Sunday, March 6, 2011

Snopes

Snopes researches a lot of the latest Internet rumors and verifies or debunks them.  But there are some rumors that Snopes refuses to touch - namely the veracity of the ads on their own site.

The Internet has been a boon to mankind.  There is no doubt about that.  I can live on an Island and work from my home, thanks to the Internet.  And I can get some of the best bargains out there, thanks to the Internet.  I have access to a treasure trove of information, thanks to the Internet.  And I can communicate with people halfway across the globe, thanks to the Internet.

But the Internet, like any technology, has a dark side.  It has been a haven for rumors and misinformation, as well as con-artists and rip-offs of all sorts.  And separating truth from fiction on the Internet can be hard to do, as it is time-consuming.  Snopes to the rescue!

Snopes started out at the "Urban Legends Reference Page" and has slowly morphed into the Internet Rumor Reference Page as the Internet has taken over from water-cooler talk and forwarded photocopies and faxes.

They are a great resource for checking the veracity of any rumor or forwarded e-mail you may see.  And by checking the "What's New" section of their site on a weekly basis, you'll be aware of what's going to show up in your inbox, often before your friends forward it to you.  It also helps you to be aware of various scams, malware, and viruses going around.  And their "news" section tips you off to oddball stories, often days or weeks before the "mainstream media" picks them up.

So that is all very well and fine, right?  Well, there are a couple of things about Snopes that are disturbing, of course. Nothing is perfect in life, and relying on some single source as "Gospel" for anything is risky.  And Snopes has its blind spots, mostly about itself.

Much of their debunking of car rumors, for example, seems to indicate they are not very car-savvy.  I suspect they drive Subarus (or at least Barbara does) and listen to "Car Talk" on NPR.  But that is just a suspicion of mine.

With regard to any issues relating to Israel and Judaism, they have a small blind spot.  For example, they dismiss as "false" the "rumor" that the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations - the folks who mark foods as "Kosher" with the (U) symbol on foods - uses some of the money they receive to advance Zionist causes.  They dismiss this rumor on the grounds that the cost of Kosher certification is de minimis compared to other costs involved in the marketing of foods.

But the fact remains, there is only one religion in the world today that has this food labeling campaign - and as a result, the majority of food sold in the US and most Western countries is marked "Kosher" even though only a small minority of even Jews observe Kosher practice.  And even if the amount of money per product is "small", multiplied by the entire food supply of the United States, it is a lot of money overall.  Snope's argument is "Fees paid to these companies keep those businesses afloat" - as if the people working for those businesses are not making money from the project.  It is akin to saying "the money you pay for a car keeps General Motors afloat" - but automakers do pay lobbyists and major corporations do make contributions to political campaigns - as we found out Target does.

So the debunking of this "myth" as "false" is a little aggressive.  Yes, the anti-Semitic e-mail that they are studying might exaggerate the issue, but the fact remains that a substantial sum of money overall is collected by these various Kosher marking agencies, and some of them do contribute to political causes.  At best, this should be labeled a "Mixture of True and False" - but Snopes has a blind spot when it comes to their own religious beliefs.

But the biggest problem with Snopes is the advertisements on the site itself.  While Snopes goes to great lengths to promote awareness of pop-up and pop-under ads, the use of anti-virus and anti-adware software, their own site is infested with every sort of Internet advertisement possible - from pop-ups and under (which seem to be able to fly right through most pop-up blockers!) to banner ads, to animated ads, text ads, sidebar ads, ads embedded in the text - ads in ads!

And as with most Internet ads, most of them are for crummy bargains if not outright junk.  Tricks for the tiny belly, Obama wants Moms to go back to school, Mortgage rates have hit 3.9%! for-profit universities, and that sort of thing.  There are a few legitimate ads from legitimate companies (the Netflix Pop-up is quite annoying, but Netflix is a legit deal).

Curiously, Snopes has a distinct lack in interest in learning whether it is true or not that "Obama wants Moms to Go Back to School!" or what the "One trick of the tiny belly" is or whether it works.  In short, they have an enormous blind spot when it comes to their own advertising pages, which they make money off of.  And not an insubstantial amount of money, either.


And while a rumor about the "Mall Rapist" may be harmless enough, real people do get hurt by poor refinancing deals and for-profit universities.  But Snopes doesn't investigate the blaring ads on its own pages, nor does it turn away some of the more odious advertisers.  And having the mantle as the "truth engine of the Internet" lends an aura of legitimacy to a lot of the come-on ads.

And this could backfire for them, as they are taking on more and more ads from legitimate companies, such as AT&T.  If you are AT&T, do you want your ad on the same page as the disturbing bearded homeless man car insurance ad?

Now, you might argue that Snopes provides a great public service, and that the cost of researching and debunking all these myths - which must require an army of researchers to locate and investigate - justifies their taking on these sort of odious ads.

But the reality of it is, Snopes doesn't really go out and research things, but lets the power of the Internet work for them.  People submit rumors to Snopes for verification - so Snopes doesn't have to go and find rumors.  These appear in their "we get letters" section, which Snopes then ridicules for typing and grammar errors.

They have a bulletin-board system also, with a tightly-knit group of followers (doesn't every BBS have one?) who shouts down anything that doesn't register with fat chicks who work in cubicles all day long.  Some of the "research" on these rumors comes from the BBS, as they post new rumors du jour and then look for answers from their followers.

So to a large extent, they don't have to go out and research things, as people on the Internet will do it for free.  A pretty good business model, no?

But these are all pretty trivial complaints, when it  comes to Snopes.  It is still the go-to place for the latest on rumors, viruses, doctored photos, etc.  But increasingly, I find I am visiting it less and less.  Most of the "rumors" on the site are just these junky forwarded e-mails you get these days, and the only real surprises are when they actually have true content (9 times out of 10, forwarded e-mails contain utter lies, and just assuming that is a good idea).

And the annoying animated and pop-up ads - and the sheer volume of them - make the site annoying to visit.  Again, Bob's Law of the Internet, when you saturate a site with advertisements, eventually you will turn away visitors.  There is an optimum mix of ads and click rate, and if you over-do it with ads, your click rate will drop, unless you have real compelling content.  And debunking the latest photo-shopping cute cat jpeg isn't compelling reason enough for me to visit very often.

So while I used to visit Snopes daily, I find I visit it weekly or less now.  I read the "what's new" section, but don't click on half the articles anymore.  And I quickly leave and then run Spybot and Malwarebytes, just to be safe.  Visiting Snopes, with all its pop-up, pop-under, and sleazy ads, is like visiting a dirty porno store.  You want to take a long, hot shower afterwords.

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