Trusting the Internet
by Eric Hall
March 16, 2013
stirred up a bit of controversy when some people thought I was showing a liberal bias by debunking some social media posts. One of the sources I generally pick to make a quick check on the facts is snopes.com. Depending on the level of research I feel I need to do, I will sometimes just stop at that source. Much like Wikipedia, I use it as a way to get a quick hit if it isn't something important. If it is something of some importance, I might check a source such as Snopes or Wikipedia as a way to find links to more original research, something both sites often have cited. If it is something within my subject area of physics, I will look at resources at my disposal, such as books or journals to which I subscribe. What I have found is that Snopes and Wikipedia do generally have trustworthy information when one looks deeper into the original sources. So they serve a nice purpose of summarizing information, saving me time from having to do the same.A few weeks back, I
This week, a post came up on Facebook with the headline "Snopes got snoped!" It originated with a group called "Uncle Sam's Misguided Children." The group has a noticable presence on Facebook, with over 300,000 likes and many, many shares of each of their posts. The group is clearly a "right-wing" group with posts that vary from conservative issues to those down right racially and/or sexually bigoted. I won't address other posts further, but I want to address the Snopes issue directly, along with the larger issue of trusted sources.
Snopes got Snoped
Did this story reveal something about Snopes that I missed? I always look into claims about sources I trust, as I want to make sure they can remain on my list, or if I should reevaluate them. I looked into the story a bit further.
A website known as "worldtruth.tv" is the source of the original story. Here is the reason they say Snopes is not a trustworthy source:
For several years people have tried to find out who exactly was behind the website Snopes.com. Only recently did they get to the bottom of it. Are you ready for this? It is run by a husband and wife team - that's right, no big office of investigators scouring public records in Washington, no researchers studying historical stacks in libraries, no team of lawyers reaching a consensus on current caselaw. No, Snopes.com is just a mom-and-pop operation that was started by two people who have absolutely no formal background or experience in investigative research.Only recently? Snopes has an "about snopes" section which clearly states who the founders are and how they do their investigations. Why this took "people" "several years" to find this out is baffling, when simply clicking on the "about" page would accomplish this in 5 seconds (plus reading time of course).
The story continues, giving only one example of a supposed inaccuracy regarding the story of an insurance agent posting political signs on his business sign. WorldTruth claims snopes "condemned" this on their website. The only condemnation I can find in the article itself is Ms. Mikkelson referring to the sayings on the sign as a "zinger." It turns out, the entire story of Snopes misrepresenting the story came from an e-mail circulated by another right-wing website. That website has since taken down any reference to it on their site. The claim is Snopes never contacted the company this agent represented. Turns out, they did. FactCheck.org also contacted the company, and the company verified both their request to the agent, as well as their contact with Snopes. WorldTruth printed a rumor that has long since been proven false.
A larger look at the site called WorldTruth.tv reveals something very hilarious.
My name is Eddie and WorldTruth.TV is my way to share all the knowledge and information that I have acquired and been blessed with in the last 32 years of my journey on this planet.I have to rub my forehead every time I read it. The website making a claim Snopes cannot be accurate because they do not have a large team is supposed to be trustworthy when being run by one person. If someone can make sense of that logic, please feel free to comment!
Apparently, the entire site is filled with re-posted articles from other fringe websites promoting conspiracies, pseudoscience, etc. For example, another headline from this site is one called "The Vaccine Hoax Is Over." The article in its entirety is a copy from another page called the "Food Freedom Group." So "Eddie" did quite the investigation on vaccines (yes, that is sarcasm)! The original article goes on to "prove" vaccines are harmful (in this case the flu vaccine) by citing articles from Mercola and Natural News. I tried clicking around to various links to the original studies that show this claim to be valid, but it mostly leads in a circle to these websites. The external links I could find were to the CDC. One link was to the VAERS system, but to all reports of incidents with the HPV vaccine - which of course has nothing to do with the flu vaccine. The other link was to statements by the CDC which state the flu vaccine is safe, which the article claims is a cover-up.
Looking at "Eddie's" research - nothing about WorldTruth is trustworthy. I guess my trust in Snopes as a quick resource, or at least a good starting point, is secure once again.
Snopes' Liberal Bias
One claim made both on my post a few weeks ago, as well as the claim made by many websites of the conservative variety, is that Snopes has a liberal bias. I thought I was clear in my post that it would appear to be so, simply because the current sitting president is a democrat. For the sake of those that claim a liberal bias, I grabbed a few articles regarding our last president, George W. Bush, in order to show how they report on what is being passed around, not on the politics.
President Bush's Low IQ
The premise here was that out of all the presidents since FDR, George W. Bush had the lowest. It was a study supposedly done by a think tank that turned out didn't exist. Snopes even found two instances of newspapers publishing the information. It had a very obvious liberal bias, as the top 3 were listed as democrats with genius level IQs, while the bottom 5 were republicans. Snopes referred to the low IQs assigned to the two Bush presidents as "insultingly low" just based on their ability to write and speak (while acknowledging the difficulty in assigning IQ based just on those items). I would think a site with a liberal bias would choose not to report this at all, or at least avoid commentary in favor of two conservative presidents.
President Bush "refused to sell his home to blacks"
When George Bush was elected governor in Texas, he bought a house that had a covenant on it from when it was built in 1939 that stated only whites could dwell in the house. This was not an uncommon practice at that time, and often these covenants went unnoticed because they were declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948. The wording remains because of a cumbersome legal process to have the actual wording removed, but the covenant is not enforced because it is illegal to do so.
Snopes reports that it is very plausible for the future president not to know about the covenant because it is not part of the deed seen by the buyers and sellers, but part of a larger record recorded with the county. Snopes also dismisses the liberal claim that the conservative media swept it under the rug when the conservative reporter Matt Drudge clearly did report on the issue.
President Bush Waves at Stevie Wonder
Many of the internet rumors that went around during the Bush presidency had to do with supposed gaffes that somehow were to show a lower intelligence of the president. This story is another such story. Snopes listed this as false as well. As they reasoned, it is likely untrue as it was a very slight wave and from a distance, so it was likely meant for someone else. They even provide benefit of the doubt for the president, stating that the gesture of waving is an ingrained gesture of greeting, and something we might do even before thinking about it. This is even more so for a politician. As they state, this is likely more of a result of the caricature of President Bush than it is about his actual actions.
Mitt Romney's Shoe Shine
Snopes rates the photos above as real, but with an inaccurate description. The claim going with the photo is that while President Obama is a "man of the people" who fist bumps janitors, Governor Romney is one who will stop anywhere to get a shoe shine. What is actually happening in the Romney photograph is he is getting a security check before boarding a flight. The photo description has a pretty obvious liberal origin, and Snopes shows it to be false.
Romney uses a KKK slogan for his own campaign
The Washington Post is often accused of liberal bias. In one such case, a blogger for the paper reported Romney was using "Keep America American" as a slogan, which is associated with the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. This started because of a report that Romney used the phrase during a campaign stop in Iowa. The Los Angeles Times later issued a correction, saying they misquoted the governor. Romney actually was saying "keep America America," which is in reference to a less government policy, and not in any way race related. However, the rumor was continued by the Washington Post, and Snopes addressed it. Snopes went so far as to find a video of Romney using that same phrase, showing he clearly was saying "keep America America," and not the phrase of which he is accused of saying. The blogger for The Washington Post was fired, and a correction was added to the piece. Nice work by Snopes, and not something I would expect if there was a massive liberal bias.
What did I learn from this? I learned there is another quack website out there. WorldTruth.tv is a fear-mongering, conspiracy website that should be avoided at all cost. Snopes will continue to serve its purpose in debunking social media nonsense. Although there have been one or two cases where they haven't been able to get an answer, or a case or two where perhaps they didn't go back to update something when additional information comes forth, they largely do a great job of investigating their sources.
I also will continue to investigate claims of my sources being not as trustworthy. But I have found sites like Science Based Medicine, Skeptoid (which is why I chose to write here), Bad Astronomy, and even Wikipedia (in some cases) can be good sources of information, especially when they can be confirmed with primary sources (such as scientific papers). How deeply I investigate will depend on the purpose, but these sites will continue to serve as one place to start. Wikipedia only gets better thanks to the effort of Susan Gerbic and the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia effort. Hopefully all of our efforts to separate the good from the bad will keep our trusted sources trustworthy.
by Eric Hall
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit