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Pity the Poor Plagiarist

Brian L Frye

Pity the Poor Plagiarist
LordRunar via iStock

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No one feels bad when the hero takes a fall, especially when the hero is a bit of a scold. And the paradigmatic twenty-first-century scold is an internet fact-checker. The internet is still for porn, but it’s also for misinformation. Everyone’s peddling fake news, lies, and propaganda; it’s hard to know who to believe. Enter the fact-checkers, piously offering the straight dope on every viral meme. But what happens when the virtuous break the rules?

The OG Fact-Checker

Snopes is the OG fact-checker, the self-appointed hall monitor of the internet, devoted to debunking rumors and correcting misinformation. Until recently, it was living its best life as the United States slid into a deranged fever dream of QAnon-fueled conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxer lunacy. All catnip for a no-nonsense voice of reason.

Until the Other Shoe Dropped

On August 13, 2021, BuzzFeed published a lengthy article accusing David Mikkelson, the cofounder and CEO of Snopes, of plagiarizing dozens of articles with receipts. Apparently, between 2015 and 2019, Mikkelson wrote at least 54 Snopes articles in which he copied without attribution from articles published on other websites, often publishing them under the pseudonym Jeff Zarronandia. Apparently, Mikkelson had a habit of monitoring other websites for breaking news and copying parts of their stories into his own to publish as quickly as possible and draw traffic to Snopes. And he encouraged other Snopes employees to do the same, telling them, “You can always take an existing article and rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.” Sure, it’s true, but you’re not supposed to admit it.

The response to BuzzFeed’s article was swift and sure. Snopes immediately suspended Mikkelson, investigated all of his articles, and retracted those that included plagiarized material. For their part, other journalists tut-tutted up a storm, the more prestigious their byline, the more disdainful their take. Not to be left out, the New York Times immediately published its version of the BuzzFeed article, focusing on the plagiarism rather than Mikkelson’s unusual use of a pseudonym and weirdly trollish habits.

Everybody Hates a Plagiarist

None of this was a surprise. Everybody hates a plagiarist, but no one hates them more than journalists. Even worse, Mikkelson was an outsider with the nerve to elbow his way into journalism. Snopes was tolerated but never really liked or respected. As soon as Mikkelson was credibly accused of plagiarism, the jig was up.

And yet, why did Mikkelson’s plagiarism matter? After all, journalism was born of plagiarism. In the nineteenth century, newspaper editors were “scissors and paste men” who literally snipped stories from other papers and published them under their own bylines. No one objected because those who were copied one week were the copiers the next. Sure, journalists eventually found literary religion and disavowed their plagiaristic roots. But it’s no secret that plenty of journalism still consists of warming-over stories for a new audience. Plus ça change.

Who Cares and Why?

Full disclosure, I’m pretty skeptical of the legitimacy of plagiarism norms. As far as I can tell, they exist primarily to create quasi property rights in public domain facts and ideas. But I find the Snopes plagiarism scandal wildly overblown. After all, Mikkelson’s copying didn’t hurt his competitors. They didn’t even notice until BuzzFeed pointed it out, and neither did his readers. Did he plagiarize? Sure. But isn’t the critical question—the interesting question—who cares and why?

Can You Steal a Cliché?

Let’s be honest. Mikkelson copied banalities, mostly bland statements of fact. Was it copyright infringement? Maybe. The bar for copyright protection is notoriously low. But this was never a copyright scandal. The gravamen of the complaint against Mikkelson is plagiarism and plagiarism alone. Can you steal a cliché? I don’t know, but it seems unlikely.

There’s no question that Mikkelson violated journalistic plagiarism norms by copying articles rather than paraphrasing them. For better or worse, when you join a profession, you accept its rules and the obligation to observe them. And yet, we can still ask whether those rules make sense. Maybe punishing Mikkelson for his misdeeds is justified. But why retract his articles? No one claims they’re inaccurate or unhelpful. They’re just tainted by plagiarism. So what? No one really expected them to be all that original in the first place.