Rumor Detectives: True Story or Online Hoax?

Giant dogs? One-winged airplanes? Death by Pop Rocks? Sounds like a case for

A few years ago, a woman and her husband were coming home from a ski trip in British Columbia when they spotted a disabled car on the side of the road. It was raining and the driver looked distressed, so they stopped and helped him fix his flat tire. The man was extremely grateful but didn’t have any cash to reward them, so he took down their personal information. A week later, the couple got a call from their bank saying their mortgage had been paid and $10,000 had been deposited into their account by an appreciative Bill Gates.

“Ah, the grateful millionaire,” Barbara Mikkelson says with a satisfied grin. “It started with Henry Ford. Then it was Nat King Cole. Then Donald Trump. We even have a version Oscar Wilde wrote back in the 1890s.”

With her bemused tone and a habit of peering over her spectacles, Mikkelson has the air of a night-shift detective who has seen it all-and in a way, she has. Barbara, 49, and her husband, David, 48, run, the Internet’s preeminent resource for verifying and debunking rumors, ridiculous claims, and those e-mail chain letters your sister-in-law can’t stop forwarding. Whether it’s an urban legend like the Gates story, an overblown warning about the latest computer virus, or that bizarre photo circulating of “Hercules, the world’s biggest dog,” chances are has checked it out and rated it as “true,” “false,” or “undetermined.”

True fact or urban legend? gets to the bottom of it.
What began in 1995 as a hobby for a pair of amateur folklorists has grown into one of the Internet’s most trusted authorities—and a full-time profession for the Mikkelsons. Each month, 6.2 million people visit Snopes, according to Quantcast, which tracks Internet traffic. The New York Times recently put Snopes on its short list of essentials that every computer user must know about. President Barack Obama’s campaign launched a copycat version last fall to battle rumors of its own (for the record, Michelle Obama didn’t gorge on room-service caviar and lobster at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). And even the word Snopes, a name David borrowed from a family in a William Faulkner novel, has gone viral—as in, “Why didn’t you Snopes that junk before forwarding it to your entire e-mail list?” Richard Roeper, the movie critic who sidelines as an author of myth-busting books like Debunked!, says, “Snopes is like having your own army of fact-checkers sniffing out a million wacko leads.”

An army of two, that is. Snopes’s world headquarters is actually just Barbara and David sitting around their modest double-wide on a shady hillside outside Los Angeles. Their two home offices are stacked to the ceiling with their trusty research tools: dictionaries, almanacs, VHS tapes, Disneyana, encyclopedias, atlases, and hundreds of books like UFO’s: A Scientific Debate and Organ Theft Legends. Oh, and there are cats: Buster, Sterling, Irene, Ashes, and Memphis. “David and I work at opposite ends of the house,” Barbara says, flinging a cat’s crinkle toy. “I once attempted to send him a note by sticking a Post-it on the side of one of the cats.”

Cat couriers? Sounds like a case for Snopes. Strange rumors about animals are among the website’s most popular cases. That widely circulated photograph of Hercules, a 282-pound mastiff with “paws the size of softballs,” is one example.

“About a year ago, people started sending us photos from the Internet of a freakishly large dog walking alongside two people and a horse, and it made me go, ‘Wait a minute,'” David says. A self-proclaimed computer nerd with a mop of brown hair, David was undoubtedly the kid whose notes everyone copied. “We investigated, and the picture turned out to be a digital manipulation-what we call fauxtography.”

Another Snopesism is glurge, a “true story” so sugary sweet, it could make a baby unicorn cringe. One such tale making the rounds online is about Stevie, a young man with Down syndrome who receives donations from compassionate truckers at the restaurant where he works. (Snopes, which cites its sources in detailed footnotes at the bottom of each entry, uncovered the magazine where it was first published-as fiction.) Then there’s the sad, cautionary poem reputedly penned in jail by a teenage meth addict shortly before her death by overdose. It is forwarded in an e-mail thousands of times every day. Again Snopes tracked down the original author: an Oklahoma mom with a seventh-grade daughter, neither of whom ever used methamphetamines.

“Most of what we deal with exists outside traditional media,” David says, staring at an inbox with 21,144 unopened e-mails. Among the subject headings: “Video of one-winged airplane landing. For real?” and “Fisher-Price talking doll says ‘Islam Is the Light!'” David glances at his muted TV set, where Law & Order is playing with closed-captioning. “These stories and half-truths are handy forms of expressing fears or concerns or ways of looking at life,” he says. “But it’s not easy to find out if these things are true or not, so people turn to us.”

A passion for nosing around is what brought the Mikkelsons together, and it’s still their prime motivation. The couple met in 1994 on an Internet newsgroup devoted to urban legends like the one about Walt Disney’s body being cryogenically frozen after his death. Faster than you could say, “Mikey died of Pop Rocks,” Barbara was flying from her hometown outside Ottawa to Los Angeles to meet David, then a computer programmer for an HMO. “Our first date was me taking Barbara to the library at UCLA to go through old magazines,” David says, laughing. The couple now earn a “very healthy” income, David says, from advertising on the site.

Though the Mikkelsons are established figures on the Web, they still prefer old-fashioned research—scouring vintage catalogs, thumbing through four newspapers a day—over finding quick answers online. “I might use Google or Wikipedia as a starting point,” David says. “But that’s not research.” For fun, the Mikkelsons go to places like the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta and the Library of Congress.

Barbara, who is the more outgoing of the two, signs her name to her entries and tends to favor subjects like business, politics, and anything to do with horror or crime. David, the resident expert on Coca-Cola, the Beatles, Disney, and sports, occasionally tries to make up a rumor, like the one he attempted to spread that Mr. Ed was actually a zebra. “You’d be surprised how hard it is to get traction with one of these,” he says. “The things that take off have to hit a nerve we’re all thinking about.”

The Mikkelsons’ work is now more than just a labor of love. Some say Snopes is changing the nature of folklore. Jan Brunvand, professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, is one of the world’s leading experts on urban legends. He says Snopes and websites like it have helped eradicate myths that in many cases have endured for generations, whether it’s alligators crawling in the sewers or the old chestnut about gang members killing drivers over flashing their headlights. “Because they have been publicized so much,” Brunvand writes, “people no longer believe most of the classic urban legends.”

Which doesn’t mean Snopes’s work is done. With cats by her side and underfoot, Barbara peers over her glasses as fresh queries land in her inbox. Was the St. Pauli girl on beer labels really a lady of the evening? Did the bottled water company actually name itself Evian because it’s naive spelled backward? Did Neil Armstrong tell a dirty joke on the moon? Is it true that the elevator close-door button is completely useless?

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Barbara says, and then quickly catches herself. “Well, I guess you could. But if you do, I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Anatomy of an Urban Legend
How it starts, where it spreads, and how Snopes takes it down

1. The buzz begins
In early May 2008, Snopes begins getting e-mail alerts warning of criminals using funny-smelling business cards soaked in a drug called burundanga as a way to incapacitate victims. The forwarded message cites an incident that happened “last Wednesday” to “Jaime Rodriguez’s neighbor … at a gas station in Katy.”

“We noticed we were getting more and more inquiries on this from people searching our site,” David says, “and since burundanga was something we had never written about, we decided to tackle it.”

2. The big dig
The Mikkelsons start investigating. With few hard details—Katy, Texas? Katy, Missouri?-Snopes goes to its favorite sources: medical journals, police blotters, newspaper archives, and contacts in law enforcement cultivated over the years. Sometimes, says Barbara, “you have to pick up the phone.” Until the rumor can be confirmed or debunked, it will be listed as “undetermined” on Snopes. Says David, “We like people to know we’re working on something even if we don’t have an answer.”

3. The story spreads
After a few days, the burundanga rumor picks up momentum and becomes one of the most-searched-for items on Snopes, which receives close to a thousand inquiries a day about it. “The stories that rise most,” says David, “are those that pose a threat to readers.” Across the Web, people forward the e-mail as a public awareness effort that the Mikkelsons dub slacktivism-sending a warning without putting in any effort to see if it might be true.

4. The verdict
With inquiries surging, Barbara spends several days on the case and determines that burundanga is a South American plant extract containing alkaloids that, at high doses, can indeed cause delirium and unconsciousness. But there are red flags. Burundanga has no scent, and it must be swallowed or inhaled to produce the described effects. Moreover, there isn’t a single police report or news mention of an incident like this. If burundanga crime rings were really a problem, “the news would be awash in stories about such incidents,” Barbara says. Snopes lists the rumor as “false.”

5. The comeback
After quieting down over the summer, the story resurfaces in October after police officers in Canada and England forward the e-mail to fellow officers to ask if it is real. Those e-mails then circulate with the officers’ signature blocks attached, giving the tale new credibility. Adding to the confusion, a November version of such an e-mail concludes, “This has been fact-checked out on, and this is true.” As David says, “People will do just about anything to believe a story they want to believe.”

6. The myth dispelled
By early 2009, the burundanga rumor is sliding down the list of the Hot 25 rumors on Snopes. Inquiries dwindle to a couple hundred a day. “It’s bubbling under,” David says. “But these things can pop back at any time. Most rumors never die completely.”

Heard This One?
Snopes sets the record straight on which high-circulation tales are myths and which are actually (sort of) true.

Money from Uncle Bill

Rumor: Internet users can receive cash rewards from Bill Gates by forwarding an e-mail message to test a Microsoft tracking system.
Origin: A hoax circulating since 1997, the Gates story is still thriving in various forms. One claims, “For every person you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.”
Snopes report: “Totally false. It’s a made-up claim, probably started as a joke. But since it promises easy cash, people believe it.”

Deadly Flyers

Rumor: Would-be carjackers are placing flyers on the back windows of cars as a way to lure drivers out of vehicles.
Origin: On the Snopes radar since 2004, the alert is part of a tradition that fuels paranoia about danger around every corner. See also: ankle slashers at the mall.
Snopes report: False. “Nothing rules out there having been one car theft carried out in the manner described, but we have yet to hear about it.”

Wal-Mart Behemoth

Rumor: An e-mail provides eye-popping statistics for the retail chain, claiming Wal-Mart shoppers spend $36 million every hour, every day.
Origin: Unclear, but it began circulating online in late 2008. Among the many claims: Wal-Mart is the largest company in the history of the world.
Snopes report: Mostly true. Snopes discovered a few other shockers: that Wal-Mart customers, for example, spend an average of $42,754,109 every hour.

Missing Ashley Flores

Rumor: A 13-year-old Philadelphia girl named Ashley Flores has been missing for two weeks.
Origin: The text of the e-mail—making the rounds since 2006—includes a photograph, a Yahoo e-mail address, and a sad plea from the missing girl’s father, a “deli manager,” who writes, “If anyone anywhere knows anything, please contact me.” logs roughly 1,000 requests a day from users wondering whether the claim is true.
Snopes report: Complete hoax. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has no report of a missing child named Ashley Flores.

Snopes also cites phrases (“If anyone anywhere knows anything,” for instance) taken word for word from previous missing-child hoaxes such as reports on Kelsey Brooke Jones and Christopher John Mineo.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest