By the time Bridgeport’s Dan Evon can put on his shoes, the lies are halfway around the world.
Lies. Hoaxes. Distortions. Verily, an army of hokum marches off into the world each day, and it falls on Evon and his colleagues to restore order.
As one four writers at the website Snopes, which for more than 20 years has been one of the Internet’s most useful resources for sifting fact from flim-flam, the 30-year-old Evon has in two years written well more than a thousand posts debunking various falsehoods. With political rhetoric out of control, Evon’s services are now not only in great demand, but they may even be critical to the very survival of the republic.
Politicians have always spun, if not outright lied, but now we seem awash in whoppers. How did we get here?
The Internet. Social media is a giant megaphone and everyone has something to say. There’s also a movement to discredit mainstream media sources, and that opens up the door for a lot of disreputable websites to pose as credible outlets.
I’m not sure if politicians are lying more, or telling bigger lies, but it seems that the number of sites that spin those lies, the amount of spin put on those lies, and the number of people ready to believe whatever lie they hear as long as it fits with current narrative, is growing.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Snopes gets hundreds of emails every day from people asking us to research topics. In the morning we go through the mail and divvy up stories. When we have a good topic we start making calls, sending emails, finding sources, etc., then start writing. When an article is finished it goes back to the group for review. The article gets published, then rinse and repeat.
How many falsehoods do you pursue each day?
It ebbs and flows, but on average I probably do preliminary research on about a dozen topics a day. A handful of those will warrant deeper investigation and three or four of those will end up as articles.
Some fact-checks are really quick (fake news) while others take a few days. It also depends on the outrage du jour. We see a flood of misinformation after a controversial event or announcement, such as Target’s transgender bathroom policy, and just as that starts to die down something else takes its place.
How do you decide what to investigate?
The number of inquiries is the biggest factor. We try to answer the questions that the most people are asking. Another factor for me is fatigue. We cover a lot of hateful and violent stories. Sometimes it’s necessary to cleanse your fact-checking palate with an article about something silly, like the world’s (not) biggest tortoise.
Do you have any specialties?
Not really. This year I’ve written about politics, advertising, the life cycle of a bee, baseball, bullet manufacturing, the history of the guillotine, Disney movies, Pokemon Go—and I’m really not an expert on any of those things. But my job isn’t about being the smartest person in the room. It’s about finding the smartest person and putting a sign on their back so other people can find them.
How do you decide what’s a legitimate source?
The biggest thing is to simply read the article. Well-researched articles from credible publications occasionally get published under misleading titles. Read the article, see where they got their information, then check their sources.
I’m also wary of websites that only have comments from people agreeing with their content. A website that self-identifies as liberal or conservative is going to give you a biased report.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve looked into that turned out to be true?
I’m not sure. It doesn’t happen often. I remember writing something about an online test for tetrachromacy. The test ended up being fake but I had never heard of a tetrachromat (someone who sees additional colors) before.
Everyone has a ding-a-ling uncle who posts stuff to Facebook without checking it out first. Have you been able to train your own family and friends to checks things on Snopes first? Any tips?
Trying to win an argument with friends by pulling out one of my own articles doesn’t really go over well. It’s kind of like saying, “You’re wrong because I said so.”
We get criticized sometimes because we’re just “two people in their parent’s basement using Google.” While that’s not true, it always strikes me as such an ironic critique since a lot of misinformation on the Internet can be debunked just by taking a little time to do some research. So you could try to explain to your ding-a-ling uncle that they have the ability to do a lot of their own fact-checking. If he has time to comment or share on social media, then he has time to do some research. Snopes is a great place to start, but again, you have to read the article. Don’t stop at the truth status. Check the sources and make an informed decision.
In addition to hoaxes and lies, there’s a recent cottage industry of fake news sites. Not satire like the Onion, but sites that pose as legitimate outlets and post inflammatory fiction, often with a political or racial subtext. What do you think is behind it?
Money. There are so many of these sites it’s hard to say what drives them all, but money is a good place to start. Some of it is just bad satire. Some of it comes from trolls who simply got bored of leaving comments on Web forums.
It may seem like Snopes is anti-satire but we hold satirists in pretty high regard. But as you said, a lot of websites posting “satire” stories are really just publishing fake, salacious, hate-baiting stories in order to generate clicks.
When the Washington Post wrote about this phenomenon, a source claimed these sites target middle-aged conservatives, because they’re easily provoked and share a lot on Facebook. Do you agree with that assessment?
I think that’s probably accurate. I’m off the clock though so I’m not going to fact-check it.
There was a recent New Yorker story about how Russian trolls sow disinformation in order to create paranoia and weaken Russians’ confidence in the Internet as a tool for democracy. Golly, do you think that could ever happen here?
One of the most frustrating parts of my job is when I publish an article—like proving a racist quote from Donald Trump was fake—and someone comments that it doesn’t matter if it’s false because it sounds like something he would have said. That’s particularly scary to me because they’re simultaneously acknowledging the fact while disregarding the truth.
I don’t know if trolls will ever be able to ruin the Internet as a tool for democracy, but the amount of disinformation on the Internet has already altered the way people interact with the truth.
Is there any truth to the rumor that Snopes is a bunch of liberal stooges funded by George Soros? Has that been checked out yet?
That rumor is completely false. George only pays for articles published on Mondays, Thursday and Sundays. Roger Ailes funds the rest of the week.
But no, we are not funded by George Soros or anybody else. Here’s the answer from our FAQ section: “We are completely independent and self-supporting; we receive no funding in any form from any person, group, agency, or organization. And we wouldn’t recognize George Soros if we sat next to him on a bus.”
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