In an era of fake news, Snopes says it could shut down, but there’s more to the story

An image from the website, which is raising money to keep the fact-checking website going in a time of fake news.
An image from the website, which is raising money to keep the fact-checking website going in a time of fake news.

To hear Snopes tell it, the popular fact-checking website may be in its death spiral amid a legal row with an “outside vendor.”

But to hear from the other side is to learn about a contentious ownership model, in a story that is at odds with the one told by the popular fact-checking website.

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Snopes calls itself the “oldest and largest fact-checking site on the internet”; it is regularly cited as a key source to counter rumours and fake news online.

But despite the website’s important position on the internet, Snopes founder David Mikkelson has warned that it is at risk of shutting down, creating a GoFundMe page seeking half a million dollars in an effort to keep it running.

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On the page, a letter attributed to the Snopes team claims that the site has been “cut off from our historic source of advertising income,” and that it’s “in danger of shuttering” without the money.

The GoFundMe campaign has raised $319,194 toward its goal.

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Snopes said in its letter that it previously worked with an “outside vendor” to provide a number of services before a contractual relationship ended earlier this year.

It went on to claim the vendor won’t acknowledge the change in that relationship and is holding the website “hostage,” keeping Snopes from accessing technology that would allow it to develop the site or display advertising on it.

“The vendor continues to insert their own ads and has been withholding the advertising revenue from us,” the letter added.

The fight has resulted in Snopes being cut off from revenue and facing the prospect of “having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile,” according to the site’s team.

Legal battle

Reports by The New York Times and The Atlantic provide a very different account than the one offered by the website.

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As they tell it, Mikkelson is engaged in a legal battle with Proper Media, a vendor that offers numerous services including advertising.

But Proper Media isn’t just a vendor; people with the company also bought a 50 per cent share in Bardav, Snopes’ parent company, from Mikkelson’s ex-wife Barbara in 2016.

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Mikkelson cancelled Proper Media’s contract with Bardav on March 10, and said he had the authority to do that because he was its only director, according to The Atlantic.

He did this because he reportedly felt that Snopes could obtain services from other vendors for cheaper.

But Proper Media has claimed that Mikkelson didn’t have that authority because Drew Schoentrup, one of Proper’s principals, had become a Bardav director as part of the deal with Mikkelson’s ex-wife, the Times reported.

Proper Media lawyer Karl Kronenberger claimed that Mikkelson cancelled the contract without holding a board meeting, the Times added.

Proper Media wants to remove Mikkelson as a director of Bardav, alleging “gross financial, technical, and corporate mismanagement,” according to lawyer Karl Kronenberger, as quoted by The Atlantic.

Mikkelson, meanwhile, has sought an injunction to make Proper Media hand control of Snopes over to him.

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Proper Media has also countered Mikkelson’s claim that it has withheld advertising revenue, saying that the Snopes founder had blocked the company’s access to Bardav bank accounts and other tools that it needs.

The parties are set to meet in court on Aug. 4.