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Legal Dispute Threatens Future Of Fact-Checking Site Snopes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a test - which of these claims is true? There's a computer virus disguised as a video called "Dance Of The Pope," someone is injecting HIV into bananas or a pickup truck from Texas is being used by Islamic State fighters in Syria. Snopes.com reports that only the pickup truck story is true. The pope story, the banana story - bogus. Since the 1990s, this website has checked urban legends and political claims. And David Mikkelson, the co-founder, announced this week that Snopes is in a fight for survival.

DAVID MIKKELSON: We have had zero income for several months running. And so unfortunately, we had to appeal to the public for funds to help us continue operating the business till we could get past this.

INSKEEP: How's it going?

MIKKELSON: Well, we were - amazingly shocked and humbled that we reached our goal. I mean, last I looked, we had raised over $600,000 since we launched the campaign Monday morning.

INSKEEP: So I have some questions about snopes.com.

MIKKELSON: OK.

INSKEEP: And let's be clear, i'm going to check your answers probably by going to snopes.com to see if they're true or false. How old is Snopes?

MIKKELSON: I started what became the modern snopes.com back in 1994. At the beginning, it was sort of intended as an encyclopedic reference to urban legends. It pretty quickly became the go-to place where everybody started sending anything questionable they encountered on the Internet.

INSKEEP: Do you remember a political story, a political claim that got you in a significant way into the political fact-checking business?

MIKKELSON: Yeah. It kind of started, I'd say for the most part, in 2008, with the whole controversy surrounding Barack Obama about, you know, he's a radical Muslim. He wasn't born in the United States. He's not eligible to run. You know, he forged his birth certificate.

INSKEEP: Just for the record, your finding on all those things you just laid out - radical Muslim, fake birth certificate - what was your finding on all of those claims?

MIKKELSON: Yeah. Unsurprisingly, they are all not true.

INSKEEP: OK. And how much has the market for political malarkey grown in the last few years?

MIKKELSON: Well, as you can see, it just, you know, mushroomed during this last election, people just spewing out political material whether it was true or not. And it was largely not true, just, you know, for the primary purpose of, yeah, just generating clicks and page views.

INSKEEP: Do you view your mission, your job, as a battle for truth?

MIKKELSON: Well, I'd have to say that we've always been so busy that we really never had a chance to stop and consider a specific mission. I mean, it just sort of...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) You don't have a mission statement?

MIKKELSON: No, not at this point. No.

INSKEEP: OK.

MIKKELSON: You know, every time you find a way to enhance your ability to stamp out or debunk false information, the people who are spreading it are finding new ways to spread further and wider. So for the time being, it's kind of like a game of Whack-a-Mole I'd say.

INSKEEP: Well, David Mikkelson, good luck to you on your next set of fact checks.

MIKKELSON: OK. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He truly founded Snopes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.