Long before Facebook, Twitter or even Google existed, the fact checking website Snopes.com was running down the half-truths, misinformation, and outright lies that ricochet across the Internet.
Today it remains a widely respected clearinghouse of all things factual and not.
As part of my series for the PBS NewsHour on the rise and role of misinformation in our democracy, I spoke with Snopes.com managing editor Brooke Binkowski.
More in this junk news series of Miles To Go podcasts: an insider look at Facebook’s News Feed with Dan Zigmond and a history of misinformation on the web with danah boyd.
Miles O’Brien: Hello, I’m Miles O’Brien. Welcome to another edition of Miles To Go. This week, more on our continuing series on the subject of misinformation in the digital age.
These podcasts are a spinoff of a series of really interesting interviews that I did for an upcoming series on junk news that will air on the PBS NewsHour. Now, I invite you to go to milesobrien.com and sign up for our weekly newsletter and it will let you know when to watch for those particular stories.
Long before fake news became a central topic of political discussion and debate and presidential tweets, a small band of folks out there were doing their best to stop the spread of rumors on the Internet.
I’m talking about Snopes. Brooke Binkowski is the Managing Editor of the online repository of all that is factual that we know as Snopes.com.
The moment I met her in person at her home in San Diego, I knew right away our paths had across before… Turns out we both worked at CNN in Atlanta in the early 2000’s.
A lot of things have changed since then, and Brooke and Snopes are doing all they can to keep pace with lies that spread around the world in an instant.
As you will hear, it’s pretty darn hard to keep up. And as it turns out it’s not a great way to make a lot of friends either.
But Brooke is a friend of the facts… and that makes her a friend of mine. And we had a very interesting conversation.
Miles O’Brien: Okay. Why don’t you give me the quick thumbnail history of Snopes? How did Snopes begin and how did it get to where it is today?
Brooke Binkowski: Okay, so David Mikkelson and his wife Barbara were both folklore enthusiasts and they decided to start this website in the early days of the web to track and catalog folklore and urban legends and this sort of expanded over the years because it was a love of theirs, but it didn’t really hit what it was supposed to be, or what it became rather, until 2008. I say supposed to be, because there really has always been a need for anti-disinformation sites, but they recognized the potential at first in 2001 after 9/11 because all of a sudden all these rumors started to hit.
But it wasn’t until seven years later that they saw the actual power of misinformation and disinformation has spread and that was around the election of Barack Obama when he was born in Kenya, he was a secret Muslim, he was plotting the overthrow of the world governments and all that kind of stuff. So, that was it when it really started to happen for them. Somewhere along the line they split up. I don’t know very much about that.
And in 2014, he hired a couple of people because he wanted to expand, but he also wanted to not write so much and he wanted to travel more and like do other stuff and so, he hired a couple of people and then in 2015, this web advertising company asked him to partner with them, Proper Media.
They are now the subject of an ownership dispute about Snopes. The whole thing’s terrible, but at that time, they approached him and said, “We think we can make you a lot more money. We can update the site. We can do this and that,” you know, it’s pretty standard. He said, “Sure.” He made so much more money initially that they decided to expand and become more of a bulwark against misinformation and propaganda. And then we all knew that 2016 was going to be a terrible election year, so they started to put more staff in. I was hired in November 2015 when it was just starting to gear up and they specifically said, “We’re going to need all hands on deck for the election.”
Miles O’Brien: So, Snopes, what does Snopes stand for, meaning? What is that?
Brooke Binkowski: So, the Snopes family are the subjects of a trilogy by William Faulkner, the Snopes Trilogy and I can’t remember the titles of them right now. I’ve actually never read them. I like Faulkner, but I don’t have time to read anything at Faulkner level, intricacy in two years because my brain is generally fried at the end of the day.
But they’re really unpleasant, grifters. You know, just horrible people all around and I think the idea when they decided to name the site after the Snopes family was “We’re the people who are always going around telling everybody they’re wrong. So, we’re all very unpleasant.”
Miles O’Brien: Got you.
Brooke Binkowski: And it stuck.
Miles O’Brien: So, this is the site that was policing for fake news before we knew what fake news was?
Brooke Binkowski: Mm-hmm.
Miles O’Brien: Right? This is OG web policing, right?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah.
Miles O’Brien: So, how important has Snopes been as the web has evolved? And it grew in its reputation along the way, right? Give us a little sense of how its role has evolved.
Brooke Binkowski: It is so overwhelming to contemplate, but when I started in 2015, it was already a pretty well-recognized name. That’s why I wanted to work there to begin with, but we didn’t start really getting catapulted into the national spotlight, and international spotlight, as much as we have been until probably mid-2016 and that was coincidentally when the smear campaigns began. Go figure. I think it was around the time that Facebook asked us to partner with them that we started to become much more high profile, but as you know, I mean, Snopes has been around for 20-something years, so people have known about it for a while, but its role didn’t start to evolve dramatically until 2015 to 2016.
Miles O’Brien: How important is it to have a Snopes?
Brooke Binkowski: I really believe in it. I did a lot of work in Mexico. I’ve seen the power of disinfo and what it does to people and what it does to societies and what it’s used for and so, I’ve always strongly believed in the power of the press to combat against disinformation. So now I’m sort of at the center of it and I think that there will always be room for places like Snopes or PolitiFact of FactCheck.org, but I also think it needs to be part of a larger conversation around journalism.
I mean, fact checking shouldn’t be treated as separate from journalism. It should be a part of it.
Miles O’Brien: Amen to that. So, obvious question, it’s gotten busier over time just as the web has become our place of — but tell us a little bit about how much busier it’s got and how much harder the job is.
Brooke Binkowski: Here’s the story I like to tell. 2016, was a terrible year. It was a really difficult year by any measure. You know, just the nastiness that got thrown around, the need for journalism, all of it and I remember saying in, I don’t know, probably June of 2016, “After the election, I’m taking a week off.” I’m going out into the desert and I’m going to frolic around, off the grid and nobody will be able to get in touch with me. I’ll be like day drinking and sitting by a pool.” And so I was talking about it for probably six months. I booked out the time.
I got one day of vacation and then I had to go back because there was so much that needed to be done and I hadn’t hired as many people as I’ve hired now. It’s gone from probably eight-hour days for all of us to more like, 12-, 15-hour days now because there’s just so much to tackle and we all are true believers basically. We all think that it’s important, what we’re doing, and we think it’s our calling to do something about it. I know that sounds really egomaniacal and I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that we are all determined to get the facts straight as much as we possibly can because that’s what we’re good at and that’s what we’d like to do.
Miles O’Brien: You’re on a mission.
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah.
Miles O’Brien: So, do you feel like — it’s so hard now to find a source that isn’t called into question. Nobody is Switzerland anymore, right? Do you feel like you moved the needle at this point?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, absolutely. We can see it happen.
I mean, of course, there’s always going to be attempts to discredit us one way or the other. There’s a particularly lazy meme that’s going on right now which is showing two different men, neither of whom are my boss shaking hands with George Soros and claiming that they’re each David, and people keep sending that to me, like I’m going to clutch my pearls and fall over and go, “Oh no, you’ve found us out.” So there’s always going to be those which whatever and also the death threats and the people telling me I’m a libtard and a progressive and whatever. But I think that we still manage to steer the ship through these sort of like propaganda waters.
And I have seen when we’ve intervened on rumors that are picking up momentum, I’ve seen them stop or be stopped because I track hashtags and things like that. It doesn’t always work. It’s not a full-proof method and I’m not saying that it’s just us because I don’t want it to be just us. It’s got to be journalism across the board, but it does make a difference.
And I also have a number of tactics that I engage in personally, where it’s not always pleasant, but on social media and things like that, I’ll say things like, “This is wrong and stupid because –” and I’ll be very outspoken about it because I’ve also found that that helps stem the tide of disinformation because if I’m sort of outrageous and obnoxious, people will pick it up and spread it. I mean, that’s something I would do anyway, but now that I found that it seems to work, I do it more.
Miles O’Brien: No one listens to you anymore and maybe you can talk a little bit about how you — just kind of the mechanics of how you do it. You have to be in the fray, kind of in the moment, don’t you, in order to kind of nip these things, is that the goal?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, so we all have different beats and areas of expertise. Mine happens to be immigration and the border because that’s my background. I speak Spanish. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico like I said. When there’s an immigration-related rumor, I can usually see it starting because I’m so familiar with the rumors that are already getting floated and after a while, you kind of learn to see how things are spreading and what’s going to get people going. Anything to do with Mexicans, undocumented people from wherever, Muslims, ISIS, abortion or people getting shot by police, those things, and for some reason, like toy recalls, those things just go insane. People go nuts over them because they’ll spread it around like just in case and that’s kind of how disinformation gets spread and I deliberately say disinformation because that implies it’s deliberate and it is clearly deliberate at this point.
I will sit on social media while I’m working all day and just watch for hash tags and things like that; we all do this. We also monitor our email through the site, our personal emails. We get people who tip us off and various — I think that actually kind of mostly covers it, but there’s other various — like things that we’ll find them in the wild sometimes and we’ll go, “Oh, this rumor is going to pick up steam.” We do try to get ahead of it. We don’t always succeed, but we try.
Miles O’Brien: Because you’re up against an awful a lot of kind of weaponized disinformation at this point, how do you fight it?
Brooke Binkowski: Just by telling the truth.
Miles O’Brien: Does the world beat a path to the truth’s door anymore?
Brooke Binkowski: Did it ever? I mean, did it ever really?
Miles O’Brien: I don’t know. I don’t — probably not.
Brooke Binkowski: My favorite anecdote about journalism, it takes place in, I believe the end of the 19th century when two major newspapers were having a circulation war and they invented more and more outrageous stories that ended up leading the United States indirectly because of this disinformation about the atrocities going on in Spain into the Spanish-American war.
And those two papers were — oh, God, I can’t remember the names of the papers. I always blank, but it was Hearst and Pulitzer. I mean, they were straight up putting out fake news.
Miles O’Brien: Remember the Maine?
Brooke Binkowski: Oh, God yeah. I mean, how could we forget? So, it’s always been around. The difference now is of course that, it spreads so much faster. It’s the age old battle. Truth is never as salacious or as sexy as a lie, never. So we have to put into context and be the boring killjoys and the ones telling the internet that it’s wrong and just kind of doggedly keep going because otherwise, what’s the point?
Miles O’Brien: So, when you go back to that era, you know, the late 19th or early 20th century and Hearst and Remember the Maine and ginning up that pretext for war, there’s a lot of parallels to what we’ve seen in more recent years.
Was there some weird kind of hiatus in between where journalism became more serious for a little while and that was just a brief moment in time maybe?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah. I don’t think it was a brief moment in time but there was definitely maybe a generation in there where journalism is actually taken seriously. And there was a lot of money going to journalism. It was lucrative for journalistic outfits. It paid well for reporters and people could actually afford to work in news which is major problem as I’m sure everybody in news knows. I think that it worked really well to spread actual facts and stem the tide of misinfo and disinfo but I think that what happened was — I think about this a lot. So, I don’t really know but what seems to me what happened is journalistic outfits became reliant on journalism to be lucrative and it’s not inherently lucrative.
It just happened to be lucrative for a little while. They stopped looking at it as a public service and so, cuts started to happen more and more and entire departments started to get cut and journalists started to go into real estate and public relations and do all the stuff that we swore we would never ever do. Law school, diplomacy. Now there’s what? 21,000 working journalists in the United States where there used to be 100,000. I’m throwing out numbers but it’s something ridiculous like that. There’s just a tiny percentage.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah. I mean if you look at the — as much as anything, we’re talking about the breakdown of a business model here. Newspapers could afford to be altruistic because they had classified and display ads to keep the journalism from bumping into each other. And you had networks that were compelled by something called the fairness doctrine and the desire to stave off further regulation by keeping their divisions kind of separate. All that’s gone, isn’t it?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah. It’s gone and it’s time to rebuild that model and to start looking at news as a public service again. This is kind of my — when I go into my ideological rants, that’s kind of at the top of the list. It needs to be looked at as a public service because this is what happens when we don’t have an active healthy journalism sector in the United States. I mean, you can see the same thing happening in Canada. You can see it going down in Mexico where they just murder journalists. You can see it in all over Europe. The rise of the far right is inextricably linked to fake news and the not death but definitely the bleeding out of journalism.
Miles O’Brien: Would you agree that it is axiomatic that journalism purely for profit — those two things — a pure profit enterprise and journalism will never coexist?
Brooke Binkowski: I believe so. You cannot make journalism into a profit machine. It’ll be profitable for a while but the novelty will wear off. And other things will come in. I think that it needs to be looked at as a public service and treated as a public service and I don’t mean angel investors necessarily. I don’t mean working for any one outfit and getting your money off any one outfit. I think we need to have a societal shift in the way we look at journalism in general.
Miles O’Brien: There will always be money to be made in telling people salacious things and more importantly salacious things that reinforce their world view one way or another, right?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah.
Miles O’Brien: So, how do we stop that? That’s human nature, isn’t it?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, human nature! Flood it out, flood it out with contextualized nuanced information. I always say that it’s got to be contextualized so people can understand how it relates to their life. It has to be nuanced so that people don’t paint broad brush strokes any more than they already do.
As nuanced as it can be, right? I mean, there’s only so much you can fit into 800 words and it has to include citations and primary sources because so many people are just making things up now but yeah, it needs to be flooded out.
Miles O’Brien: Do you think people really care though about the source of their information or are they just happy to read something that indicates Hillary Clinton slept with an alien or whatever?
Brooke Binkowski: You know I tend to have a very optimistic view of humanity which means I’ve been sorely tested and disappointed a lot the last couple of years, but I really think that people want to know what’s going on in the world around them. I think that they will gather as much information as they can whatever way they do. So, some people go talk to their neighbors and get the gossip. Some people read the news. Some people go online and look at stuff on social media. And the thing is they’re all doing the same thing though. They’re finding out what’s going on in the world around them. Things that matter.
I think that the rise of disinformation doesn’t indicate that people don’t care what the source is. To me it indicates that if people don’t have news that’s been vetted, they’ll go for disinformation just to have some kind of information. I mean, to me it just shows not a failure of journalism per se but a lack of resources in journalism that doesn’t allow it to reach as many people now.
Miles O’Brien: So, nature abhors a vacuum and into the vacuum come fake news purveyors.
Brooke Binkowski: Yes. So much better put than I put it.
Miles O’Brien: It’s an interesting point that if the journalism enterprise as we appreciate it and came to love it and were drawn to it as a profession, if it were more vibrant, would we be even having this conversation?
Brooke Binkowski: I think there would still be a conversation to be had of course because there are other ways that disinformation needs to attacked. Disinformation goes for and like I said, I’m specifically saying disinfo because this isn’t misinformation. This isn’t just screw-ups. This is deliberate. This is propagandistic. This has been weaponized, as you said. It is disinformation and there would still be a conversation to be had because it’s very easy to see the cracks in American society and exploit them if you’re so inclined, even with a healthy journalistic sector.
I mean, we’ve never come to terms to with our legacy of genocide of American Indians for example. With slavery, we’ve never formally apologized for it. We’ve never formally apologized for structural racism for example and if you look at the disinformation it attacks racial fears, it often attacks like these strange sexual fears that white men have about black men. I don’t know, whatever is going on there.
But you see a lot of that. You see a lot of stuff about swarthy men coming to rape women and to beat up men. And all of that is preying on American xenophobia and that is a direct result, I think, of our history that we’ve never come to terms with. So we would still need to have this conversation. I think it would just be less of an immediate problem. It would still be a problem but it wouldn’t be at crisis level the way it is now.
Miles O’Brien: So, just a little bit on semantics. Do you call it fake news? Is that an accurate way to describe what we’re talking about here? What is it? What are we talking about? Is it outright factual errors which you go after very well? Or is it the kind of misleading headline and if you read the piece, there’s actually nothing factually wrong with it but boy, it is certainly coming from one side, certainly sins of omission, probably sins of editorial — avoiding editorial restraint. How would you characterize what the real problem is?
Brooke Binkowski: Right now, I would say — well first of all, I’m so tired of the phrase fake news but that’s because I’m at the locus of it all, right? It’s like all of these fake news purveyors come through us and then we get the emails, “Snopes is fake news,” which always annoys me because it’s so oversimplified and stupid and I’m just like, “No, think of something better. Come on.”
Fake news I’ve been using it — it’s difficult to define because it’s so ephemeral and nebulous, kind of. So, I kind of use it as an umbrella term encompassing everything, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda lies, sins of omission and bias. So, bias is always going to exist. You can’t escape that. The only thing that you can do when it comes to journalistic bias is have lots of journalistic outfits and have healthy competition.
And have people espousing different perspectives because even the most down-the-line journalist is going to omit things because you have to. You can’t include all the context, otherwise the story would never end, right? Even something as simple as a pedestrian got killed crossing the street the other day turns into well, what’s the city done about this? Has this happened before? How many accidents have there been on the street? Have there been more? Are there more cars? Are there more people? That kind of thing. You can’t include all that. It would be the most boring story in the world. So, instead it’s somebody got killed, here’s how old they were, here is what they looked like.
So, there are all these kinds of omissions and even biases in a very neutral way because you’re biased against including all of the context, right? That’s always going to be there. It’s just how it is. It’s how you tell the story that counts. So, if it gets extreme, then you start veering into disinformation which is deliberate weaponized misinformation.
And that is usually, with disinfo, there is real news and then a little bit of lie mixed in. That’s incredibly difficult to combat because there’s truth in it as well. Propaganda is basically weaponized disinformation. It’s just being thrown at people and we’re in the middle of the propaganda crisis now, I think that’s being aided and abetted by social media. I mean, you can say fake news but I think it’s more precise to refer to disinfo and propaganda at this point. Misinformation I kind of leave out because misinformation is not always deliberate and it can sometimes just be an honest mistake. So, we’ll correct those as well but I don’t see them as a problem per se.
Miles O’Brien: You touched on social networking but how much has Facebook changed the equation here, sped things up, whatever?
Brooke Binkowski: Social media, in general, has made it a lot easier to quickly spread information and of course disinformation at the same time.
It’s just happened much faster and it’s overwhelming. So, the speed and the scale has changed across the board because of social media. It’s very easy to retweet or re-share or bring people’s attention to a story because that’s what it’s designed to do. It’s supposed to be a conversation and instead of backyard gossip, it’s now reaching potentially millions of people. I’ve seen these things with share counts on them, like six million people, seven million people are watching this, or re-tweeting this or they’re interacting with some BS stories somehow. It’s just shocking how fast disinformation cam spread. That’s what’s changed because of social media and that’s something in all my early days at the internet I never considered and neither did anybody else apparently. I didn’t think that it was going to do anything but bring everybody together.
Miles O’Brien: I think we all saw utopia and it’s not what happened, is it?
Brooke Binkowski: Boy, it sure isn’t. It’s a little dystopian right now.
Miles O’Brien: To say the least. All right. So, now as a subset of social networking, to what extent is Facebook emblematic of that or worse? How big a player is it in all of this?
Brooke Binkowski: Facebook has become the face of this because of its influence and its size. I believe two billion people use it regularly and that’s a lot of fake news to get spread around. I think that they have made it very easy to share news that looks legitimate. There are no visual cues that indicate when you’re looking at a preview on Facebook that it might be BS. That it might be from a site that is — Hillary Clinton is going to prison, baldeagleusa.com. You don’t actually see that. It doesn’t register if you’re looking at a shocking header or photo and headline and sub-head that sound just amazing and like a game changer so you share it just in case.
It might be real, just in case. So, it’s made it more difficult to share stories like that in the recent past but for the past, I don’t know, two or three years, it’s kind of made it easier to spread any kind of fake news that you possibly can because it just looks indistinguishable and at the same time it’s made it very financially viable to put out fake news because if stuff gets spread around and people click on it, you know, you get that clickbait money coming in, apparently some of these guys make $30,000 a month which makes me mad for so many reasons.
Miles O’Brien: We were just with an individual who makes more than that even and —
Brooke Binkowski: Is it Christopher Blair?
Miles O’Brien: No. His name is Cyrus Massoumi.
Brooke Binkowski: Oh, he’s such an asshole.
These people put out these bullshit sites. And then they make all this money and that guy, he’s so unrepentant about it and it’s so corrosive and irresponsible and I realize that they can’t control the fact that it’s financially extremely lucrative but have some freaking principles. Don’t put out some nasty racist crap just because it’s making you money. You’re already rich. That kid was born rich. He doesn’t need to make any more money.
Yeah, that guy is responsible for a lot of fake news we have to put out and a lot of it is very damaging because it’s preying on, again, these fears of racist white people that they’re going to be some kind of ethnic minority because black people are going to rise up and kill them all or something ridiculous. He’s putting out some of the worst stuff. Oh God, what was the site that he — t?
Miles O’Brien: He’s actually gone on the liberal side now because it’s more lucrative given the way the algorithm has changed but he was Mr. Conservative for the longest time.
Brooke Binkowski: Mr. Conservative. So, Mr. Conservative was one of the sites that was promulgating a lot of that racist narrative and I’m sorry, I get a lot of stuff thrown at me like, “Oh, you see racism in everything. You’re an SJW or whatever.” Well, I see racism in everything because A, we live in a country that’s defined by its structural racism but also B, these fake news stories are almost exclusively about racial fears.
Some of it is about hatred of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but so much of this stemmed from this sort of idea that white people are losing their place in the world. Mr. Conservative was one of those sites that preyed dramatically on it. Now, Truth Examiner is probably — I actually haven’t gotten a lot of complaints about it yet. But they’re probably — he’s probably preying on the liberal pipe dreams that tomorrow Russia is going to go, “Guys, it was all us, our bad,” and Mueller’s going to perp walk Trump to prison and everything’s going to be wrapped up all neatly and we’re going to have President Clinton.
That seems to be kind of what people are preying on now. I see that with Louise Mensch, with Claude Taylor, with Seth Abramson, all the other Russia truther people.
Miles O’Brien: So it goes in both directions.
Brooke Binkowski: Oh God, yeah.
Miles O’Brien: Through the election, we were very focused of course on fake news as it benefited Donald Trump but it cuts both ways, doesn’t it?
Brooke Binkowski: Oh, so both ways. The right wing has always considered themselves to have the moral upper hand in the United States. The left wing has always considered itself to have the intellectual upper hand in the United States. Both of those things are so easy to exploit and you can see it all get played out.
Leftists think that they’re too smart to be taken in by fake news so of course, that makes them extremely vulnerable whereas conservatives, think — well, it’s just a — the higher truth is there. We have the moral upper hand therefore it doesn’t matter if we’re putting out fake news and that gets nasty and grows really fast.
Yeah. Oh, this is a really dumb time to be alive. I mean, there’s a lot of good but boy, is this a dumb timeline.
Miles O’Brien: My conversation with Brooke took place just a few days after the Parkland high school shooting in Florida. She was deeply enmeshed in putting out fires of fiction started in the wake of that horrific event.
Brooke Binkowski: Immediately after any mass shooting, the Alt-Right circulates pictures of this guy, Sam Hyde and they claim Sam Hyde is the shooter and their joke comes directly from 4Chan and Reddit, is to get this guy’s picture in the news again. It’s happened so many times.
Miles O’Brien: Who?
Brooke Binkowski: Sam Hyde. He’s a comedian that nobody would really know anything about if it wasn’t for the fact that his photo gets circulated. I don’t even know if he’s very funny. I don’t know because the only time I come across his name and his photo is right after a mass shooting every time and that just makes me not want to laugh. I don’t care how funny he might be because I associate him now with horrible mass shootings.
We didn’t actually get a lot of false flag stuff because immediately everybody was seizing on the fact that the guy’s name was Nick Cruz, is Nick Cruz. Usually they don’t live. So, I’m glad that they got him without incident and that they can talk to this guy about why he did it because I would really love to know personally where he was radicalized because I’m betting I know where: 4Chan and Reddit.
Anyway, the Kek crowd; the Kekistan guys, the Pepes, the Alt-Right and the Neo-nazis and the white supremacists circulate massive amounts of misinformation and disinformation after any mass shooting because a lot of them are young and they think it’s funny. Some of it is coming from outside the United States, not just from Russia, it’s coming from all over the place. Some of it is disinformation coming from within the United States by people who think that, like I said, it’s funny or they have some other kind of agenda.
What that might be, I don’t know but, obviously, they have something. So, immediately after that, people found out his name is Nicolas Cruz. They seized on the Cruz part in particular to start a rumor immediately that the guy was undocumented, that he was — but of course, they didn’t say undocumented. They said, it was the most inaccurate term, an illegal. And then, they spread that he was a DACA and then he was Dreamer because he was the wrong age to be DACA, I believe that he missed the window.
And then it just turned into illegal, right? That was the first one we had to do because it was spreading really fast and a lot of this stuff has been directly linked to attacks on Latino people for one thing. So, we put that out as quickly as we could.
By the way, not undocumented, not a Dreamer, not DACA. For all intents and purposes, dude’s white presenting. I don’t know what his ethnic background is. I personally don’t care, but that was the next one. He’s ISIS. He yelled, “Allahu Akbar,” as he was shooting. He yelled something in Spanish as he was shooting. He was a Communist. They’re circulating a picture of somebody, some poor guy who doesn’t look anything like him wearing a shirt with Karl Marx and Stalin and it’s bright red. It’s a Communist Party shirt and it’s claiming that’s him. They’re claiming he was a registered Democrat using some other poor guy’s voting profile to prove it, even though it’s not him. It’s some other Nick Cruz and it’s a completely different spelling and he’s getting harassed.
Just the usual things. So then, it became clear that they couldn’t peg him as undocumented. They couldn’t even peg him as anything but white.
It turns out he’s a white supremacist, so now, they’re saying, “Well, the guy was clearly mentally ill and we’re going to blame the FBI for not stopping this before it began because they’re so tied up in the Russian investigation.” The goal posts are always shifting. I signed out all these stories this morning.
Miles O’Brien: That’s a busy damned day..
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, that’s pretty much. We’re all so mad at this guy, not just for murdering a bunch of innocent people and being a white supremacist and being all around not a nice person. Putting up pictures of himself killing lizards and things like that if that Instagram feed is accurate, which we’re looking into, I don’t know what they’ve come up with yet. He just seemed like an unpleasant person across the board and now, we’re all mad because not only did he do all of this stuff, he also ruined everybody’s Valentine’s Day, the entire country’s Valentine’s Day.
It’s just, why? Why? What kind of sickness in our society are we nurturing that it’s coming out in these ways, more and more?
Miles O’Brien: So all that stuff that comes out in real time, are people gullible because they believe this stuff or do they want to believe certain things? What is it?
Brooke Binkowski: The world is a confusing and sometimes a very frightening place and I’ve spent my whole life trying to make sense of it and my personal coping mechanism is that I try to find out as much as I can about the world. When I’m worried about something, for example, I was worried about tsunamis a few years ago, so I learned about how tsunamis work and whether they can cause massive destruction here or there.
I think a lot of people are like that; the more you know about something, the more you’ll understand it and the less frightening it is. I think with conspiracy theories, a lot of people are just kind of throwing up their hands and going, “There’s got to be an easier explanation than people just don’t know what they’re doing and they’re just doing stuff and it’s all random and the world is meaningless and we’re all living in this void.”
So, they latch on to these conspiracy theories because that wraps everything up in a nice, neat little bow. I mean, I’ve fallen for that type of thinking in the past. It’s like, “Everything makes sense. Oh my God, it all fits,” and it’s always a misleading way to think, unfortunately.
Miles O’Brien: All right, let’s talk a little bit more about Facebook and Snopes.
Brooke Binkowski: Oh yeah.
Miles O’Brien: First of all, Facebook’s — I’m sure that Zuckerberg when he started it, never imagined he’d be the absolute traffic cop of the global public square but there he sits.
I guess, the first question, what is Facebook anymore? It’s not just a corporation. It’s something much bigger. It’s almost a quasi-government enterprise in some respects. How would you characterize what Facebook is and what it means to all of us and the power it has?
Brooke Binkowski: That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking of it. You know how a lot of the conspiracy theorists right now are talking about a shadow government a lot? I feel like Facebook is actually filling that role in a lot ways. Not in a sinister way, not intentionally but it does govern a lot of the ways people act, it affects public policy dramatically just by being this playground for ideas and for misinformation and disinformation and propaganda and so on and so forth. So, yeah, in a way it is. It’s the most powerful corporation on the planet now, isn’t it? It has to be.
Miles O’Brien: It’s hard to debate that, yeah.
Brooke Binkowski: And if you control information, you control people’s minds. If you control people’s minds, you control them. You can control their behavior in a — not in an individual way, but in a statistically predictable way, stochastically. Yeah, it kind of is a quasi-government.
I think that they really need to come to terms with the fact that they are a media company on top of everything else because right now they keep saying they’re tech, they’re tech, they’re tech.
It’s like, you don’t call it social tech. It’s called social media. Just come to terms with it, admit it and take your punishment for it because that’s what they’re trying to avoid, I think. They’re trying to avoid it all coming crashing down when they finally say, “We’re media,” because then, all those questions will come, “Well, why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do it that way? Why didn’t you listen to this? Why didn’t you do that?” and so on and so forth.
Miles O’Brien: You did your job through the election. Can you say one way or another whether it really swung the election one way or another?
Brooke Binkowski: That’s a matter of opinion and it’s widely debated but I think absolutely. I mean, all you really needed to do was affect 10,000 people’s opinions in key swing states. I mean, it wouldn’t have been that difficult. It could’ve been done very easily and I think it was done very easily. That could’ve been done without hacking into voter rolls or whatever story came out. I can’t remember anymore, my sense of time is gone. Little pieces of me feel like they’re falling apart because there’s just so much all the time.
But yeah, I think that it absolutely affected the election. I think that people who are saying it had no effect are missing something, which is the fact that Hillary Clinton was an extremely divisive candidate and a lot of people were on the fence about voting for her and some of this disinformation I think affected them. I think that it’s going to come out. I have no insider knowledge by the way. This is my own conspiracy theorizing.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah, go ahead, go.
Brooke Binkowski: But I think what’s going to come out is that the email investigation being reopened was the direct result of fake news of some sort, like bad information, if it hasn’t come out already. If it has, I missed out. I really do think that a lot of these extremely shocking stories about Hillary Clinton turned people who didn’t really want to vote for her anyway, into voters who stayed home and that allowed the Trump administration to happen.
Miles O’Brien: So, you saw this brewing before we did?
Brooke Binkowski: Oh, well, I don’t know if I saw it before you did.
Miles O’Brien: Okay.
Brooke Binkowski: I started to see it in probably April of 2016.
Miles O’Brien: What did you see in April?
Brooke Binkowski: So, in April 2016 I said — because I’ve been noticing it incrementally a little bit, but we’d had like fake news, like News 8 now and empirenews.com or .net and they were, you know, like Fappy the masturbating dolphin that Sea World had just put in as its anti-masturbation mascot which went crazy. People went nuts over it. Of course it’s not true, by the way. And the ever popular like homeless people doing stupid stuff and getting caught which were always made up. They kind of draw the line between funny enough to be considered satire and just kind of dumb, but —
Miles O’Brien: Adolescent really.
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, they really adolescent and it wasn’t harmful or anything. It was just, “Okay, you know, we’ll debunk this, we’ll debunk that.” Around April of 2016 I started to notice more and more like stories about Black Lives Matter and there were a whole rash of stories that weren’t true about that, people who are undocumented.
The first story I think I ever wrote was UPS is smuggling Muslims into the United States in their planes that they use to deliver packages and this all stemmed from a blurry video that some guy made of a bus leaving the airport, I think in Philadelphia one night.
There were no people in the video. It was just some guy going, “Oh, I saw them. They were coming out and they went in that bus there.” It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen so I debunked it. That was my first one and I got so much hate mail. And they’re like, “How dare you? That man was there. He saw it. Why would he lie?” And I was like, “God, well, this is as bad as it’s going to get.”
And then I saw like thousands more stories like that and they started coming thick and fast. They were all racialized. It was all — like I said, preying on the sort of fear of the other and a lot of it is anti-Muslim, a lot of it now is anti-immigrant in general and a lot is anti-Latino and of course anti-black. And the anti-black stuff though, I feel like that’s a constant. Every time there’s a fake news upswing it always seems to really exploit white fears about black people in particular.
So it’s just kind of expanded. I guess great, I mean, it’s just so overwhelming.
Miles O’Brien: What happened then? Were the Russians suddenly in the mix? Was it because Donald Trump exacerbated it by his own rhetoric? What do you think changed?
Brooke Binkowski: I think it came from outside. I think that it was — but this is just what I think. They’re — I have, again —
Miles O’Brien: Your opinion counts.
Brooke Binkowski: I have no insider knowledge that I don’t immediately disseminate.
Miles O’Brien: Something happened.
Brooke Binkowski: But something happened, yeah. Something changed. I suspect that a contract was signed. I suspect that some money changed hands and I suspect that we’re not done seeing the role of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in the 2016 elections yet. They have been doing this all over the world and I guess what remains to be seen is who was paying whom. Nobody was prepared for the influx of bad information that was coming out. So at that time that it was starting to get spread, I mean, who could have seen this coming? And it still wasn’t at critical levels at that point. It didn’t start to get really bad until probably October 2016 and that was when it just started to get incredibly nasty and ugly. And it wasn’t just anti-Hillary Clinton stuff, but that was a big part of it. And then of course, Pizzagate took root at some point around that time and reached its illogical conclusion later in 2017. But stuff like that didn’t start to get weaponized and really toxic that I saw until — it started in April but it reached peak power in probably November.
Miles O’Brien: Based on how widespread and kind of baked into the system it is, how much it reflects human nature, how much the attention economy feeds this whole thing, is this something that can be solved by having you and your team and some others fact check or is that in a way naïve?
Brooke Binkowski: I think that we should be part of the solution, not the entire solution. I think that the entire solution involves a lot more than just hiring some fact checkers. This is not something that can be solved by small teams, this is not something than can be solved by algorithms.
This has to be solved with journalism as I said earlier and moderators. We have to have moderators on social media, because otherwise here we are.
Miles O’Brien: Well, it used to be back in the old days every message board had a moderator, right?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah. I don’t understand —
Miles O’Brien: Back in the CNN or early CNN days, you know, we did it with AOL, there’s always a moderator there. Those days are long gone, right?
Brooke Binkowski: I don’t understand what happened there. I mean, that is just the most tone deaf thing I’ve ever seen. Silicon Valley people who think that it encroaches on free speech to moderate discussions, I can’t figure out where they’re coming from. Obviously, they’ve never been talked over by somebody who’s discrediting you because you’re a woman, for example.
Miles O’Brien: When Facebook decided–some would say belatedly–that it needed to pay attention to some of the misinformation that flows through its News Feed, it turned to a few organizations that have a reputation for integrity. Snopes of course was one of those organizations. Facebook reached out and Brooke told me how it went down.
Brooke Binkowski: I did an interview in late 2016 with — I can’t remember. It’s one of the tech outlets. Back Channel I think. And the day after it went live, I got an email from somebody at fb.com and it was like, “Hey Brooke, would you be able to talk to us about a potential partnership with Facebook?” And I remember I had my laptop open and I closed it and I was like, this is too much pressure. I will deal with this later. I just let it sit for about six hours and then I sent it to my boss and said, “I don’t know what to do about this. This is obviously not a hoax. These people are legitimate. They already called me. What do I do?” So, he said, “I’ll take it from here.” I’m like, “Oh, thank God.” I wanted to just run the newsroom. I don’t want to deal with partnerships. So it was very exciting and very heady and of course the smear campaigns were also very exciting.
We went into it with curiosity rather than optimism because we weren’t sure how much six or five fact checking partners, I think it’s five, could do unless Facebook was sort of following our lead. It seems now that they are starting to follow our lead and take our suggestions and incorporate them into what they’re doing which is more nuanced opportunities to fact check because we get kind of a list and at first it said, true, false, not checked or not undisputed or something like that. And now, it’s true, mostly true, mixture, you know, it’s kind of the same categories we have which makes it much better and easier to do it.
I still am not convinced that it’s making a huge difference. They say internally it shows that one fact check can stop the spread of fake news by 80 percent on Facebook.
But I haven’t seen anything to back it so I’m always skeptical.
Miles O’Brien: So how is it any different than what you’ve been doing before?
Brooke Binkowski: We don’t even fact check anything different based on what they give us. I just look over the list and if it matches something we’ve already fact checked, I’ll mark it whatever we decided it is and then put it in a link to our story.
I was adamant from the get-go that we not allow any outside entities tell us what we should be fact checking except for people who email us to ask about certain stories they’ve heard or our own expertise. I just don’t want to end up doing PR for anybody.
Miles O’Brien: Who decides what stories you’re going after? Are you guys just trolling through Facebook and through your own feeds? How does that go with you?
Brooke Binkowski: I decide.
Miles O’Brien: You decide? You just see what’s going and you see — you probably have to have a pretty sophisticated way of managing your newsfeed to see all this stuff, right?
Brooke Binkowski: Oh, I don’t even go on Facebook anymore. I put up pictures and then I disappear.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah.
Brooke Binkowski: It’s just because I’m so — and when I worked at Pizza Hut as a teenager, I couldn’t eat pizza for like a year, right? So now it’s become work related, so I’m just like —
Miles O’Brien: Yeah, yeah.
Brooke Binkowski: And I get so many death threats and stuff now. It’s just like, “Okay, whatever you guys have your fun.” I just got one yesterday.
Miles O’Brien: Really?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, I get them every day. They really don’t like me.
Miles O’Brien: You laugh, but I mean there was Pizzagate.
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, I know. I think about that, but part of the reason I’ve made myself the sort of person to talk to press and put myself out there is A, as I mentioned before I don’t mind the attention, obviously I like it. But B, I also know that it is important to have one person be out there and it should be the person who doesn’t mind being sort of a lightning rod. I’m using my own selfishness for altruistic purposes because I have also seen and worked within an environment in which journalists are being killed on a regular basis and publicly executed and it’s really ugly.
I’ve lost eight colleagues in Mexico alone in the past two years. I’ve been keeping this awful count and my experience is much more insulated than people who actually work in Tijuana or in Mexicali or down in Mexico City. So the point is, I know what it’s like when somebody actually wants to kill you. I know what it’s like when people are actually following you because I’ve had that experience and so I know what to look out for and I know how to protect myself to a certain extent.
And so, that’s why I kind of put myself out there front and center because — go ahead and send me those death threats. You’ll piss me off for half a minute but okay, I’m never going to shut up.
Miles O’Brien: Do you have a sense that you’re making an impact now that you’re doing this in particular?
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah.
Miles O’Brien: How do you know?
Brooke Binkowski: I know because I see it happening. I know also because a lot of journalists follow us now and I’m extraordinarily proud of this. So, they’ll follow us not just because they like to read us which I hope that that’s the case too but they also follow us because they’ll pick up stories that we’re doing and incorporate them into their reportage. I don’t mind that as long as it’s with attribution. But I also appreciate them doing that because that also helps us spread. I don’t mind us doing this leg work if it means some horrible corrosive story isn’t making the rounds anymore. When you have a bunch of news organizations repeating the actual facts it drowns out the lies. That’s journalism, and that’s what journalism is supposed to do.
Miles O’Brien: So, it’s working?
Brooke Binkowski: Yes. It’s not working as fast as I was hoping. It’s not as in-depth as I was hoping. We need more journalists for that but yeah, it works and it is working. But I don’t know if Facebook’s actions within Facebook are working as quickly as they could have been.
But I think that what changes they put in now have made it more pleasant.
Miles O’Brien: Facebook doesn’t want to really be an arbiter in all this, does it?
Brooke Binkowski: God no. Would you?
Miles O’Brien: Should it?
Brooke Binkowski: Should it be an arbiter? Yeah. I mean, well, not an arbiter of what’s real news and what’s not real news, but an arbiter of what is hate speech, what is free speech, what is being spread just to upset people. It should be an arbiter of that, yes. That’s moderation. That’s what’s been going on in the internet since the internet started. I mean, I was there is the early days. I was a moderator in IRC. I remember, you could just kick ban people for being an asshole.
Miles O’Brien: Is Facebook evil?
Brooke Binkowski: No. Sometimes misguided, very techy but not evil. But ask me again in five years.
Miles O’Brien: You’re going to get money from them, right? Technically, so I mean —
Brooke Binkowski: Yeah, that’s true. We do.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah. In full disclosure.
Miles O’Brien: So, all right, tell me as you go through, how do you categorize what sort of misinformation to go after? Do you have a hierarchy of priority or do you just say if you see something that’s bad you just get involved?
Brooke Binkowski: We have priorities. A typical day, we generally categorize things by level of how many requests we got overnight through the website. So, we have someone who sorts through all the emails —
I want to give her a medal pretty much every day because we get a lot of garbage emails and so we’ll file them and sometimes people tell us we’re doing a good job, which I love. Most of the time people are telling us that we suck and we’re terrible and they’re going to come blow our brains out. We get those. We sent them to the FBI because — and then we get various requests. So, Liz will say for example, “We got 51 emails about this toy recall overnight.” So, we should probably prioritize that because people clearly want to know about it. And then there is this story about Muslims taking over a town and making the whole town a no-go zone. We should probably prioritize that. So, we have a number of people working on different things. It’s a newsroom.
Miles O’Brien: So, you’re not trying to build an algorithm.
Brooke Binkowski: No.
Miles O’Brien: This is human beings looking at stories going, “You know, that one’s a bad one. We got to deal with it.”
Brooke Binkowski: And I understand that algorithms can be useful for some things but when it comes to something like journalism, you can’t.
Miles O’Brien: All right. What’s going to happen as we march toward the midterm elections? Do you see the trend reversing in any way or is it going to get worse?
Brooke Binkowski: Without any meaningful intervention it will continue either to stay the same, overwhelming rate of fake news. The fire hose effect or it’s going to get worse because these are still exploitable and again, these cracks in our society are still exploitable. We’re not going to heal those any time soon. So, what we’re going to have to do in a perfect world is moderate fake news, hire more journalists which seeing all these layoffs happen after the first of the year, like LA Weekly getting bought out and the LA Times getting bought at the 11th hour and I mean this is just local but all these strange things that are happening in the larger journalistic outfits or the better known ones, that’s not helping.
Stop sympathizing with the Nazis. Stop laying journalists off and put some money into newsrooms for a change, otherwise everything is going to continue getting worse. Facebook and Twitter absolutely have to continue along the path if they’re going with moderation.
They can’t rely on algorithms. There has to be a human behind it. We have to have these measures in place. There have to be ways to verify whether news is real or not otherwise people are just going to stop paying attention completely and that’s when they’re extremely vulnerable to disinformation. So, there needs to be a lot of things that will happen before this is slowed or stopped but without any intervention, it’s just going to keep getting worse. And consider Ukraine as part of this cautionary tale of disinformation of fake news. Russia attacked Ukraine for 10 years with disinformation and fake news before it went in to annex Crimea. The reason it was able to with such relative ease was because there is already so much in-fighting and so much polarization within Ukraine that it left them essentially vulnerable and that’s what we need to guard against as a country. And now, the disinformation is taking a violent turn. It’s getting really ugly. There are calls to overthrow the American people because they’re all socialists and libtards.
And there’s a shadow government, Hillary Clinton, Obama or whatever and they’re encouraging young and impressionable people with a mix of disinformation and fake news and leading statements and means and saying they’re doing it just for fun. They’re taking these people, this dangerous age and they’re essentially radicalizing them.
And if that doesn’t stop, we’re going to be in a much worse situation soon. It’s going to get really violent. There are already calls for civil war and I don’t think it’s going to come to that but I don’t want to live in that country in which there is a mass shooting every single day. I don’t want to live in a country in which a 17-year-old decides to go shoot up the NSA building. I want to live in a country in which I feel safe and which I can go the movies. And without intervention now, we will not have that.
Miles O’Brien: Divided we fall.
Brooke Binkowski: Exactly.
Miles O’Brien: Thank you very much, Brooke Binkowski, Managing Editor of Snopes.com. I hate to leave you all on such a down note. That’s what happens when you take an honest look at the facts, I suppose. Maybe we can’t handle the truth and that’s why so many of us seem intent on creating our own version of it.
I do hope you’ll tune in on the PBS NewsHour when we start airing our series on junk news. And if you’re wondering how and when and where to watch, the best thing to do is go to milesobrien.com and sign up for our weekly newsletter. No spam, just a weekly newsletter, some information on the world of science, and a little bit of info on what we do on television.
Now, I’m kinda new to this podcasting thing so I sure would appreciate your feedback–if you don’t mind, take a few moments to share your thoughts and rate us. We can handle the truth, by the way.
I’m Miles O’Brien. Thanks for listening to Miles To Go.