on our site.
Ryan: Oh, wonderful.
David Mikkelson: "I'm thinking of an article on our site. Can you guess what it is?" We could not possibly play that game unless we knew, the site was still relatively small enough that we could remember all of the articles, even if the other person wrote them. It's just like, wow. I mean, I could click our randomizer and just pull up a whole bunch of articles that I don't specifically remember, because it's all just a hazy flood nowadays. Yeah, it's kind of one of the things I miss is that at least in the early days, the stuff we were working on was, even if it was just like silly or ridiculous, I mean, it was distinctive in some way. Right?
David Mikkelson: Like urban legends, as opposed to just the latest political scream or rumor. There was something, at least something memorable to it, and now it's just floods and floods of the same thing, over and over. We used to kid about that. I'm sure you've seen the, it's like one of the oldest Internet hoaxes out there of, it kind of originated as the Bill Gates email tracking message. "Bill Gates is testing an email tracking system. Forward this to 10 friends, and you'll get $100 from Microsoft."
David Mikkelson: It just, it evolved into umpteen different variations. It was the same basic hoax except instead of Microsoft, it was Nike or whoever. It was just kind of funny that we would, literally, get email and say, "Well, I know the one about Microsoft is a hoax, and the one about Nike is a hoax, and the one about Honda is a hoax, and the one about Coca-Cola is a hoax, and the one about Disney is a hoax, but what about this M&Ms one?"
Ryan: I'm calling the shot, I'm calling the shot right now. "If you respond to this Amazon email, Jeff Bezos will send out one of his drones to deliver you $100, personally, but you have to catch it from the drone."
David Mikkelson: It's kind of like, I see those math teachers will say, "There are two kinds of people in the world, those that can extrapolate from incomplete data."
Greg: Aha, yeah.
Ryan: Well, David. Thank you so much for just sitting down with us and answering our questions. This has been extremely elucidating, and it has been just a giant pleasure talking with you. Is there anything you would like to mention or shout out? I mean, obviously, David Mikkelson of Snopes.com. Anything else you want to mention before we sign-off?
David Mikkelson: No, other just in general, we can always use help in the sense that, like all Web publishers, it's getting increasingly difficult to sustain a newsroom and an organization on advertising alone, so we have a GoFundMe campaigns, we have ways people can donate. We're grateful for anything people want to throw our way.
Ryan: Great. Well, thank you so much. We hope to talk to you again sometime.
Greg: Thank you for everything David. It was a pleasure.
David Mikkelson: Thank you. You're welcome. Fun, thanks.
Ryan: That was our interview with David Mikkelson of Snopes.
Greg: I am ... We, literally, recorded this right now. I think we hung up 30 seconds ago?
Josh: Yeah. I was fucking jazzed about that, dude. That was so much good-
Greg: His answers were so good.
Ryan: He was so honest and genuine, and he didn't hold no punches. He was a straight shooter, and it was everything we could have hoped for. That was so much fun.
Ryan: I think something that he really did hammer on that we don't usually talk about is this like cultural ephemera that is a big-
Greg: Yes, yeah. I'd really like to kind of try to dial-in on that a little more.
Ryan: The fact that he hammered in on the cyclic nature of these rumors. That was really, that hit me in the way, like I didn't even consider it for a lot of things that we've covered already.
Greg: Well, it reminded me, because I remember the one time we kind of really encountered that directly was with Surge, right?
Greg: We talked about the yellow five, or whatever the hell it is. Then, when we were researching it ... I think it might have been your topic.
Ryan: I was mind.
Greg: I think, okay. I knew it wasn't me though. I know though that you were like, "Yeah, by the way, this was with Mountain Dew." This is like, you went back and just rolled back from like the '70's, right?
Greg: This went on for decades with different soft drinks, every time, they just generally tend to be green.
Ryan: Yes. It was more of a coloration thing.
Ryan: The one thing I did want to mention. The interview was just, like we mentioned, it was so genuine. I love all the points that he hit, and the fact that he was not afraid to be honest, and even if it wasn't always to his advantage. Talking about, when he was talking about things like when they were wrong or kind of had to roll stuff back. Or when he was talking about different times when people sent some not so nice words or letters or emails or whatever they may be.
Josh: Internet threats.
Ryan: Yeah, like that's kind of a taboo subject and he was just like, "Nope, we're rolling with the punches. This is what I went through."
Ryan: Behind the curtain, I will say this much. You, as a listener, if you've listened for any amount of time, know that we try not to step on the political toes too much. Just as-
Greg: I was debating whether or not we should talk about that.
Ryan: Well, no, no, no, no. This is a good thing. Just as like a thing where we want this to be as accessible to everybody as possible. We're not trying to punch down anybody, we're trying to educate everybody and sometimes, there are people that are not willing to listen. I'm glad that he was being that candid about it, in general. I think it was-
Greg: Well, it's a value set in his organization.
Ryan: Extremely ... You got to think, we deal with this on a weekly by weekly basis, whatever you want to call it, whenever we record, and we usually don't get too much flack. This is an everyday thing for them and that is, I guess, why it is such an open thing to talk about, because if it's the truth, it's the truth. You shouldn't be scared to talk about.
Greg: No, I agree.
Ryan: We're just not trying to stoke as many fires as much as possible.
Josh: The last thing that I want to say was, was it validating for you guys like it was for me that a lot of the stuff that he talked about, like just different various myths and rumors-
Ryan: Oh my god. We heard like 10 things we've covered.
Josh: That we covered, and on top of that, we always talk about, "It's just a big game of telephone. It's getting passed along." He was almost verbatim, just regurgitating things that we've said before, so it was-
Ryan: It sounded a lot better when he said it though. [crosstalk 01:03:59] He's like, "Who knows why people say ..." Like he said, "Who knows why people say things, we'll never know, but it's usually, it starts with something and then someone adds something," and we're like, "Ahhh."
Josh: Yeah. We're all just kind of like, our eyes are getting this big. We're like, "He gets it. He's one of us."
Ryan: You heard it here, folks.
Josh: Or, "We're one of him," however you want to look at it.
Ryan: Yeah. I think it goes the other way around. You heard it here folks. We started Snopes 20 years too late.
Ryan: Thank you, everybody, for tuning in this season. This has been a great end, in my eyes and ears, at least. It has been wonderful. By all the normal routes to reach us, and obviously, check out Snopes' GoFundMe. Greg, how can everybody reach us? Also, buy our merch.
Josh: Buy our shirt.
Ryan: It'll be in the show notes. I think it's Threadless.com/RumorFlies, but I do not know off the top of my head. I haven't had to save a new URL in my brain for a long time. It'll be in the show notes though.
Greg: Otherwise, you can always check us out at http:// ...
Ryan: I hate you. It's https, buddy.
Greg: ... www.RumorsFliesPodcast. Yeah, we're on the secure network.
Ryan: You can do it without the "s."
Greg: Oh, shut up. Anyway, RumorFliesPodcast.com. You can find us @RumorFlies on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.com/RumorFlies. You can also join the Rumor Mill, our more interactive Facebook group. It's more designed for community engagement, so jump in there, post something funny. Tell me how much you love me and want me to do a violent coup to get rid of the other guys.
Ryan: I don't know how much, how good I felt about this, but me doing one off-hand comment about Josh saying that he's crazy for Assassin's Creed, Black Flag being his favorite Assassin's Creed game, sparked probably our biggest post on that thing.
Greg: That was pretty funny.
Ryan: That was enjoyable to see.
Josh: "My people." I come with you.
Ryan: Not everybody agreed with you, buddy.
Greg: Where else? They can also find us, please consider contributing to our Patreon. Thank you all so much who have so far.
Josh: Did you say the email? RumorFlies@gmail.com.
Greg: I'm going to get there, I'm going to get there.
Josh: All right, Jesus.
Greg: I ain't done.
Josh: I got there, buddy.
Greg: Patreon.com/RumorFlies. You can email us at RumorFlies@gmail.com. You can find us on Google Play, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Podcast Republic. We're on everything.
Ryan: Hey, you got like five stars in your pocket, you want to maybe just toss to us, just like slap those stickers right on our review for-
Greg: If you're doing a new play-through of Mario 64, there's 120 there, you can spare us a few.
Ryan: Five stars, what is it? It's nothing. Some kind words, maybe. Anyway, we've belabored you enough. Thank you, guys, so much. We will see you next season, and there's plenty more to come. With this episode of RumorFlies, I'm Ryan.
Josh: I'm Josh.
Greg: I'm Greg.
Josh: Good bye.