Site is a labor of love for husband-and-wife team who stayed skeptical about media reports that hunters could pay up to $10,000 for chance to shoot paintballs at naked women.
There are a lot of reporters who live by the maxim: If it sounds like it's too good to be true, it probably is. Meaning, it's not true. In the case of the "Hunting for Bambi" whopper, Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS was ready to shoot video first, ask questions later. Despite the fact that the station's LuAnne Sorrell did a four-part report on the scheme -- supposedly giving men the chance to hunt naked women with paintball guns for up to $10,000 -- it failed to do the heavy lifting needed to unmask the hoax. Instead, urban legends site Snopes.com led the way within days with a detailed explanation of why it was a hoax.
In fact, KLAS ended up crediting Snopes, though the station still sticks by claims that two hunts took place, with a paintball actually hitting someone. And that's after Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman went public to debunk the alleged hunt. "It all was staged," Goodman told the press. "They were actors and actresses, and there wasn't even the real shooting of paintballs." KLAS' latest report yesterday noted that Goodman is now calling the scam a front for an unlicensed escort service.
While the Internet has taken its share of knocks for helping scammers perpetrate e-mail and Web hoaxes (the Bambi hunt reportedly was staged to sell videos on the proprietor's Web site), not enough credit is given to the folks who are using the Internet to debunk them. Snopes.com is the work of the husband-and-wife team of David and Barbara Mikkelson, who have taken their passion for urban myths to the Web since 1995. The site is an encyclopedia of past hoaxes and myths, from classic e-mails purportedly from Bill Gates offering money for forwarding e-mail to friends, to recent reports of terrorists buying up UPS uniforms.
The Mikkelsons, who live in the Southern California suburb of Thousand Oaks, support themselves via David's full-time programming job, and use ad money from the site to pay for bandwidth and related costs. They received an inundation of traffic right after 9/11 due to a plethora of terror-related hoaxes and misinformation. They've appeared on CNN and various TV shows, but remain relatively low key and out of the spotlight, despite pop culture interest in their subject matter (there have been two "Urban Legends" movies and a TV show; none affiliated with them).
I spoke to David Mikkelson recently by phone, after elbowing my way through his e-mail pile to get his attention. The pair depend on e-mail to find out about new hoaxes from their legions of followers.
Mark Glaser: Tell me about the genesis of your site.
David Mikkelson: Originally, Barbara and I participated in various online discussion groups before the development of the Web. It wasn't convenient to post individual answers to newsgroups every time someone asked about an urban legend, which suggested a Web site repository of such articles, which prompted the creation of Snopes.com. I just started adding more and more sections to our Web site, then Barbara started pitching in and writing things as well. We quickly became the place where people mailed anything that was questionable. If they needed verification, they'd ask us.
MG: Do you have any kids?
DM: No kids. Just cats and rats. I have my hands full taking care of three cats. I don't know how anyone manages with children, too.
MG: Do you really have pet rats? Or is that a legend?
DM: [laughs] Yeah, we have pet rats.
MG: What are the myths over the years that have brought you wider attention online and in the media?
DM: The biggest one, that gave us the biggest boost to the site -- I hate to say it because it sounds like we're capitalizing on a tragedy -- was after September 11. It was the bogus Nostradamus prophecy that was going around that same day [equating a passage about "two brothers torn apart" with the Twin Towers]. Barbara had the foresight to get that up by the end of the day. The next day this thing was going crazy on the Internet and we had a page up on our site debunking it. Our site became the place to go, especially because a lot of the news sites were so swamped with traffic. It took a while before they caught on and started covering a lot of the hoaxes.
MG: That's pretty quick to get it out that fast.
DM: Well, it was a pretty easy one to debunk. Because it was a [Canadian] student who had been showing [in a Web essay] how vague prophecies can be applied to anything. Lacking that source, it would have been difficult to figure out, we would have had to go through the entire writings of Nostradamus. He had basically invented a Nostradamus prophecy that could be applied to anything. Someone had stumbled across that and didn't read the context.
MG: Have the terror-related hoaxes calmed down over the past couple years?
DM: Certainly they've tailed off because they were flooding the Internet right after September 11. But you still see them popping up, like the item about the UPS uniforms. At the end of last year, there was outrageous prices being bid for UPS uniforms on eBay -- several hundred dollars. Then eBay clamped down on sale of these items.
MG: People thought terrorists were trying to buy UPS uniforms?
DM: The rumor du jour was that terrorists were going around buying UPS uniforms and trying to impersonate them and hide bombs and things like that.
MG: When did you first hear about the "Hunting for Bambi" story?
DM: It was within a day or two after the woman from KLAS in Las Vegas did her report and it went on their Web site. We got enough inquiries that we had to write something about it. I heard that Fark.com picked it up but didn't see it there. We do get a lot of inquiries from people saying they saw something at Fark.com, asking, "Is this true?"
MG: So what made you think "Hunting for Bambi" was a hoax?
DM: Part of it is that we start off with the thought that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Our approach is going to be that something outrageous is going to be a hoax. But that's unfortunately not what a lot of people in the media do. They say, "This is real, and we'll see if there's proof it isn't."
MG: So you start off with the assumption that everything's a hoax until proven real?
DM: In a general sense. I can't say that applies to everything. We start out by saying, is there anything that proves this to be true. Absolutely the worst approach you can take -- and unfortunately the approach that most people in the media take -- is simply to contact the hoaxer and ask, "Are you on the level?" No one will put the time and effort into perpetrating a hoax simply to say, "Oh, you got me." Simply by approaching him, you've both alerted him that you're on his trail, and you quite possibly have given him clues as to what people might be looking for to verify that it's phony and will give him ideas on how to improve the hoax.
Our approach is, we're completely coming from the other end. In this case, we say is there anything that demonstrates that it's real. The first thing you notice is that it's rather improbable that naked women wearing no protection whatsoever, not even helmets or goggles, will run around in front of guys with unmodified paintball guns with nothing more than a vague promise they won't shoot above the waist. This is a disaster waiting to happen. I mean, heaven forbid, one of these girls could get hit in the head, blinded or killed or injured. No waiver or no agreement would protect the hunters from criminal prosecution.
Also, just like the ManBeef Web site that was claiming to be selling human meat, if somebody is claiming to be operating a business, you approach them as a customer and see what happens. You generally find that you can't order what they're claiming to be selling. You look at the "Hunting for Bambi" site and there's no contact information whatsoever, no address, no phone number. Kind of unusual for people who are trying to sell something that costs $10,000... If they're selling something, they're not doing a good job.
The KLAS reporter went back to the ISP and saw a list of orders that were being submitted to the site, but that doesn't demonstrate anything because you don't know who's putting in those orders. Somebody working for "Hunting for Bambi" could have typed in 20 different addresses. Just because people are submitting orders through the Web site doesn't mean that they've been accepted or processed. If I put up a site advertising live unicorns for sale, I'm sure at least a few people would try to order them if I put an order form up.
If you can't order what they're claiming, then they're probably not really selling anything. If they do accept payment then they're setting themselves up for fraud charges if they don't deliver it.
MG: Because the media was bringing things to his attention, it made it easier for him to cover his tracks?
DM: Exactly. There were quite a few things we thought of, simple investigative tasks that one might take on. We didn't have the power to do them, we're just two people here. I didn't put them up on the site because I had no power to investigate them, and didn't want to put a blueprint for how to get it past people.
MG: You've done this site since the time when the Web first became popular. Are you noticing that journalists are becoming a little more skeptical about things online?
DM: Yes and no. It goes both ways. People will blindly believe what they read in the newspaper or hear on Paul Harvey, who then blindly believe a Web site without checking anything. They go from one extreme to another. We have a section on our site called Lost Legends. We just made up the most outrageous things we could think of, made them out to being true, then put them out there to see if people would suspend their common sense.
The most popular one is that we say that Mr. Ed was not a horse [but was a zebra]. We made up that the song "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was actually a song pirates used to recruit each other in the days of Blackbeard. It turns up on the "Urban Legends" show broadcast on a cable channel that it was true. They read it and thought that it was true.
Unfortunately some people have also had an unrelenting skepticism and simply disclaim everything. You see that a lot with photos on the Web. People say about everything, "Is this real?" It is now impossible to post a photograph without some self-proclaimed Photoshop expert saying it's fake. You could take it yourself and not touch it, and some people will tell you they're sure it's fake. Some people have a hypersensitivity to hoaxes. This is another phenomenon after September 11.
MG: Have you noticed more or less hoaxes over the years?
DM: It's pretty much the same. Really widespread Internet-based hoaxes are fairly uncommon. Most of them are just, "I'm going to put up this gag and see if anyone falls for it." Having someone go through the time and effort to do a really thought-out hoax is pretty rare, maybe happening once or twice a year. Like the ManBeef site. They also appeared on talk radio shows, and when journalists contacted them, they left voice-mail messages.
MG: What about the role of the Internet in hoaxes?
DM: I think in general, nothing's changed but the technology. There's a lot on the Internet that you can't trust. But frankly, there's a lot on your bookshelf and the library shelves that you can't trust either. There are books on UFOs and alien encounters that require some examination. There's never been a medium that you could inherently trust. You still have to look at who's telling you this and why are they telling you this. Is there anything else they should be telling you? That concept hasn't changed. The Internet has made it easier to debunk hoaxes while at the same time making it easier to perpetrate them. Nothing's really changed but the technology.