Tech

Snopes seeks crowdfunding in ownership battle

How many times have you heard some urban legend, chain letter or misleading bit of news repeated and immediately found a thorough, fact-based debunking on Snopes? Like every damn day for the last 20 years or so, right? Snopes was there for you when you were looking up fake news and cryptids — but it’s in trouble, and asking you to return the favor.

The venerable fact-checking site is in the middle of an ownership dispute, and it’s looking for donations to keep the lights on in the meantime. The site’s blog describes the situation thus:

We had previously contracted with an outside vendor to provide certain services for Snopes.com. That contractual relationship ended earlier this year, but the vendor will not acknowledge the change in contractual status and continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage. Although we maintain editorial control (for now), the vendor will not relinquish the site’s hosting to our control, so we cannot modify the site, develop it, or — most crucially — place advertising on it. The vendor continues to insert their own ads and has been withholding the advertising revenue from us.

But wading into the lawsuit and counter-lawsuit filed earlier this year, it’s clear things are far from straightforward, even if Snopes appears (warning: I am not a lawyer) to be… well, if not in the right, then perhaps less in the wrong. Here’s the story, as far as I can tell.

Snopes was founded in 1995 by David Mikkelson and Barbara Mikkelson, and ownership formalized in 2003 in Bardav Inc (Get it? Barbara + David = Bardav). Each had one share of the company. But in 2014 the two began divorce proceedings, which would of course necessitate negotiating ownership of their company and Snopes.

In August of 2015, Snopes entered a revenue-share/content and ad management agreement with a company called Proper Media, formed earlier that very year. In early 2016, Proper arranged to buy Barbara’s share of Bardav, replacing her as co-owner of the company. David Mikkelson attempted to kill the contract in spring of 2017 (wouldn’t you?), but Proper resisted, saying the terms of said contract were not fulfilled. In the meantime, it is apparently holding onto the site’s revenue and parts of its infrastructure.

To me this sounds like an opportunistic takeover, but in addition to not being a lawyer, I also am not a businessman, so possibly I’m just naive. At the same time, Proper alleges that Mikkelson misused company funds and inappropriately managed Bardav otherwise. The details are being cherry-picked by both sides, as generally happens in dueling lawsuits (not to mention when a divorce is mixed in), so I don’t want to give too much credit to either side here.

But the bigger picture to me is this: Snopes itself is valuable enough (in terms of utility, not cash value), and Mikkelson’s leadership has been sound enough for years, that it seems worth giving him benefit of the doubt for now. To me the important thing is that Snopes continue its work, as it has done for decades, and it’s unlikely things would remain the same if it’s put under the control of some shady “content” company.

The Snopes crowdfunding effort has already netted 50 grand, 25 of which was raised while I wrote this article, so clearly others feel the same way, even if it’s not quite the “ransom” situation described. We need websites like Snopes, now more than ever. No one said it would be simple.

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