Who is David Mikkelson? Fact-checking site Snopes bans co-founder for plagarizing 54 articles
'No excuse for my serious lapses in judgment,' Mikkelson said in his apology
The fact-checking site Snopes found itself red-faced after a shocking Buzzfeed investigation revealed dozens of plagiarized articles. The person responsible was none other than Snopes co-founder David Mikkelson, who has since been banned by the company. The irony has caused Snopes to issue a quick apology, and take down all the 54 articles Mikkelson reportedly plagiarized.
Plagiarism is a major issue in several other areas, as we have reported in the past. Back in 2016, Melania Trump was widely mocked for copying Michelle Obama's words for her Republic National Convention speech. In March 2021, we reported on the controversial Archwell logo of Harry and Meghan, which was reportedly very similar to that of an Australian firm. Way back in January, Vice President Kamala Harris also found herself in a plagiarism scandal, based on a 2020 interview.
Copying speeches and logos is one thing, but journalism? That's crossing a major line, as Mikkelson acknowledged. The scandal could significantly damage Snopes, who are well-known for their fact-checking. The scandal has thrown a massive spotlight on Mikkelson, so we thought you should know more about him. Here's everything we know about Mikkelson, and how he turned to plagiarism.
Who is David Mikkelson?
The now-controversial co-founder of Snopes isn't a journalist by training. Mikkelson studied computer science at the University of Texas. He followed up that with hundreds of hours of "post-graduate classes at California State University, Northridge that were taken with no particular degree in mind." According to his website, Mikkelson previously worked at Teledyne Electronics, the US Postal Service, JPL, Digital Equipment Corporation, Rocketdyne, and Health Net. He also had a stint at the News-Chronicle, a newspaper before founding Snopes in 1994 with his then-wife Barbara.
Initially, Snopes was founded to help bust urban myths. Users could upload photos of questionable veracity, and Snopes would either debunk them as fake or confirm them as true. Over time, Snopes' scope expanded to fact-checking journalism, what it is best known for today. However, the company also became locked in a major battle for ownership, stemming from David and Barbara's divorce in 2014. In 2015, Barbara sold her share of Snopes' parent company Bardav for $3.6 million to Proper Media. Mikkelson was unwilling to sell his share, leading to a nasty court dispute.
Locked out of revenue, Mikkelson was forced to raise funds via GoFundMe to run the small Snopes team. Then in 2017, a judge ordered Proper Media to disburse advertising revenues to Bardav, allowing operations to resume unhindered. The case is still ongoing, while Mikkelson runs the website from his home in Tacoma, Washington, which he shares with Elyssa Young, his second wife. Little else is known about Mikkelson, as he maintains a low profile on social media. He does have active Facebook and Twitter accounts, but most posts are fact-checked articles and promotional material.
Plagiarism scandal hits Snopes
On August 13, 2021, Buzzfeed News ran an investigation and found out Mikkelson wrote and published 54 articles with plagiarized material. Some were written under the Snopes staff byline, while others the pseudonym Jeff Zarronandia and some under his own name. All the plagiarized articles were written between 2015 and 2019, from sources like The Guardian and the LA Times. "Let us be clear: Plagiarism undermines our mission and values, full stop. It has no place in any context within this organization," Snopes told Buzzfeed News. That statement came from Snopes VP of Editorial and Managing Editor Doreen Marchionni and Chief Operating Officer Vinny Green.
In a separate statement signed by eight writers, Snopes disavowed Mikkelson’s behavior. "We strongly condemn these poor journalistic practices. … we work hard every day to uphold the highest possible journalistic and ethical standards," they said. Snopes will retract all 54 stories, and disable advertising on them. An editor's note will also be appended to each story, to further highlight the plagiarism. Mikkelson also offered an apology, telling Buzzfeed, "There is no excuse for my serious lapses in judgment. I am sorry... While I can’t change the past, I couldn’t be prouder of how Snopes has evolved since then... The last thing I ever wanted was to have my mistakes detract from their excellent work, and I’m doing everything I can to make it right."
He also confirmed that the plagiarism efforts were done "to scoop up traffic". He further told Buzzfeed, "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." Buzzfeed found dozens of stories on Snopes with entire paragraphs copied from other sources. The controversy doesn't end here though, a former staff member alleges Mikkelson "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." That allegation came from Brooke Binkowski, a former managing editor at Snopes. She now runs the fact-checking site Truth or Fiction. Binkowski added, "I hated it and wouldn't tell any of the staff to do it, but he did it all the time."
Buzzfeed has seen internal emails and Slack messages which indicate "plagiarism may have been routine practice for Mikkelson." He acknowledged the existence of the messages, and said, "I don’t think rewriting news stories is all that remarkable. It’s a pretty common practice when done correctly." He then said, "I really sucked at it." At the time of publication, Snopes has prominently displayed a note from writers and an apology from staff members on its website.