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 simple email, supposedly from Gates, regarding an “e-mail tracing program.” “I am experimenting with this and I need your help,” the email read. “Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 1,000 people everyone on the list will receive $1,000 at my expense.” This email and its subsequent variations were forwarded endlessly, often with the caveat “This is probably fake, but what do I have to lose?”
Around the same time, I was also getting forwards warning of HIV-tipped needles appearing everywhere. They were in Halloween candy, of course. (“Fun-sized” needles, one assumes.) But they appeared in less likely places as well, like in gas pump handles, so that when you went to fill up — boom, your finger was pricked with the kiss of death. I remember well a friend in grad school literally in tears as she explained how a child playing in a ball pit at a McDonald’s had stepped on an HIV-tipped needle someone had purposely buried there. (The child, apparently, died instantaneously.) The urban legend was persuasive enough that it found its way into Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Hannibal, where a racist caricature of a Black welfare queen is said to have a needle of her own HIV-positive blood hidden in her hair.
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These viral stories were among the earliest reasons I can remember visiting Snopes. The website takes its name from William Faulkner’s Snopes clan, a diffuse and ever-spreading family intent on blotting out the Old South with crass mercantilism and joyless capitalism — a literary nod to the capacity of how lies spread on the internet, amorally and unrestricted. The Mikkelsons’ site offered not just a patient thoroughness in its debunking of urban legends and other falsehoods, but also a winking sense of humor. Reading Snopes’ early archives offers a nostalgic trip to our earlier ignorance, a simpler time when people thought that Axl Rose had just died — or was it Steven Seagal, or Britney Spears? It debunked the original Bill Gates email chain story, along with the HIV needle story multiple times.
Urban legends themselves are nothing new, of course. Long before the internet, there was The Hook: two teenagers on lover’s lane disturbed by a scratching on their car door, later revealed to be the hook-hand of an escaped serial killer. Or there were the spiders nesting in the woman’s bouffant hairdo that gradually ate into her brain, the alligators in the sewers, the Kentucky Fried Rat, and the babysitter who realized too late that the call was coming from inside the house.
Urban legends warn us that the world is a dangerous, terrifying place. Almost always, their subjects — the babysitter, the teenage lovers — are themselves naive and vulnerable, usually young and female, and the lesson of these stories is that these women’s lives are perpetually at risk. Like 1980s slasher films, urban legends titillate even as they push reactionary morals: It’s the women who veer out of their lane who end up in a ditch by the side of the road. These stories are about negotiating a new landscape, be it the open road or college, about what happens out there.
But once these urban legends moved to the internet, they became singularly vulnerable to debunking, and Snopes proved that sunlight was indeed a magnificent disinfectant. The power of an urban legend depends in part on its vagueness, but also its specificity. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvald, whose 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker was one of the first sustained examinations of urban legends, notes that a folk legend “acquires a good deal of its credibility and effect from the localized details inserted by individual tellers” — highway names, local landmarks, etc.
It’s this essential ingredient of urban legends that makes them susceptible to fact-checkers. Friend-of-a-friend stories lose their believability once you can Google the friend of a friend’s actual name, and they lose much of their power once you can trace how they’ve mutated and spread, placing each story alongside all of its various variants. Snopes was able to build its reputation and its following on this pretense — that diligent research could discredit even the most virulent of stories.
Reading Snopes in the era of urban legends reassured us that the world wasn’t as scary as we thought, but it did more than that. Urban legends also have the capacity to generate shame. Believing them is seductive, but as soon as one is debunked, you might feel dumb and sheepish for thinking you could ever believe it in the first place. Snopes allowed us to feel superior to those who’d been duped while covering up our own gullibility. It was the lights in the theater coming on after the horror movie—reassuring, but in a way where no one ever had to know how scared you were in the dark.
Learning not to fall for urban legends was a kind of rite of passage in the early internet. Not only was discovering the truth pleasurable, it created a community of truth-seekers. Readers of Snopes were the smart, savvy consumers of the internet, equipped to navigate it without falling for nonsense.
The world has changed a great deal since then. Bill Gates is no longer offering free money; now he’s manufacturing Covid-19 so he can inject secret microchips in you via phony vaccines. My grad school friend crying over dead kids had become an Islamophobic birther by the time I blocked her ass on Facebook. Eventually, I quit Facebook altogether once it became an unusable morass of lies and fear.
These days, most of the Top 50 stories on Snopes (as of this writing) are explicitly political: rumors, lies, and fabricated screenshots concerning Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, and Nancy Pelosi. Others are attempts to unravel the still-unfolding story of what happened on January 6, when a conspiracy theory–addled mob launched a treasonous assault on the Capitol. The site still does the work of debunking, but surfing it now is an exercise in exhaustion and dismay.
Learning not to fall for urban legends was a rite of passage in the early internet
The slow evolution of Snopes’ focus began with the September 11 attacks, as the Mikkelsons found themselves increasingly responding to conspiratorial (and often anti-Semitic) rumors about who brought down the towers. By the time Barack Obama was elected, the partisan nature of such rumors was increasingly evident: Despite attempts to maintain neutrality (David Mikkelson told Wired’s Michelle Dean that he was “essentially apolitical”), Fox News and other right-wing sources targeted Snopes as a stalking-horse for liberal bias. And as conspiracy theories surrounding Snopes continued to swirl, the site itself slowly moved from deep-fried rodents to the Deep State.
Political misinformation and conspiracy theories share many traits with the urban legends of yore: They are ostensibly about the horrors of what happens out there—what goes on in the enclaves of coastal elites and in the secret backrooms of Washington, D.C. Conspiracy theories thrive on the fear of the unknown, where the reader has no experience: a place of fear and banjo-picking and pedophile pizza restaurants.
These tales remind their listeners that the world is indeed dangerous — Democrats with their socialism, Muslims with their sharia law, Mexicans with their job-taking-what-have-you — but no longer is the message to stay at home with your family and be safe. Instead, they stoke anger, weaponize partisanship, and foster tribalism. These stories are about team-building as much as anything else. And their goal is increasingly to convince you to take to the streets and take back what’s (presumed to be) yours.
Furthermore, the old tactic of sunlight as disinfectant fails to work on these stories. Because they reinforce one’s preexisting political beliefs, they’re resistant — if not immune — to fact-checking. As researchers have demonstrated for decades, once we’ve made up our minds about something, we rarely change it, even (in the words of psychologists Craig A. Anderson, Mark R. Lepper, and Lee Ross) “after the initial evidential basis for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.”
In The Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber point out that argumentative reasoning works not by looking for evidence of one’s preexisting beliefs, but that one looks for evidence that opposing beliefs are wrong: “Reasoning does not blindly confirm any belief it bears on. Instead, reasoning systematically works to find reasons for our ideas and against ideas we oppose. It always takes our side.”
The old tactic of sunlight as disinfectant fails to work on these stories. Because they reinforce preexisting political beliefs, they’re resistant to fact-checking.
Conspiracy theories also invert those feelings of gullibility when one has fallen for an urban legend. With conspiracy theories, it’s the sheeple willing to take the word of public health experts and politicians who are the naive ones. Given their perpetual ironic distance from accepted fact, conspiracy theorists resist being shamed no matter how much debunking you subject them to.
As such, Snopes’ long-held formula of wry, patient debunking has increasingly fallen on deaf ears. And as authority, expertise, and facts themselves have all been called into question, the whole mechanism of debunking has lost its power. Responding to your racist cousin’s Facebook post with a Snopes.com link may be satisfying, but it’s unlikely to accomplish anything. If the act of fact-checking once helped foster a community of savvy email consumers who bonded via their superior understanding of urban legends, conspiracy theorists have instead built their own affinity groups — and those social bonds are much harder to disrupt via simple fact-checking.
Snopes was built around the idea that debunking myths could be both fun and empowering, without understanding what bad-faith actors have long known: that embracing conspiracy theories can also perversely offer those same rewards. Snopes is no longer here to reassure us and remind us the world is safe; it’s part of a chorus of voices desperately pushing back against a dangerous tide of violence far more real than hook-handed serial killers. Such work is as dreary as it is Sisyphean.
What we need is not just facts and debunking, but a new kind of truth: a truth that kindles joy and communion, a truth that allows us to recognize our follies and laugh at them and learn from them. Where facts are no longer just a joyless pushback against disinformation, but a means of venturing forward into a less terrifying world.
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