The iSchool’s “Calling Bullshit” class welcomed a pair of special fact-checking guests on Monday, Oct. 16. Snopes.com CEO David Mikkelson and co-owner Vinny Green joined the class to talk with students about how they work to separate fact from fiction online.
Snopes is the internet’s leading fact-checking organization, attracting about 20 million visitors each month to answer questions such as “Did an NFL player burn an American flag in a locker room?” and “Is the Mandalay Bay security guard missing?” (The answer to both is “no.”)
Mikkelson founded the site in 1994, when web browsers were just coming on the scene and long before the rise of social media or “fake news.” Snopes quickly became the go-to place to confirm or debunk rumors on the web. He said technology is making it increasingly easy to falsify video or to literally put words in people’s mouths, making it a challenge to stay one step ahead of the purveyors of misinformation.
“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. You can eventually win at whack-a-mole if you practice long enough, but it’s never going to completely go away,” Mikkelson said.
Green joined Snopes in 2015 and runs its operations and technical development. He said he sees two main sources of “fake news”: those who spread it for political gain, and those who spread it for monetary gain. While political adversaries will always be a threat, he said, the financial incentive can be removed by working with technology companies to develop tools and policies to cut off people’s ability to profit from misinformation.
“We need to get rid of that noise that is monetized misinformation,” he said. “We can remove those kinds of incentives from the ecosystem strategically and with a concerted effort, and I think that will be an immense amount of progress for us.”
Green said the technology used to promote misinformation is improving rapidly, adding to a sense of urgency to ensure that hostile actors don’t succeed in interfering in the next presidential election.
“What’s making a difference is the people on the ground who are becoming more informed and becoming more critical about these issues,” Green told students. “In the real world, having the context and being able to combat misinformation is what’s going to make the fundamental shift that we need.”
iSchool Assistant Professor Jevin West and Biology Professor Carl Bergstrom are teaching a 3-credit “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data” course this fall. The class comes after the duo launched CallingBullshit.org and garnered a large amount of media attention. Universities and high schools across the country have adopted portions of West and Bergstrom’s curriculum for their own media and information literacy classes.