On Wednesday evening, Mail Online published a lengthy investigation into fact-checking site Snopes containing salacious details gleaned from legal battles between its recently divorced cofounders.
The claims, mainly about the sexual history and preferences of Snopes employees, but also allegations of financial misbehaviour by its founder, David Mikkelson, which he disputes, are titillating but not Earth shattering.
Far more revealing is Mail Online’s decision to go after Snopes and the way it has gone about it.
Snopes started out fact-checking urban myths (for example, recurring claims that the moon landings were staged) but amid concerns about fake news and its impact on democracy, the site became a resource for calling out false stories. Throughout the US election, Snopes debunked articles on everything from President Barack Obama planning to issue a blanket pardon for Hillary Clinton to Pope Francis backing Donald Trump.
It wasn’t a huge surprise when Snopes was named, along with ABC News, the Associated Press and other fact-checking websites such as Politifact.com, as one of the third-party sources Facebook would use to help it flag disputed stories.
One week later and there, in a prominent position on the Mail Online homepage, is a 1,400-word article about Snopes’ founders’ finances and relationships.
There are obvious merits to the story for avid Mail Online readers – the headline includes the words “porn star-escort” and “Vice Vixen domme” for a start – and the financial claims give some justifiable news value.
But the way the story is written hints at what the publication thinks, not just of Snopes, but of any sort of effort to do something about false information on the web.
The key giveaway is its use of quotation marks around the phrases “fake news”, “fact check” and “fact checker”, despite the fact that previous Mail articles have regularly used the words without any.
It’s a tactic borrowed straight from the fringe sites that have reacted angrily to Facebook’s plans, including the unofficial cheerleader of the “alt right”, Breitbart. It’s designed to imply that the concepts of fake news and fact checking are themselves disputed.
The purpose of the article appears to be to sow doubt about measures to deal with, or at least mitigate, the impact of fake news and falsehoods on social media, long before they have even got off the ground.
The Mail, of course, has skin in this game. It is far from the worst offenders when it comes to falsehoods – those tend to be the sorts of sites set up by Macedonian teenagers to create completely fabricated stories – but it has come under Snopes’ microscope enough times to be called in July “Britain’s highly unreliable Daily Mail” by a Snopes writer who just happens to be named in the Mail story.
If Facebook’s plans go ahead and Snopes helps it fact check, the Mail would expect that some of its more tenuous stories will be flagged. That could make a small but not insignificant impact on its online audience, which is the largest for any English-language newspaper by some margin.
There are lots of debates to be had about Facebook’s plans to use fact checkers. The motivations and credentials of the organisations it partners with, the mechanisms for identifying dodgy claims and the way in which false stories are flagged, all require scrutiny.
But rather than engaging in that debate, the Mail has attempted to cast doubt on the notion of fact checking. In the battle between those who profit from playing fast and loose with the truth and those trying to fix the fake news problem, the Mail has made it clear in which camp it sits.