Fact-Checking the Entire Internet
By Marin Cogan
Illustrated by Ariel Roman
Why Snopes Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski calls fake news the “yeast infection” of our country’s vagina.
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The news, like a vagina, is a delicate ecosystem. This isn’t my analogy; it comes compliments of Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of the fact-checking, hoax-debunking website Snopes. “I compared fake news in one interview to a yeast infection. I was talking to a dude, and he went really silent,” she tells me. I, of course, asked her to elaborate.“The news in general is a delicate ecosystem. If it gets overrun with a bad fungus in the form of fake news, the balance gets upset and it becomes extremely uncomfortable—and very difficult for the entire body politic,” she says. “And so you have to flush it out. Not flush it out, you have to...I think my analogy just fell flat.”
“Cleanse it gently?” I suggest.
“Yes!” she replies. “Cleanse it gently. With real news.”
Snopes is an antifungal, if you will, designed to clear out the harmful stuff. In this era of fake social media bots, Russian propaganda campaigns, and a president hell-bent on undermining the reality-based media, Snopes is still one destination many of us trust to separate fact from fiction. The site provides handy links for when your relatives forward you absurd email chain letters or post diatribes propagating conspiracies on Facebook.
For most of its early years, Snopes, founded in 1994 by a husband-and-wife team in California, had been a small-scale operation. But the explosion of fake news over the past few years has made it more relevant than ever. Today, Snopes has a staff of 15, with eight writers and editors who make it their daily endeavor to tell you when someone’s wrong on the Internet. Bless.
That Sisyphean task seems to be only getting harder. Intelligence officials are already warning that Russia will attempt to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections—in part by spreading online propaganda. Meanwhile, the student activists who emerged as leaders in the fight to end gun violence have become targets for hoaxes vicious enough to shock even the most jaded news consumer. The week I spoke to Binkowski, the website battled false rumors that Parkland survivor Emma González ripped up the Constitution on film. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more disgusting,” Binkowski says of the attacks on González and other Parkland kids. “And I’ve seen a lot of gross stuff.”
For Damn Joan’s Deceit issue, I talked to Binkowski about the importance of fighting fake news, why trolls hate Snopes, and what it’ll actually take to inoculate us against propaganda.
MARIN COGAN: Take me through a typical day for you as the managing editor.
BROOKE BINKOWSKI: I’ll read the news and pretend that I wasn’t obsessively reading it all night anyway. I'll start assigning stories, although the writers generally take on stories themselves. Today, for example, I wanted one of my writers to do a story about what happened in Qatar last year. [In June 2017 Saudi Arabia, along with three other countries in the region, announced that it was cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support for Islamic terrorism.]
MC: My god, I forgot that story altogether.
BB: I remember watching that happen in real time on Twitter, because I follow all of these news agencies, and it was so chilling. [Later, we learned that] all of these countries got the mistaken idea that Qatar was supporting ISIS and started cutting off the country systematically, and it was all because of fake news. Deliberate propaganda.
BB: So I’m trying to get a story about that out. That means we’re going to have to get in touch with embassies and try to put it all together. People think we have this magic tool or something, but a lot of what we do is just straight-up reporting. We’ll go to libraries and pull records, or we’ll go to universities and see what we can find there. We’ll talk to academics. Normal gumshoe reporting.
MC: What tools do you guys use to ferret out the truth? It sounds like reporting is the most important one.
BB: It really is. We’re all obsessive about the truth. We don’t like lies, and we’re all just like, “We know this is bullshit. We’re going to dig this up.” We’re like dogs with bones, honestly.
“I’m much more worried about the people who’ve given up and are like, ‘I don’t believe anything.’ ”
MC: How do you decide what’s worth investigating?
BB: Usually we go by email volume. People will email us through the site and be like, “Hey, is this true? What happened here?” We have somebody who goes through all the emails, sorts through all the death threats, and tells us, basically, what people are asking about.
MC: Wait, death threats?
BB: Oh, yeah, all the time. It used to really bother me. Now I’m like, “Oh, that’s a good one. Let’s forward that one to the FBI.” I can’t see a lot of the mean stuff people say to me on Twitter because I turned that function off, but it used to be that they’d call me a cunt, and I’d be like, “It’s on.” I’d be like, “Alright. I’m going to track you down, I’m going to find your personal information, I’m going to send this to your wife. You better be sorry, John Smith from wherever.” One time we traced the IP [address] of a death threat back to the Department of Transportation of Vermont. So I called them and I was like, “Hi, we just got a really interesting email saying that somebody wants to line us up against the wall and shoot us in the back of the head. We’re going to put that in a story. I’m just wondering if you have any comment?” They never got back to me.
MC: Oh my god. Why do you guys get so many death threats?
BB: From what I understand from these extremely irrational and bizarre emails that I rarely read because they’re really depressing: They think that we are a shadowy group funded by the Clintons and/or George Soros and/or the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and/or Jews.
MC: Is that new, or have there always been these torrents of hate mail?
BB: As long as I’ve been here. I think they really believe they are doing some good, calling out evil people by sending us emails saying that we’re going to get shot in the head. I think it’s possible a lot of the IP addresses are spoofed, meaning a lot of them are making it look as though they’re emailing from a different network than they actually are. And a lot of them are nasty little creeps who think they’re being funny. I don’t think any of them have any intention of following through, although I wouldn’t bet my life on it.
MC: Has the emergence of what we now know to be a Russian propaganda campaign aimed at swinging the 2016 election changed how you work?
BB: Yeah, we hired a few more people. So we have eight writers now as opposed to three when I started in 2015. We cover quite a lot of good stuff with eight people, but then I start thinking about it and I freak out. Like, oh shit, there’s only eight of us—what are we going to do?
MC: What’s the bigger problem right now: Is it people who don’t believe anything anymore, including legitimate news outlets? Or people who believe things that fit their preexisting biases too easily?
BB: Definitely people who don’t believe anything anymore—they’re so annoying. That’s also the end goal of disinformation and propaganda: The disinfo, chaos, and firehosing we’ve been dealing with for the past two years are supposed to weaken our faith in journalism, and that in turn corrodes democracy because nobody can agree on the basic facts. So I’m much more worried about the people who’ve given up and are like, “I don’t believe anything.” Usually I see that from the left, because the left thinks they’re so smart that they can pick everything apart. I know the right thinks they have the moral upper hand, but when you think you have the intellectual upper hand, it makes you vulnerable to disinformation tailored to you.
MC: Do you see yourself as having a mission?
BB: I’ve always been a real bleeding heart. One of my specific goals is to get journalism back into working gear in this country so we are not surrounded by disinformation and propaganda all the time. And I keep saying disinformation and propaganda because “fake news” is one of their terms. It’s the term popularized by the people who purvey disinformation, to shake people’s faith in our institutions. So I just want to call it what it is.
MC: Do you ever feel like it’s a Sisyphean task, where you’re just endlessly pushing back against this mountain of bullshit? I’m mixing my metaphors here, but you know what I mean.
BB: Absolutely. Like a dung beetle. Rolling a huge ball of poo.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MARIN COGAN is an award-winning (and -losing) journalist based in Washington, DC.
ARIEL ROMAN is an illustrator and art director in Los Angeles.