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Online Rumor Mill Spins Its Own Myth

Posted March 11, 2002

Elvin sees Snopes.com as
Media Credit: File Photo
Elvin sees Snopes.com as "agenda-driven."

The uncertain times after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have given rise to all sorts of rumors. E-mails have circulated about malls that will be attacked on Halloween, about Osama bin Laden being spotted in Utah and Oliver North having warned about bin Laden at the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987. None of these turned out to be true and quickly were debunked on Internet sites devoted to "urban legends."

The most prominent of these is Snopes.com, a Website started in 1995 as a hobby by David and Barbara Mikkelson, respectively a Web programmer and housewife in the Los Angeles area. The site flags rumors with red, green or yellow lights to indicate whether the rumor is false, true or uncertain. The Mikkelsons say the site was getting 2 million "hits" per day just after the 9/11 attacks. Increasingly the establishment media are promoting Snopes as an unbiased arbiter. The site has been featured on ABC's 20/20, as well as articles in Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, which said "Snopes.com offers more background information and definitive answers on the veracity of popular rumors than any other site we looked at."

Snopes, which features the status of about 100 war-related rumors, did help to quell baseless stories about Arab-Americans cheering the attacks at a Dunkin' Donuts and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad being involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. It also has good information on some older urban legends such as alligators in city sewers. But some observers say the site is colored by a liberal political bias and that the Mikkelsons have been too quick to label politically incorrect news stories as urban legends.

For instance, in October, Snopes listed as false the claim, in its own words, that "several [Internet] domain names related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on America were registered before the attack." CNSNews.com, a news site affiliated with the conservative Media Research Center, had reported in an article by Jeff Johnson that at least 17 domain names such as "worldtradetowerstrike.com," "attackontwintowers.com" and "wterrorattack2001.com" had been registered prior to the attack, some as early as July 2000. The Mikkelsons wrote that "this is a nothing story, promulgated by those looking for something sensational to write about."

They dismissed any notion the sites could be related to the terrorist attacks, declaring: "Given the prominence of New York, the prevalence of violence and horror in our popular entertainment, the millions of domain names registered over the years and the fact that the World Trade Center had already been attacked in 1993 [in the bombing that killed six people], that a handful of expired domain names used one or more of these elements should be no surprise."

But Snopes left out many facts included in the CNSNews piece that may have given the article more credibility. For one thing, the belief that these sites may have been related to the attacks was not mere speculation on the reporter's part, but the view of renowned terrorism expert Neil Livingstone, chief executive officer of the Washington-based counterterrorism and investigation company Global Options LLC. "This wasn't just some man off the street," says Johnson, CNSNews congressional bureau chief. Livingstone has written on terrorism for the New York Times and Washington Post and appeared on Nightline and Meet the Press.

Livingstone was quoted in the article as saying that terrorists like to take credit for their work and might have wanted to set up Websites for a propaganda campaign when they didn't know how successful the attacks would be. Johnson noted that bin Laden says on one of his videotapes that even he didn't think the strikes would be so successful. One of the main points of the article was Livingstone's outrage that the registration companies apparently didn't report the domain names to the FBI.

Snopes made much of the fact that the few date-related domain names did not refer to Sept. 11, but to Aug. 11 and Sept. 29. However, CNSNews had paraphrased Livingstone as saying these two dates "may have indicated the window of opportunity during which the attackers planned to strike."

CNSNews executive editor Scott Hogenson also says that Snopes mischaracterized the article as saying the sites were related to the terrorist attack when the story only raised the question of whether they might have been related to the attack. He tells Insight he e-mailed the Mikkelsons three times to correct the record and never received a reply. "They got it wrong, and they didn't even have the ethical fortitude to respond to detailed, accurate, polite queries. I think that's just low class," Hogenson says.

In a telephone interview with Insight, Barbara Mikkelson saw no need to change the status of the CNSNews report from "false" to "undetermined" or to include Livingstone's comments. "I don't know the man, and I don't know his credentials," she says. "Just because somebody's a known terrorism expert does not necessarily mean he will be right about everything."

As for not getting back to CNSNews, she says, "I don't recall it, and I will point out that we get hundreds of e-mails every day and there are just the two of us." Hogenson responds, "If they don't have time to correct their own mistakes, maybe they should not be in the business of trying to correct others." (When Insight used the e-mail link on the Snopes site to arrange its interview, Barbara Mikkelson got back to us within a day.)

Snopes also classifies as false the claim that "monies given to the September 11 Fund are being used to defend suspected terrorists." That is not actually what critics of the fund, such as the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), have said. They objected to a $171,000 grant the September 11 Fund gave to the New York Legal Aid Society, which defended eight detainees rounded up for visa violations in connection with the terrorist attacks. Snopes calls the NLPC's objections "foolheaded," and cites the legal-aid society's statement in a press release that none of the grant money was used to defend terrorist suspects.

"The money was used for civil legal assistance for families affected by the tragedy who needed help getting access to wills, bank accounts and insurance," the Mikkelsons wrote.

But NLPC President Peter Flaherty says Snopes should know very well that such money is fungible. "They use the same office space. They use the same phones. They use the same staff," Flaherty tells Insight. "It is by no means an urban legend; it's a serious issue." Flaherty says that most people who contributed to benefit the families of victims do no want funds going to agencies that might be defending the perpetrators. "This group obviously has a political, left-wing, anti-American agenda. What is the September 11 Fund doing providing assistance to them for any purpose?" he asks.

Even before it gained prominence with the World Trade Center attacks, Snopes had critics who accused it of cavalierly dismissing legitimate stories critical of the left as urban legends. This seemed particularly true with stories about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Snopes got into a tussle with WorldNetDaily.com by listing as false an August 2000 story by Geoff Metcalf that Bill Clinton planned to go to Vietnam and that the Vietnamese flag would be raised above the American flag on a U.S. Navy ship. "Nothing that was described in the article actually happened, other than the trip to Vietnam," the Mikkelsons wrote just after Clinton arrived in Vietnam in November 2000. "No U.S. Navy ship flew an American flag subordinate to a Vietnamese flag," their Website said.

But Metcalf tells Insight the Clinton administration probably abandoned the flag protocol after the story created a public outrage. "According to people in the Navy, one of the reasons it didn't happen was because of the whole flag-flap ****storm that I created with the series of stories," Metcalf says. He cited Navy sources in the story, but said they didn't want to be identified in a story critical of the commander in chief. He later quoted Allan Fields, chief justice of the Marshall Islands Supreme Court, as saying that he, too, heard about the plans to lower the flag from high-ranking Navy officials on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Like CNSNews' Hogenson, Metcalf says he e-mailed Snopes three times, asking that the status of the account at least be changed to "undetermined" but received no response from the Mikkelsons.

Barbara Mikkelson tells Insight that, despite the fact that this was the first story to reveal the trip to Vietnam, she will continue to list it as false because Metcalf used anonymous sources. "He never identified the person who had supposedly said, 'This is true, because I saw the paperwork for it,'" she says. "The best he could offer was a name of someone who said, 'I heard that.'"

Yet Snopes seems to have different standards in evaluating stories involving conservatives. Take a bizarre new rumor asserting that Attorney General John Ashcroft believes that calico cats are a sign of the devil. This claim was first made in November by liberal financial writer Andrew Tobias, the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, on his Website (andrewtobias.com). To say the least, Tobias was vague about his sources, writing only that "I got this odd story from someone who was definitely in a position to know and then confirmed it with someone else, also in a position to know." Given the stringent Mikkelson standards about anonymous sources in evaluating Metcalf's story, one would have expected them to classify the preposterous Tobias story as false. Instead, they labeled it undetermined. "What the game is here — if indeed there is one — we can't fathom," they wrote of the silly Tobias smear of Ashcroft, a cum laude graduate of Yale with a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.

To be sure, Snopes has quelled some rumors about President George W. Bush, such as the one about him having the lowest IQ of modern presidents. But it has split hairs trying to protect Clinton and Al Gore. For instance, Snopes flags the claim that Gore said he "invented" the Internet as false, and signaled it with a red light. The reason given is that Gore actually said he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." Never mind that many dictionaries and thesauruses list the words "invent" and "create" as synonyms. Snopes also lists as false the claim that "the Clinton administration failed to track down the perpetrators of several terrorist attacks against Americans." The Mikkelsons echo the dubious claim by Clinton's defenders that the missile strike in Afghanistan in 1998, widely thought to have been launched to distract the public from the Monica Lewinsky affair, reportedly "missed bin Laden by a few hours" and cite a Washington Post story claiming that the federal antiterrorism budget tripled to $6.7 billion on Clinton's watch.

But the biggest criticism Snopes has attracted for defending the Clintons involves Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and the Black Panthers. Differing sharply from news and historical accounts, and even from another urban-legends Website, TruthOrFiction.com, Snopes maintains that it is false that "Hillary Clinton played a significant role in defending Black Panthers accused of torturing and murdering Alex Rackley."

The Mikkelsons call a 2000 Insight piece by John Elvin detailing Clinton's role as a Yale law student in supporting the Black Panthers on trial for brutally murdering Rackley, a fellow Panther (see "Hillary Hides Her Panther Fling," July 31, 2000), a "woefully bad piece of 'journalism.'" According to Snopes, "the sum total of her involvement in the trial was that she assisted the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] in monitoring the trial for civil-rights violations."

In the interview with Insight, Mikkelson wonders how anyone could object to Hillary's effort on behalf of the Panthers. "She was working with the ACLU, which is what any smart law student would do," she says. When Insight points out to her that many believe some elements of the ACLU have a left-wing agenda, she replies, "There are some people who disagree with the Easter Bunny, too."

Shaky analogies aside, Hillary did more than simply compile reports. According to The First Partner, the authoritative biography by Joyce Milton, Hillary organized the students monitoring the trial, and the students "worked closely with the Panthers' lead attorney, Charles Garry." Based on the students' observations, Garry "raised a multitude of issues about the allegedly unfair treatment of his clients, which ranged from the trivial to the bizarre," Milton wrote. This strategy was ultimately successful in keeping two of the Panthers from being convicted.

Clinton later interned in Oakland for Panther lawyer Robert Treuhaft, an avowed Communist. "Anybody who leaves you with the impression that Hillary did not participate in support of the Black Panthers at the trial is not presenting an accurate impression," says Rich Buhler, operator of TruthOrFiction.com.

But Clinton was not just involved in the Panthers' legal defense. She was serving as a key editor of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action when the review published its fall 1970 issue defending the Panthers. Included in the issue were drawings of policemen as pigs, with one pig decapitated and the accompanying caption, "Seize the time." Again, the Mikkelsons put the best spin on this, writing that "no one has demonstrated that she approved (or even knew) of it." Besides, Mikkelson tells Insight, depicting the police as pigs is no big deal. "Were policemen never referred to as pigs before at colleges?" she asks.

Insight's Elvin laughs that those interested in separating rumor from fact must be at least as skeptical of Snopes as they are of urban legends in circulating e-mails. "It's obvious that they're agenda-driven," Elvin says. "The credibility that they've established is based on the laziness of reporters who have used them as a source." The NLPC's Flaherty, who also researched the Panther story when writing his biography of Hillary Clinton, The First Lady, reaches a similar conclusion. "It sounds to me like they're starting their own urban legends," he says.

John Berlau is a writer for Insight.

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