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Before I start, here’s what you need to know about me: You know that person at the party who corrects everyone? The know-it-all nobody really wants to talk to, because they start every sentence with “Actually … ”?
That’s me. I realize what I’m admitting about myself, but it’s not like I can really pretend I’m not that way. I’ve always loved meeting new people and learning new things and then sharing what I’ve learned, which is why I became a journalist. Somewhere along the line, I became an idealist too, and decided that a free and unfettered flow of information would eventually bring about deeper mutual understanding between different cultures and, ultimately, a peaceful planet.
How wrong I was. But let me back up.
As I mentioned, I’m a journalist. I’ve been a reporter for 20 years, which is a terrifyingly long amount of time for me to spend on anything, and yet I still love it just as much as I ever did — maybe more since I found and developed my own personal beats. I’m also the managing editor at a website called snopes.com, a fact-checking and myth-busting site that has enjoyed an exceedingly high profile over the past few months as we entered what various journos and pundits insist on calling a “post-truth world.”
Snopes started out as a hobby website run by a husband and wife — David and Barbara Mikkelson — who loved folklore and were fascinated with urban legends. That was about 20 years ago. Since then, the site has followed the trends of the web; it went from being a niche (but fascinating) site to a larger and more trusted page, to what it is now: one of the few places you can go to find out if a story you read is real, fake or somewhere in between.
Fake news is the buzzphrase of the 2016 general election. Every election ends in finger-pointing — usually, people blame the media, but this year they are blaming fake media for skewing the election through “satirical” stories that are actually thinly disguised hatchet jobs with no basis in reality (from both sides) and Facebook, Twitter and Google for disseminating it. It’s also touched off a lot of navel-gazing from the establishment media.
Right now, I’m getting calls from reporters all over the world asking me whether I think fake news weighted the presidential election. I love that people are listening to what I have to say, because I have a very specific axe to grind; I just wish that they had called sooner.
My short answer is “yes, but no,” and when I’m asked to elaborate, I say this: I’m still the idealist I always was. I still believe in the free flow of information. However, I believe that training in vetting that information and providing it within an accessible context is absolutely key to releasing it into the world. Without a structure, without that context, you’re just putting information out there that can be cherry-picked and mutate from information, to misinformation, to disinformation.
What do you have after that? You have a groundswell of fake news. You have sites like WikiLeaks dumping raw information into the world, to be turned into any type of ideological blunt instrument you like. (I have nothing against WikiLeaks per se; I just think it’s a great example of what happens when you have a ton of information but no context, as opposed to context but no information.)
So what’s my solution? A free, vibrant, well-funded press. Newsrooms all over the world staffed by well-trained people who also truly believe in the power of the story. More pedants like me and my immensely talented and thoughtful coworkers digging into whatever information is available, more curious idealists, more storytellers and lovers of humanity, in news organizations that pay them a living wage and give them the resources they need to do a job that can range from frustrating to difficult to nearly impossible.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but over the past 20 years I’ve watched the newsrooms I’ve worked in dwindle to little more than skeleton crews. I’ve seen so many talented colleagues make the jump to public relations or advertising or leave media entirely, because it’s so difficult to make a decent living on a journalism paycheck. And this as big media companies turn major annual profits! Somewhere along the line, companies realized that we would work harder and for less money if we were all afraid of losing our jobs at any given time, and now a deep and toxic culture of fear infests most of the newsrooms I’ve worked in.
I understand that I’m oversimplifying — that we’re in a long-term reorganization of journalism and that the recession started a news industry tailspin. But it doesn’t need to be that way. It’s possible to treat news as though it’s a priority. Trustworthy and responsible journalism is essential to a fully functioning and healthy democracy. And people want to know what’s really going on — we’ve seen such an increase in traffic at snopes.com over the past few months that it would be impossible to conclude that they didn’t.
Our job is pretty engaging, and if you’re a pedant like us, it’s a lot of fun. If we get a lot of emails about any given topic (and we get between a hundred and three hundred emails an hour, all told) we start digging into it. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a disclaimer buried on a website. Other times, we have to start filling out Freedom of Information Act request forms (always a favorite of mine), go to the library, pull academic papers or go talk to people in person, if we can. There’s a certain profound satisfaction in excavating the nugget of truth from beneath the mound of bullshit that covers it. Sometimes we can’t, of course, and we aren’t infallible, which is why we encourage people to do their own research: to start, rather than end, with us.
We are still not quite certain how this makes people very angry, but a lot of the emails that people send are either vague threats about “exposing” us for what we actually are (a bunch of accuracy nerds, so good luck with that) or direct threats about what they are going to do to, or with, us. It’s all part of the territory, along with the inevitable conspiracy theories about each of us.
Oh, and just to head this one off at the pass: We’re not funded by George Soros or anybody else; we’re completely independent and funded by nothing more (or less) than advertising revenue. Also? Facebook isn’t buying us. (The Atlantic ran a story speculating about whether we should become one with that social media site, but nobody ever called us about it, and now it seems to be approaching a full-blown conspiracy theory.)
We have done a whole lot of work, but there’s still more to be done. I’m looking forward to a world full of fact-checkers, credible Hulks, who back all their information with careful vetting and sourcing and place it into appropriate context so that curious people know where to look next.
A pipe dream? Maybe. But that’s the only way to realize the vision of my youth, when I thought that free and unfettered information would change the world into the best possible version of itself. Maybe, looking back, I wasn’t so wrong after all.
Brooke Binkowski is managing editor of Snopes, and author of Voice of San Diego’s Border Report.