When I was in high school, there was a joke that went thus: why is virginity like a balloon? One prick, and it’s gone forever. As schoolyard wit goes, that scarcely rises above even the low bar of its kind, nonetheless it contains a kind of rough truism: some things, when lost, are gone for good. Or at least, are only regained with the greatest difficulty.
This is a truism well known in public relations, where reputation can be everything. A positive reputation is worth its weight in gold, while a negative reputation can be a poisonous millstone forever hung about a public entity’s neck. Worse, like virginity in the schoolyard inanity, one public misstep can see a reputation plummet overnight, perhaps beyond redemption.
Stephen Frear’s 2006 film, The Queen is a fascinating study in just how a well-established public reputation, a brand, as the PR folks like to put it, can be trashed almost in the blink of an eye. In the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the reputation of perhaps Britain’s most revered public entity, the Royal Family, plunged into depths unfathomed for at least a century or more. Worse still, as the film portrays it, the damage is almost entirely self-inflicted: “Will no-one save these people from themselves?” despairs Michael Sheen, playing one of the master PR men of the era, prime minister Tony Blair – a character who knows a thing or two about tarnished reputations.
The website snopes.com has had a long-established presence on the internet. Its reputation as the go-to site for debunking urban legends and internet hoaxes was so strong that to snopes something was fast becoming a verb, in the same way that one xeroxes or hoovers.
What is happening to Snopes, and how it’s all going wrong, is a salutary lesson both in how entities trash their own brands, as well as in how fragile – if not illusory – such brands can often be in the first place.
Snopes began when David and Barbara Mikkelson met online at the Usenet discussion group alt.folklore.urban, where David posted under the username snopes, from a William Faulkner novel, and was simultaneously one of AFU’s most notorious trolls and prolific researchers. This origin story needs to be firmly kept in mind: the team behind Snopes were complete amateurs, and as far from journalists as it’s possible to get.
That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of history’s great journalists, from Dickens to Orwell, were similarly “amateurs”. What they did have, though, was a strong sense of rigorous ethical proprietary hammered into shape by years of doing the actual business of journalism. This is something the Snopes team never had. But they were able to fake it for a long time.
So long as they stuck to internet rumours and hoaxes, Snopes did a pretty good job. And they enjoyed the reputation that came with it. But, then they made the catastrophic decision to meddle in actual journalism and, worse, politics.
The problem with doing journalism, particularly political journalism, is that all your personal prejudices and biases are suddenly magnified, a thousand-fold. Trust me on this. Doing political journalism is an exercise in constantly wrestling with your own bullshit. Quite often, you lose.
Snopes lost. Badly.
So-called “fact-checking” in political journalism is almost always an exercise in biased narrative. Snopes are no better, and often far worse than most. The number of times they misled and outright lied in their “fact checks” is testament to that fact. Snopes even lied about their own problems. To make things worse, it also emerged that they were at some points half-owned by an advertising agency. They might care to brush up on Orwell’s adage about journalism and advertising.
Things got worse for Snopes when they took to repeatedly “fact checking” openly satirical sites like The Onion and The Babylon Bee. Worse, Snopes appear to be deliberately targeting the Bee with false accusations, apparently in an attempt to have them driven off platforms like Facebook. The Bee is currently mulling legal action against Snopes.
Meanwhile, Snopes’ reputation has been comprehensively trashed. So much so that they are beyond the pale for even Facebook, who ended Snopes’ tenure as a “fact-checker”.
Snopes spent nearly two decades establishing a reputation as a reliable debunker of internet bullshit. A year of Trump Derangement Syndrome was all it took to destroy that reputation, probably for good.
Snopes are the story of the legacy media writ small.