Web Masters Episode #25: David Mikkelson

Tired of Fake News? On Web Masters, we hear from David Mikkelson, the man who’s been fighting it online since the 1980s!


Snopes.com | The definitive fact-checking site and reference source for  urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.

David Mikkelson:

I wish I could take credit for 25 years ago, I had the foresight to recognize, “This whole fake news thing, it’s going to be a problem someday. We better start working on it now.” But no. I will say, my memory of back then, like the 1990s, when the internet was picking up steam, was that it was being touted as, “This will be great because it will cut out a lot of the middleman, a lot of the gatekeepers that people have to deal with.”

If you want to buy airline tickets, you don’t have to go through a travel agent. If you want to buy and sell stocks, you don’t have to go through a broker. Or if you’re a musician, you don’t have to sign some onerous contract with a record label. You can just sell your music directly to your fans online. I don’t remember really any talk about… Some areas, those gatekeepers were really a good thing, like journalism, having people out there who knew what was newsworthy and what wasn’t, and knew how to investigate it and report a story.

That was a good thing, rather than just leveling the playing field where anybody can start a website and call himself an investigative journalist with no background at all, really. Now we’re dealing with the likes of Gateway Pundit and stuff that everyone is now trying to stop from appearing on the internet as just another form of fake news. But that’s where it led us. That’s why we’re in the dilemma we are now in the fake news ecosystem.

Aaron Dinin:

To a lot of people, that fake news ecosystem being propagated by the internet and the web is responsible for ruining the world. Well, that may or may not be true, to the person you just heard from, fake news is also great for business. That’s not to say he’s happy about it, but it certainly keeps the lights on. He’s David Mikkelson, founder of snopes.com. You’ve probably heard of it, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll let David explain what it is.

David Mikkelson:

It’s a fact-checking site. It’s a place where people go to check out all the stuff they come across on the internet, that their friends send them or post on Facebook and they want to know if it’s true or not.

Aaron Dinin:

Snopes isn’t just any fact-checking website. It’s the original fact-checking website, and really it was started before the web even existed. As you heard, when David started it, he had no idea how unreliable information on the web would become and how important fact checking would be. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Web Masters, the podcast that explores internet history and the evolution of internet businesses by talking with some of the digital ages most impactful early innovators and entrepreneurs. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University and that’s where I also studied the history of entrepreneurship, specifically web entrepreneurship, which brings us to today’s guest who’s a web entrepreneur, whose business is, well, doing lots of research too, but a different kind of research than me. He researches the truthfulness of what people are talking about online and publishes his findings on snopes.com.

Since its launch in the mid ’90s, it’s become one of the most trusted fact-checking resources on the planet that helps millions of people separate fact from fiction. But do you know the true story of how it got started? Well, you’re about to find out right after I thank our sponsor.

Web Masters exist thanks in part to the generous support of our partner and sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like Shopify stores, Amazon FBAs, content websites, SaaS apps, and just about any other type of online work from anywhere business. If you’re interested in running an internet business, rather than starting one from scratch, be sure to check out the Latona’s website where you’ll see listings for tons of businesses you can buy and start running right now.

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As you probably already know, fake news has become a prominent phenomenon in recent years, thanks to the propagation of misleading, or in some cases, flat out wrong information, being shared across social media and other digital platforms. But if we’re going to talk about fake news, we should start by pointing out that it’s definitely not a new thing. In fact, there’s evidence of what we might call fake news or propaganda dating back as early as the 13th century BC. That’s back in ancient Egypt when the pharaohs were trying to alter public perceptions surrounding their clashes with the Hittites for control of the Eastern Mediterranean.

So yeah, fake news is definitely nothing new. But of course the pharaohs didn’t have Twitter to help them spread their fake news, and that’s a big part of what makes current fake news so problematic. The speeds at which fake news can propagate and the massive audiences it can reach are, well, terrifying. The seeds for all of that were planted back in the earliest days of the internet. In fact, David Mikkelson started combating online misinformation before the worldwide web even existed.

David Mikkelson:

I got interested in computers themselves early 1980s, the [inaudible 00:05:57] Atari computer. And so, that started a path. I went to college, I got a degree in computer science. I worked at JPL. I worked for a very large computer company, like number two to IBM at the time, digital equipment corporation, which is how I got exposed to the internet really before most people had even heard of the internet. Some digital hardware and software were large components of what ran the internet at the time. And we as a company were connected to it.

The evolutionary path is, yeah, I worked as an IT guy. We were on the internet. I got involved at some of the old Usenet newsgroups. Specifically, I think the first couple I stumbled on were one was about urban legends and one was about Disney. And this is combine those two eventually and just set up a little website when… I’ll say when the web first came along, but that’s not true. There was a worldwide web, but it was text only. So not too interesting for a lot of people.

But once the first graphical browsers came out, I just started writing up a little collection of Disney-related legends on the web, is Walt Disney, frozen, is there a basketball court in the Matterhorn at Disneyland and that sort of thing. It branched out from there. I went through as many Disney legends as I could think of. Then I expanded into three or four other topics. Then my then wife started contributing material. There was no real intent there of creating a business or making any money since as an early adopter of the internet, it quickly became the place where people just started sending anything they came across on the internet. So it was questionable.

Aaron Dinin:

What attracted you to Disney and urban legends on Usenet?

David Mikkelson:

I wish I could tell you. At Digital, we had a system called Nodes, which was very similar to Usenet newsgroups, but it was just for internal company use primarily. When I stumbled across Usenet newsgroups, it’s like, “Wow, here’s the same thing,” but it has a much larger audience because it’s the whole world. Disney was an interest of mine. I honestly can’t tell you how I knew what the term urban legends meant, or if I’d ever read any books about it or what drew me to that. It was just one of the first two I happened upon, and for whatever reason, lost in the midst of time. We’re talking like the late 1980s now.

Aaron Dinin:

I love this part of David’s story. It’s a great reminder that entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be some intentional thing. By that I mean you don’t have to sit down and say, “Okay, today I want to be an entrepreneur. Now, what kind of company should I build? In fact, many of history’s most successful entrepreneurs weren’t trying to build businesses. Instead, they were pursuing personal interests or passions, and that turns out to be the case for David too. Snopes was a hobby project that over the course of decades eventually became something much bigger.

David Mikkelson:

As a child. I was always fascinated by collecting things in series and organizing them, and also just spending a lot of time reading about anything. It was an effort to see if I can organize facts maybe, like have a much smaller version of Wikipedia or something. I can collect these urban legends and I can collect these facts about whether they’re true or not, and just organize them and present them. Initially, it was just a hobby endeavor. It was an outlet for non IT stuff, doing research, doing some creative writing.

Aaron Dinin:

How were you doing your research in the early days? Because of course you wouldn’t have been able to use the web to do your research back then, right?

David Mikkelson:

Well, in the Usenet newsgroup alt folklore urban, it was primarily people just repeating over legends or discussing their plausibility. But I was the one who started actually poking into, “Could we find out if some of these are true or not?” like ones that involve certain celebrities. I went out and got… It was a big, hard-bound book of celebrity addresses and I would send letters to celebrities, usually enclosing a small check for them to donate to charity, just so they wouldn’t think I was some crank fan asking about this odd stuff, sending letters to Johnny Carson and Josh Agabor and people like that, spending weekends at the research library at UCLA, just going through microfilm and old magazines to try and track things down, rather than just discuss them, see if we could actually find where they began.

Aaron Dinin:

That was on Usenet, which was like a distributed discussion list, meaning you were basically just having conversations about these urban legends with other people. The web would have been a very different dynamic. Why did you move from the conversation space of Usenet to the more informational space of the web?

David Mikkelson:

Usenet newsgroups are kind of a femoral. You post stuff that goes away eventually, depending on how long the local administrator wants to keep it around. When the web came along, I thought, “Okay, I can keep this stuff permanently instead of watching it disappear after a few weeks. So that’s how I ended up putting it onto the web.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. You launched snopes.com as the more permanent version of what you were doing on Usenet. How did people find it?

David Mikkelson:

Initially, I wasn’t using that name. Initially we were called the Urban Legends Reference Pages, which is clunky and shows a lack of imagination. But that’s what I was doing. It was a while before actually got the snopes.com domain registered and started hosting the site under that domain. A while before we switched away from calling it the Urban Legends Reference Pages to just letting it be known by its domain, snopes.com, but the popularity was all just word of mouth or word of net or whatever you want to call it.

I mean, we didn’t advertise. Still, to this day, we haven’t ever actually advertised in the traditional sense. It was just built on being maybe a big fish in a little pond at the beginning. Yeah, those of us who were around the internet back in those early days, you feel like you knew everybody else in the room, right? It’s like we know everybody else on the internet. When somebody put up a wacky website that garnered some attention, it’s like everybody on the internet knew them. They weren’t competing with 40 million other websites all over the globe.

Aaron Dinin:

Out of curiosity, where did the name Snopes come from and what does it mean?

David Mikkelson:

A lot of times people ask, why do you call it that? The actual explanation is really dull. It’s just, when I first started posting on the internet back in the Usenet days, there’s billions of Davids. It was a pretty common boy’s name when I was born. Who’s going to remember another one? It’s like, I need a nom de net, something that’s distinctive. The name comes from the works of William Faulkner. It was a family of characters who appeared throughout his works and it’s just, “Okay, that’s distinctive.” I just started adopting that as my pseudonym.

It turned out to be quite serendipitous because then when this website became popular in a business, it’s like, “Well, we have a name that’s short. It’s distinctive. It distinguishes us from everyone else in this fear, like we’re not fact something or check something. We don’t have any of those words. And ended up being like Google or Amazon. It’s a word that has no relationship whatsoever to the underlying service, but it stands out precisely because it doesn’t.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, I was an English major, so I can get behind any name that comes from a Faulkner novel. So yeah, I’m a fan of the name Snopes. Tell me, the site was growing. It had an interesting name. It was providing real value to people. At what point did you realize this hobby of yours could actually be a viable business?

David Mikkelson:

That’s like a lot of difficulty in a lot of origin stories, where it’s really just a long evolutionary process. You can’t ever identify a single point in time where the thing we know now sprang into being. But initially had to pay out of pocket to run the site, where I had to pay for web hosting, had to pay for internet access, which was dial-up at the time. So it was really an expense rather than a moneymaker. After some amount of time, I can’t remember, but a few years or so, discovered that, oh, there’s advertising on the internet. You can sign up and display ads on your site and make money.

Actually, I tried it out a little bit and really forgot about it until I remember one day I went to pick up the mail and I got a check for, I think it was $16. I was pondering this check. I didn’t recognize where it came from, and it’s like, “Why did someone send me a check for $16? Who is this? And then I finally made the connection, “Oh, it’s about the internet advertising I put on the site weeks and weeks ago, and it finally accumulated enough for them to send me a check.”

I was just so thrilled really that I made money at something that was purely the product of my own creativity and working for myself, rather than someone else. That seems ridiculous, $16. Woo.

Aaron Dinin:

Hey, $16. That’s real money. I think it’s more than my first startup made or my first venture back startup too, which I think just lost a lot of investor money. But obviously, $16 wasn’t enough to pay any bills with. How long did it take to become more like a legitimate business?

David Mikkelson:

As the site grew in popularity, it got to the point where, okay, it made enough money to cover the expense of doing it. Then it got to the point where, “Oh, it’s a nice little supplement to income. Maybe it’ll cover a weekend away once a month or something,” that was a long upward curve, till finally around I think 2000, it got to the point where the site was making just about as much money as I’m making at my day job, supporting the two of us and running this site. Maybe I could actually do this for a living.

Then 2000 was when the internet bubble burst and everything plummeted to earth and lots of dreams of being internet entrepreneurs crashed. So that was back to, “Okay, it makes a little bit of extra money.” The next hump was the September 11 attacks because at the time, the traditional news media weren’t covering the internet itself as a phenomenon. Yeah, it was mostly a place for them to just replicate their print articles and nothing else. So we were just about the only ones out there who were dealing with this mass of conspiracy theories, misinformation, fake news stemming from the September 11 attacks and trying to organize these things and run them to ground.

That just hugely spiked traffic for two or three months, enabled us to buy our first house, nice things like that. But then again, after the initial spike, it dropped off.

Aaron Dinin:

Why do you think traffic was so feast or famine?

David Mikkelson:

A good analogy would be, say, the difference between a grocery store. You might go out to a grocery store to get some specific things that are on your list, but chances are you’re going to buy a lot of things that weren’t on your list just because you see them on the shelf, and it’s like, “Ooh, that looks good,” or, “I’m hungry,” or, “I have a craving for that right now.” But you probably don’t imagine people going to auto parts stores just to browse, like, “Oh, maybe there’s a carburetor that would be interesting today.” If they go into an auto parts store, it’s because they’re looking for something specific that they have a need for at this moment.

And so that’s the difference between traditional news and us. News is like a grocery store where, “Hey, who knows what’s happening today?” And we’re like the auto parts store where this is one thing that I need right now.

Aaron Dinin:

This is a great analogy. Some businesses are like grocery stores. They have a broad array of products with general appeal. People visit often and they’re willing to explore. These kinds of businesses are usually higher volume, lower per-customer value. Other businesses are like auto parts stores. They’re lower volume with higher per-customer value. People don’t go as often, but when they do go, they’re looking for a specific item. So they’re more likely to buy and pay more for it.

Neither business is better than the other, but they certainly have different operational characteristics that the entrepreneur running it needs to be aware of. For his part, David seems pretty keenly aware of the type of business he has. It’s not a news website people check every day and spend time browsing. Instead, it’s a site people go to with a very specific purpose, and that means David’s traffic is highly dependent on what’s going on in the world.

David Mikkelson:

It was chugging along till I think finally about a year after the September 11 attacks. I got laid off from my last real job, but fortunately I had worked there so long and had enough of a severance package that I got about a year salary. I thought, “Okay, I’ve got a year’s cushion to see if we could make a go of running this website as a living. It was touch and go at the beginning. It’s like, “Okay, I’m making money. We’re covering our mortgage payments.”

My recollection is that something happened one day, practically overnight. In retrospect, I would just have to assume it was maybe some Google change to their algorithm, but it’s like traffic went way up and just stayed up permanently. It started doing really well as a business. It peaked around the 2008 election with all of the Barack Obama is a Muslim, he wasn’t born in the United States. He’s really from Kenya, the birth certificates are fake. That was just monster traffic. After that, it petered off and I was running the site by myself for the number of years after that.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s crazy. I had no idea Snopes was basically a one-person shop for a long time and you were doing most of the research by yourself.

David Mikkelson:

Yeah, for up until 2014, I was the only employee of Snopes ever. My former wife was also contributing, but she wasn’t an employee of the company. It was up until 2014, 2015. I was the sole person who designed the site. I coded the site. I administered all the servers that it ran on. I managed the mailing list. I managed the newsletter. I coordinated all the advertising. I wrote about half the content for the site and my former wife wrote the other half of the content.

Around 2014, that was when our marriage ended, and for some time before then she had really stopped contributing anything to the site. So 2012, 2013, it was pretty much just entirely me. Around 2014, it was, “If I keep doing this all by myself, it’s eventually going to peter out.” It’s not the internet of the mid 1990s anymore. You can’t remain competitive. So it’s I either got to start taking on people or just let it die. It started with a couple of contract writers. Will say they weren’t employees, they were paid per article.

We just started ramping up having an operation side, as well as an editorial side and hiring more writers and editors and getting payroll going and HR going and putting all the annoying things that you have to have to run a business.

Aaron Dinin:

It is a bigger business now, right? What was the turning point where you eventually realized you had to hire other people?

David Mikkelson:

Heading up until the Donald Trump election cycle, it started taking on more people.

Aaron Dinin:

I suspect David’s answer doesn’t surprise anyone. President Donald Trump was without question the person most responsible for bringing the concept of fake news into the public zeitgeist. By doing that, he inspired millions of people across the political spectrum to question the narratives they were exposed to online, which of course sent lots of people to snopes.com. For David, that was certainly good for business, but it was also a big challenge because that kind of fact-checking wasn’t really what Snopes had been doing.

In its earliest days, Snopes was less about fact-checking current events and more of a resource to help people avoid things like internet scams and hoaxes.

David Mikkelson:

In the early days, there were a lot of computer virus warnings out there, and a lot of them were just hoaxes, just ridiculous things that were getting people scared. Well, now you have things like Symantec and McAfee and lots of security companies who are out there and have web presences. There were a lot of missing child alerts that were going around. And again, a lot of them were hoaxes. A lot of them were not really missing children. They were just custody disputes.

Well, now you have sites like the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children. You have AMBER alerts, you have things like that. In the early days, there weren’t central authorities or authoritative sites for those kinds of things. And that was in a sense what we were trying to do. Some of those have gone away now because we don’t have to deal with computer virus warnings and missing children.

Other things took over, like people discovered Photoshop. Now we’re in the business of, “Are these photos real?” And politics took over big time. Now it’s like, can you trust anything on the internet?

Aaron Dinin:

But that’s a huge problem, things like deep fakes, manipulated content. How do you deal with those kinds of things?

David Mikkelson:

People have been talking about that for a few years now, and still, primarily, what we’re seeing is not deep fakes where people are just creating a completely faked video. Still the bulk of what we’re dealing with is people just misidentifying the context of videos or claiming that they depict something that they don’t or selectively editing and cutting out bits.

If you see a picture that’s tagged as being Muslims protesting to establish Sharia law in Dearborn, Michigan, and you can see that all the shop signs and street signs in the background are in French, it’s probably not Dearborn, Michigan. That doesn’t mean the photo’s fake, but it means that what people are telling you about the photo is not true. And you have to recognize that context is an important distinction in things. We’re not saying the photo’s fake, and if that’s the interpretation you’re taking away from it, that you’re wrong, not us.

Aaron Dinin:

How do you choose what content to focus on? For example, how do you find out about that alleged photo of Muslims protesting to establish Sharia law in Dearborn, Michigan?

David Mikkelson:

It’s another thing that’s changed a great deal back in the early days where it’s like, “What do we write about? How do we know what to write about?” Well, we just look what people were sending us an email, or maybe look at what terms they were entering into our search engine. That gave us a pretty good idea of what people were looking at. But now there’s just so many different inputs and so many metrics that go into this.

It’s not just email and what people are searching on our site. It’s what people are posting on Facebook, what people are posting on Twitter, what’s trending in Google searches. What are people posting to our Facebook page, and what are people sending us through Facebook Messenger and Twitter direct messages? And all those other tools out there that measure what’s popular on the internet, trying to synthesize all those things and attach metrics to them to come up with, what are we writing about today?

Because that’s always been our standard, to try and go after what most people are questioning or asking about at any given time. We don’t make any value judgments about, “This is too silly, or frivolous, or unimportant for us to deal with.” Rather than these other important issues, we think if people are asking about it, there’s a reason. It sometimes gives you a distressing insight unto the human interest when you see millions of people are asking about this really dumb, fabricated story about a woman gives birth to litter of kittens in elevator or something.

And maybe what’s happening out in the real world is there was a chemical attack against civilians in Syria and people are questioning, did it really happen and who’s responsible for it, or is one group blaming some other group for it? And not really getting a whole lot of attention. That’s what happens when you cater to what the audience is interested in.

Aaron Dinin:

Why do you have to do this research for other people? I mean, technically, you’re not doing anything magical. Anyone could just as easily research whether a woman actually gave birth to a litter of kittens in an elevator, which is a very weird sentence to say. But regardless, anyone can do it. So why do you think people don’t do that on their own?

David Mikkelson:

People often ask, “How do you guys do what you do?” Like to say that there’s something magical to it, or secret that only we know about. But no, it’s mostly just a combination of standard journalistic techniques and maybe some detective work. For some things, yeah, anybody could do it. There’s certain sites that do nothing but pump out fabricated content. If you know that something came from them, you don’t even need to go any further.

Some things are easy to look up. People turn to us because, one, it’s easier to go to one place to look things up than 12 different places. You’d rather not have to search 12 different dictionaries when one will do, to give us some credit. There is some stuff that’s really difficult to figure it out on your own when you have to actually get in touch with people within the government or within companies to get information from them, or have to drill down and dig through statistics or obtain material through the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s stuff a lot of people can do, but they just don’t really have the time or the specific knowledge to do it. It’s like why do people read the news? You can go out and you’ve got to ask people what’s happening. Well, it’s hard to do that at scale.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s fair. Makes sense, I guess. And so, you do this for other people and then you weigh in on whether or not something is true or false. How do you make those determinations and why should a reader of Snopes trust you?

David Mikkelson:

Well, of course, just like any journalistic organization, we have to have policies and procedures and standards for what everything goes through in the course of what do you have to do to verify this? What level of proof is required for us to be able to slap a true or false rating on this? How many editors, how many eyes does this have to go through, that we’re satisfied with the end result?

The aspect of truth rating things is one of the least satisfying aspects of this, in large part because the world is not so black and white. People like it to be so, but so much of what we deal with is just many different shades of gray and contingencies and interpretations, that it’s really difficult to just come outright and say something is true or false. So you either have to just narrowly focus on one aspect of something that you can identify as true or false, or you just have to identify things as some unsatisfying mixture of stuff that people don’t really care for.

It’s unfortunate a lot of what we do, people don’t read pass the truth rating. They look up something, they look to see, oh, it says true or false, and it stops there. It’s one of the most annoying reader responses we get, is when we spend a lot of time researching and digging into and putting together and publishing a fact check and people read it and they send us mail. And they say, “I just want to know if this is true or not. I don’t want to have to read a bunch of stuff.”

It’s not like you have to protect the brand in terms of your output, you have to protect the brand against people not actually paying attention to what it is that your product is and actually reading it. That’s why a lot of times what we have to deal with is we haven’t gotten anything wrong, but the reader’s perception is that we’re wrong because they haven’t actually read what we’ve written.

We’re not saying that this photo is fake, like it’s a Photoshop product. What we’re saying is that this photo doesn’t relate to the context that people are presenting it in.

Aaron Dinin:

Here we’ve got David pointing to a problem that’s pretty much universal for anyone creating content. People don’t always read everything that’s written. In fact, this phenomenon is a big part of why sites like Snopes even exist. People often just read headlines or a small portions of articles or they read from sources that take things out of context in order to push a specific agenda or bias. We’re all guilty of this. We all have our biases and preconceived notions, and those things are the core driver of “fake news”.

More often than not, fake news, isn’t really fake. The better, though admittedly less catchy phrase is probably biased content. All content is created with bias. Even this podcast, it can’t be avoided. So in that sense, it’s lucky for all of us that there are reference sites out there like snopes.com that can help us look beyond our own biases. That’s assuming, of course, we actually use them.

David Mikkelson:

A drawback, at least to us, is that it puts us in the class of being a reference site, where people come and they’re looking for one specific thing, and they look it up and they go away. If you’re in the business of funding what you do by getting people to visit your site and look at a lot of pages and stay for a while, because that drives advertising and other sales, it’s not a very good thing to be like a dictionary, look up one word and go back to what I was doing. You’d rather be more magazine-like and have people exploring the site and reading 10 or 12 different things at once.

We’re distinctive from traditional journalism and news. We’re reactive rather than proactive, for the most part. I mean, most news organizations, they’re breaking stories, or they’re not the first one on a story. They’re maybe the first one that you, the reader, are encountering. They’re presenting you with information that you haven’t seen before about what’s happening. Whereas we’re pretty much always dealing with something that’s already out there, something that’s already happened, something that people are already reading about and there’s some questionable aspect to it that we’re answering for them. So it makes it more difficult to be something other than a reference site.

Aaron Dinin:

I guess that brings up another question I have, which is how are you monetizing these days? Still with ads or have you found other strategies better suited to the type of site you’ve got and the limitations of your traffic patterns?

David Mikkelson:

For the longest time, up until a few years ago, we were just entirely advertising-supported. But as I’m sure many people, especially digital publishers have told you, just the advertising market has just gotten increasingly more tenuous as a means of supporting publishing for a number of reasons. One is of course there are just more and more sites, more and more publishers competing for a slice of the advertising pie.

It’s also the case that internet advertising has become increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few very large tech companies, and we all know who those are, which anytime you’re moving towards monopolistic, it’s not so good for the smaller guys. Also, a lot of advertising money, unfortunately, still goes to scammers, grifters, people who are generating fake traffic, people who are diverting traffic sucking up advertising dollars that would be better spent with honest publishers.

Most digital publishers we’ve had to diversify our revenue stream. We’ve been selling merchandise. Of course, we started ramping up memberships. We don’t put anything behind a pay wall, and don’t plan to, but there are other ways of selling subscriptions like offering ad-free browsing experiences or offering members-only newsletters, things like that. Hopefully, someday we can expand into other media like podcasts, television, book publishing. There’s lots of areas still to go.

Aaron Dinin:

Since you’re making most of your money off advertising, and controversial or traumatic world events seem to be a huge driver of traffic, I guess I’ve got to ask, would you say that more fake news and controversy is actually good for business?

David Mikkelson:

Yeah, that’s unfortunate that what’s good for our business, so to speak, is terrorist attacks, national disasters, mass shootings, pandemics, I mean, just all those sorts of things that drive all kinds of conspiracy theories and misinformation, people dealing with uncertainty and trying to find a way to manage it. It’s all bad for people in general, those things, but that’s what drives traffic because it speaks to the kind of thing we do.

I’m sure a lot of psychologists and sociologists have put it better than I can. But if you come across a piece of information, that gives you a sense of control, that you know something about this that other people don’t, and you’re helping people by spreading this information so they too can become enlightened. It’s counterproductive in an overall sentence in battling the epidemic. But it’s helpful in a psychological sense of giving people some means of thinking that they have a way of actually influencing or controlling events that are spiraling all around them. So there’s a lot of paradoxes to what we do. Yeah.

Aaron Dinin:

For me, this is one of the most interesting parts about talking with David. His business is a bit of a contradiction that he seems to be constantly grappling with. On one hand, he started his work to help people by debunking myths and protecting the integrity of information online. So clearly he’s passionate about people having the right information. On the other hand, the success of his business and his livelihood is highly dependent on people spreading misinformation.

In other words, it’s good for him financially when people do the things he hates. In a way, it’s like betting against your favorite sports team if you’ve ever done that. It puts you in a position where you want them to win for your personal reasons of fandom and whatnot, but you want them to lose for financial reasons. So which do you root for during the game? That’s the position David seems to be in and I don’t envy him. That’s not to say he isn’t proud of what he’s built.

David Mikkelson:

When you think back about it. Yeah. I really pretty did something literally from nothing. I created something that’s not just an important and well-respected part of the journalism industry. It’s like a pop culture phenomenon. It just started not in a garage, I guess, literally, but just started with me sitting down one day thinking like, “Hey, here’s something I’d like to do. I’ll start this little hobby.” And now there’s something to put in my obituary someday.

But to see what I started being referenced in television shows and movies, that’s really astounding. It’s hard not to be proud of that. It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of it. When you think about it, it’s hard not to be proud of just how well-known it’s become, from one guy just sitting down in front of a computer to… Not in a notoriety or infamous sense. Everybody can do something stupid or bad that brings them worldwide fame. But doing something beneficial and good that actually became well known.

Aaron Dinin:

Can’t really argue with that. Anyone can do something stupid or dumb and become known for it. But it’s hard to do something truly beneficial for the world. I’d say David has definitely done that, the snopes.com. I guess we all owe him our thanks for spending three plus decades trying to make sure the information we’re reading online is accurate. You know what? I definitely owe him another thanks for taking the time to talk with me here on Web Masters.

If you’d like to see what he’s up to, you can obviously find his work at snopes.com and you can follow him on Twitter. He’s @davidpmikkelson. This podcast is on Twitter too. If you’d like to send us any thoughts about the episode, we’re @WebMastersPod and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin, that’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. Also write lots of articles about innovation, entrepreneurship, and business over on medium.com. You can find them all just by searching my name over there.

A special thanks to Ryan Higgs, our audio engineer for always putting together this episode. Thanks to our sponsor, Latona’s. Remember, if you’re interested in buying or selling an online business, be sure to check out latonas.com. Now that pretty much wraps things up here. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Web Masters. If you did, why not share it with other people? They’ll appreciate it, and so will I.

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to Web Masters on your podcasting app of choice. That way you’re sure to get the next episode as soon as it’s released in just a few days. I hope you can wait that long because, for now, well, it’s time for me to sign off.