An Interview With About Fighting Coronavirus Lies

“It’s overwhelming.” logo surrounded by questions about COVID-19
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Snopes.

On Monday, venerable internet fact-checker Snopes released a letter declaring that the site has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 pandemic misinformation. What is it like running a fact-checking organization during an “infodemic”? Why aren’t more news organizations picking up the fact-checking baton? I talked to Vinny Green, Snopes’ general manager, about the high margins of scams, about what Google and Facebook are doing wrong, and about his “silver bullet” to solve the problem of misinformation on the internet. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: Would you characterize this as an extraordinary event in the life of Snopes?

Vinny Green: Oh, yes, absolutely. In the last 30 days, we’ve reached 36 million unique visitors, and it’s over a 50 percent increase since the previous 30 days. People are emailing us a lot more COVID-19 rumors, almost an unmanageable amount of inputs—people calling out misinformation both at a national level and happening inside their own neighborhoods. It’s really overwhelming how much need there is.

How is that flood of information and the corresponding flood of traffic changing things at Snopes? Have you ramped up articles? Are people working all hours of the day and night to make sure that the stuff gets out?

No, no, none of that! None of it. We throw our hands up! This letter is us trying to tell the community that we cannot be the help that you need. We cannot rise to the occasion. There is no economy, there is no industry that supports a fact-checking organization meeting demand. We can’t take our staff and go, “You are perpetually responding to a never-ending onslaught of misinformation. Now it’s topical and we have a lot of traffic, so could you work at 120 percent while your lives fall apart because spouses are out of work and children are home and toilet paper is hard to find?”

We can’t scale up our business in order to meet the demand as everything becomes more and more precarious. The ad markets are more precarious, and we’re going to see an erosion. Snopes should not be the most well-funded fact-checking organization with a nominal budget of a couple million dollars. We need to inform the community that we need to prepare for the next one, not this one, because the information war over COVID-19 was lost weeks ago, and the idea that we’re going to change the tide so dramatically by having five fact-checkers work themselves to death—it is not happening.

We’re already playing from behind on misinformation?

We were playing from behind from 2014 with the misinformation crisis! Like the lack of thoughtfulness around how we ensure the integrity of our information systems. We were too late to that fight in 2014 and going into the election, and now we’re looking at a global pandemic where people are taking fish tank cleaner and thinking it’s going to cure COVID-19 and dying, or ignoring stay-at-home orders and all sorts of other stuff. The work of a fact-checker most of the time is “Is Betty White dead or not?” But when it comes to a global pandemic, they don’t have the infrastructure to make sure they don’t kill grandma.

Do you have something specific you point to as causing these insufficiencies in the marketplace?

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, I hate to say that there’s a silver bullet for this, but I think there’s a silver bullet.

I want to hear the silver bullet!

Make Google and Facebook and any technology platform that requires the use of third-party verifiers pay us a fraction of a penny every time they use a fact check in their user experience to refute misinformation. And they know how to do that. It’s just like serving an ad. Google, for instance, who doesn’t pay fact-checkers anything—Google Search and Google News used fact checks somewhere between 4 to 5 billion times last year. In the advertising business, if you were to get 5 billion impressions, 5 billion times you showed a fact check at a $1 CPM [cost per mille, or cost per 1,000 impressions], that would be $5 million to a starved, vital industry just by Google being responsible by licensing and paying out a proportionate amount of money to the demand.

And then we could respond to the increase in demand that’s happening. And those companies are going to be incentivized to take the bad content down. If you don’t want to take down the Pelosi video on Facebook, but you’re paying money hand over fist to the fact-checkers that have debunked it, it might not be as profitable for you to just stand by and let misinformation percolate on your platform. But now, it’s either you get nothing or it’s some “partnership” where they just pay whatever will shut you up to avoid accountability.

Up till now, has there been any partnership between Snopes and any of these platforms, or are you not seeing a dime from—

Oh, we’re the O.G. fact-checking partner. We were one of the first six fact-checkers to partner with Facebook. I was on that first email thread dating back to November 2016 after Facebook was caught flat-footed by this. In February of last year, we publicly announced after trying to negotiate with Facebook that we were no longer going to participate, because in my opinion it was purely a PR move. How can you spend the least amount of money to get the most amount of fact-checkers, essentially. At some point in time we have to go, this is not a partnership. This is them running roughshod over the entire fact-checking industry, pulling a brilliant PR move and the entire industry going, “All right, it’s better than doing nothing.” And for Google: They just are not about that shit. They are not paying money to anybody. They refuse to give a penny to fact-checkers that are allowing them to continue on as this impartial platform while we take all the risks.

They position themselves as an impartial arbiter of truth.

You’re the search engine, the only search engine. You make all of this money because you’ve claimed that you’re neutral.

If we shoot this silver bullet and the platforms pay out better, that presumably incentivizes other publications to invest in fact-checking—

Like who wouldn’t?

Right, but then they become competitors to you in this industry. Is that better than the status quo for Snopes?

We’re always going to be the best. I don’t want to be the biggest beautiful flower in the desert, in the least hospitable ecosystem. I guarantee that given the opportunity to compete in a marketplace where we’re rewarded for the value that we have, Snopes will thrive. I’m not intimidated by the idea that other organizations can get in the business of fact-checking, because I don’t think they have the stomach to do what we do, which is call people out and eat all the shit that rolls downhill for slapping a false rating on stuff. We get death threats every month and hate mail every day.

What is it about COVID-19 that is causing this perfect storm of misinformation?

There are people who mean well, right? They’re trying to find answers, they want a cure for the anxiety they’re feeling. They’re going to share some insidery information about how to deal with COVID-19, they’ll want to get that out there, right? But that’s misinformation. But then you have these other camps of propagandists and profitgandists, as I like to call them. The one thing that thrives during times like this is things that don’t cost businesses anything—and there’s nothing higher-margin and lower-overhead than a scam. If the collective consciousness is hovering so tightly over a particular topic, every bad actor that is running scams and grifts in every other corner of the internet is now going, “Oh, it’s COVID-19 time. That’s the party.” Let’s not think for a second that people aren’t taking hammers to this, right? People are directing laser-focused grifts at seniors right now.

The truth is as low-margin as a grift is high-margin, right? It takes effort and energy to figure out the truth.

The fact-checking community muses about this. It’s like they dream of these systems to help manage and triage all this work and identify misinformation in real time. People hunt for grants from Google Cloud to do stuff with A.I. and whatever. And it’s like, no, we can’t dream about that. We have to build an industry that extracts value and invests to be able to actually do that. We could create it. It exists in other forms. Every single piece of software that looks for anomalous business transactions or whatever is the same thing. Could we ever see it in practice for fact-checking? No, because there’s no way to extract any value. So we just sit there and go brute force and sit at the base of the ever-growing mountain of shit and start shoveling, and think we’re making a difference. Instead of going, how do we stop the mountain from growing?

How do you stop the horses from shitting?

Yeah. We’re not solving for that. We’re trying to figure out new ways to aggregate shit.