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Of all the email I get, I don't know why this one bugged me so much.

Here is an email accusing Snopes.com of deliberately "lying" and "covering up" for the Obama administration. From the look of it, this claim has been around quite a while and seems to have grown out of the "birther" movement of people who seem to think Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

Skepticism 101 tells me that since this is an anonymous email which does not cite even one specific incident to back the claim, it is likely that it is completely unsubstantiated.

However, it demonstrates the kind of argument skeptics are faced with all the time, and this type of email is the kind that tends to eventually wind up in every inbox on the planet. Despite its completely unsubstantiated claims, obvious political agenda, and numerous logical fallacies, people can easily end up persuaded by things like this.

A web search led me to more than a few sites with similar claims.

Anyway, here it is....

I have recently discovered that Snopes.com is owned by a flaming liberal and this man is in the tank for Obama. There are many things they have listed on their site as a hoax and yet you can go to Youtube yourself and find the video of Obama or others actually saying these things. So it's up to you, but what is the value of "truth or fiction" checks if the source is faulty? I simply can't trust Snopes.com....ever for anything that remotely resembles truth! I don't even trust them to tell me if email chains are hoaxes anymore.

A few conservative speakers on Myspace told me about snopes.com a few months ago and I took it upon myself to do a little research to find out if it was true. Well, I found out for myself that it is true. This website is backing Obama and is covering up for him. They will say anything that makes him look bad is a hoax and they also tell lies on the other side about McCain and Palin.

Anyway just FYI please don't use Snopes.com anymore for fact checking and make your friends aware of their political leanings as well. Many people still think Snopes.com is neutral and they can be trusted as factual. We need to make sure everyone is aware that that is a hoax in itself.

I have found a copy of something very similar to this letter, but with a signature here

I am admittedly a regular user of Snopes and a strong supporter of the site, but feel I should still ask this question if only to avoid being an A Priori skeptic and dismissing this claim out of hand, without at least considering it.

In short, I think it would be more effective to disprove this claim than dismiss it.

So I have to ask:

  • Is there any validity to this claim that Snopes is biased and inaccurate?

  • What are the facts about the reliability of Snopes, its objectivity and its ability to self-correct?

  • What is the best evidence skeptics can use to defend a commonly cited reference like Snopes against claims like this?

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15  
Remember, anyone who says there isn't a conspiracy, is in on the conspiracy. (That more or less answers your last question. You can't defend sanity against crazyness.) –  Lennart Regebro Apr 19 '11 at 9:49
21  
I did some research and found out that Skeptics SE is backing Snopes and is covering up for them. They will say anything that makes them look bad is a hoax and they also tell lies on the other side. –  billynomates Apr 19 '11 at 11:59
5  
While snopes has a decidedly leftwing bias, they had that well before Obama took office and I've not noticed a big change in their style or tone since. I do find them sometimes questionable (which just shows you should never rely on a single source of information), but always a good laugh and at least a starting point for research. –  jwenting Apr 19 '11 at 13:06
20  
See xkcd for illustration. –  Jonas Apr 19 '11 at 13:17
2  
"Is Snopes.com statist?" would be a better question, and the answer would be "definitely yes." –  Michael Apr 20 '11 at 7:26

4 Answers 4

up vote 41 down vote accepted

FactCheck.org looked into a similar chain mail in 2009:

This widely circulated e-mail contains a number of false claims about the urban legend-busting Snopes.com and its proprietors, Barbara and David Mikkelson, who started the site in 1995 and still run it. They're accused of hiding their identities, doing shoddy research, producing articles with a liberal bent and discrediting an anti-Obama State Farm agent out of partisanship.

[...]

We asked David. He told us that Barbara is a Canadian citizen, and as such isn't allowed to vote here or contribute money to U.S. candidates. As for him, "My sole involvement in politics is on Election Day to go out and vote. I've never joined a party, worked for a campaign or donated money to a candidate."

We checked online to see if he had given money to any federal candidates, and nothing turned up. Mikkelson even faxed us a copy of his voter registration form. He asked us not to post an image of it here, but we can confirm that it shows he declined to state a party affiliation when he registered last year, and also that when he registered in 2000 he did so as a Republican.

Do the Snopes.com articles reveal a political bias? We reviewed a sampling of their political offerings, including some on rumors about George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, and we found them to be utterly poker-faced. David does say that the site receives more complaints that it is too liberal than that it is too conservative.

[...]

The e-mail's last paragraph advises that everyone who goes to Snopes.com for "the bottom line facts" should "proceed with caution." We think that's terrific advice, not just in connection with material on Snopes but for practically anything a reader finds online — including articles on FactCheck.org. The very reason we list our sources (as does Snopes.com) and provide links is so that readers can check things out for themselves.

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46  
“the site receives more complaints that it is too liberal than that it is too conservative”: like Colbert says, reality has a well-known liberal bias –  F'x Apr 19 '11 at 12:26
9  
@Fx leftists always accuse everyone who's not as leftist as they are of being rightwing extremists, it's almost a law of nature. Mao would probably have accused Lenin of being a rightwing extremist had he been asked. –  jwenting Apr 19 '11 at 13:07
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@jwenting you do know that Colbert is a comedian, don't you? –  DJClayworth Apr 19 '11 at 13:43
7  
Obviously factcheck.org is in on the conspiracy too. –  CanSpice Apr 19 '11 at 20:33
7  
@Andrew - "left-leaning" Soros? That's sort of like stating that Stalin had "some authoritarian tendencies". –  DVK Apr 21 '11 at 16:02

The fact that everything on Snopes is backed-up by external references coupled with the fact that this email says some guy did some research and decided that Snopes is a conspiracy without any links to any specific examples or articles or research to verify its claim at all kind of suggests to me that it's false.

From the Snopes FAQ:

Q: How do I know the information you've presented is accurate?

A: We don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we've used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.

That said, all of Snopes' material is written by two people, Barbara and David Mikkelson, so I would expect the site to contain some mistakes.

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1  
You can't really post that Snopes is reliable because it says so itself here. Provide better evidence! –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Apr 19 '11 at 14:33
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I really only posted that quote to highlight the now emboldened part. The main crux of my argument was "they provide sources, the guy in that email didn't". –  billynomates Apr 19 '11 at 14:39
17  
It's not that Snopes says: "We are reliable. Period". They say: "If you don't believe what we say, you are free to follow the sources". –  Lagerbaer Apr 19 '11 at 14:49
20  
@sklivvz: it also sounds a lot like skeptics.stackexchange.com –  horatio Apr 19 '11 at 15:56
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Whether a site shows sources is objectively verifiable. Whether the sources say what the site says they do is more or less verifiable (I do a random sampling when I'm concerned). The validity of the sources is a more difficult question, but some sources are pretty credible, and snopes.com generally goes to the obvious good ones. –  David Thornley Apr 20 '11 at 1:04

Let's enumerate the claims:

I have recently discovered that Snopes.com is owned by a flaming liberal and this man is in the tank for Obama.

1) The owner of Snopes.com has a strong left-wing bias.

There are many things they have listed on their site as a hoax and yet you can go to Youtube yourself and find the video of Obama or others actually saying these things.

2) Snopes makes claims that can be readily disproved via primary sources.

So it's up to you, but what is the value of "truth or fiction" checks if the source is faulty? I simply can't trust Snopes.com....ever for anything that remotely resembles truth! I don't even trust them to tell me if email chains are hoaxes anymore.

Not a claim; simply an expression of personal preference.

A few conservative speakers on Myspace told me about snopes.com a few months ago and I took it upon myself to do a little research to find out if it was true. Well, I found out for myself that it is true.

Not a claim.

This website is backing Obama and is covering up for him. They will say anything that makes him look bad is a hoax and they also tell lies on the other side about McCain and Palin.

3) Snopes.com has a political bias in favour of Obama and againt McCain and Palin

Anyway just FYI please don't use Snopes.com anymore for fact checking and make your friends aware of their political leanings as well. Many people still think Snopes.com is neutral and they can be trusted as factual.

Not a claim.

We need to make sure everyone is aware that that is a hoax in itself.

4) Snopes.com is a hoax

So, that's four claims to address. It's worth noting that none of these claims include any kind of substantiation, but let's move past that.

Claim 1 is that Barbara and David Mikkelson have a strong left-wing bias. The FactCheck.org piece cited by Oliver_C in another answer goes a long way to address this. In addition, Snopes.com has been cited as a reference by a number of news outlets from both the left and the right wings. While not definitive, this is anecdotal evidence that a political bias is not present.

Claim 2 is that Snopes is making claims that can be readily refuted by primary sources (I would consider a video of a politician's speech a primary source, with the caveat that they could, of course, be doctored). There is no logical reason to accept this claim at face value. It would be just as invalid to claim the obvious (that there are no claims that can be readily refuted by primary sources).
It's the very fact that these claims could be refuted that makes them acceptable. Snopes.com provides citations to back up their claims which means that any proof that negates these citations could refute the claim on Snopes. There is plenty of evidence on Snopes.com of articles being updated in the light of new evidence.

Claim 3 is that Snopes.com has a political bias in favour of Obama and against McCain and Palin. Of course, this claim is somewhat irrelevant in 2011, but it is really a subset of Claim 1, which has been addressed.

Claim 4 is that Snopes.com is a hoax. This site was launched in 1995 out of the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup, a group populated by any number of skeptics. In the absence of any substantiation, Occam's razor suggests that a 16 year old site that is exposed to (and born from) a large group of skeptics is unlikely to be a hoax.

While some of these refutations are a little weak, the claims are weak and unsubstantiated. I would submit that the refutations bear greater strength and, as such, this email is demonstrated to be useless.

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General claims need to be backed up by specific instances. The only specific instance cited (actually contained within a link) was http://www.usacarry.com/forums/off-topic/12469-snopes-exposed.html where

A few months ago, when my State Farm agent Bud Gregg in Mandeville hoisted a political sign referencing Barack Obama and made a big splash across the Internet, 'supposedly' the Mikkelson's claim to have researched this issue before posting their findings on snopes.com. In their statement they claimed the corporate office of State Farm pressured Gregg into taking down the sign, when in fact nothing of the sort 'ever' took place. I personally contacted David Mikkelson (and he replied back to me) thinking he would want to get to the bottom of this and I gave him Bud Gregg's contact phone numbers - and Bud was going to give him phone numbers to the big exec's at State Farm in Illinois who would have been willing to speak with him about it. He never called Bud. In fact, I learned from Bud Gregg that no one from snopes.com ever contacted anyone with State Farm.

in reference to this article: http://www.snopes.com/photos/politics/chicken.asp

To sum up, snopes wrote an article about a state farm agent in Mandeville, Louisiana posting a sign that on one side said "A Taxpayer voting for Barack Obama is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders" and on the other side said "SAY WHAT??? `My friends, we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. I hope you'll join me as we try to change it.' -Barack Obama". Snopes traced the "chicken voting for colonel sanders" simile to several previous political uses dating back to 1978 with cited sources, and traced the debunked Obama quote to a joke posted to a National Review Online blog. The snopes article mentions in passing that they contacted "A State Farm representative [who] said that Bud Gregg's office sign bore these messages until July 3, 2008 and that the company had requested the sign be removed as soon as they became aware of it because the sign was inconsistent with State Farm's policy of not endorsing candidates or taking sides in political campaigns."

Now the writer (who lists his address in "Studio City, CA. 91604-5039") mentioned that Bud Gregg was his personal insurance agent (sort of strange having an agent in Louisiana when he lists his address in California). His only concrete argument against the page, was that his friend Bud Gregg told him that he was never contacted by State Farm or Snopes, and that nobody from Snopes ever talked to any representative at State Farm. Factcheck.org looked into it and got a nearly identical response from state farm about the matter with the same details mentioned in the snopes article. Factcheck further goes on to see no evidence of liberal/conservative bias from the sampling of articles reviewed at snopes, saying they maintain a "poker face".

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