Snopes Debunked the World. Then the World Changed.

For decades, the website’s harsh light of truth rooted out urban legends and conspiracy theories. Does it still work?

Colin Dickey
GEN
Published in
9 min readFeb 11, 2021

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Over the past 25 years, the internet has gone from a place of possibility and promise to a dreary slog. Nowhere is this more evident than in the evolution of Snopes.com, a website that once brought a great deal of joy to the internet explorer. Since its founding in 1995 by husband and wife David and Barbara Mikkelson, Snopes’ mission of “debunking” has changed in ways both subtle and inexorable, from targeting urban legends like Bigfoot to unpacking QAnon conspiracy theories. The distinction may seem slight — both are false stories whose appeal lies in their capacity to spread and multiply — but a wide gulf separates their respective impacts. Understanding why the tools that work on urban legends fail to work on conspiracy theories is one way of understanding how our relationship to facts has changed, and it may offer some insight on how to rebuild a world of consensus instead of fear.

Snopes came on the scene at a time when a large portion of the internet consisted of email forwards. One I remember clearly from that era was Bill Gates’ “Beta Test,” an email chain letter that circulated endlessly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a…

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Colin Dickey
GEN
Writer for

Failed histories, histories of failure. Author of four books: The Unidentified, Ghostland, Afterlives of the Saints, and Cranioklepty.