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Rumors Put Through Mill

Times Staff Writer

There’s the one about the teenage couple parked on lovers lane who hear a radio report that a killer with an arm hook has escaped from prison. Spooked, the girl insists on going home. After dropping her off and returning to his car, the boy finds a bloody hook hanging from the passenger door handle.

True story? Or timeless fodder for sleepovers and campfires?

How about the man who ate some bad sushi and ended up with maggots crawling around inside his head? A photo has circulated for years of a man with his scalp missing and his infested brain exposed. Is the photo real or manipulated?

For the answers to these and other urban legends, tens of thousands of people flock to snopes.com to help them separate fact from fiction. With categories as disparate as Disney, medicine and “Cokelore,” snopes.com is a virtual marketplace of stories both real and fantastic that provide a window into the ever-expanding universe of pop culture.

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The 9-year-old website is the brainchild of David and Barbara Mikkelson, who investigate and post from their mobile home in Agoura. They share their living and work space with assorted cats and cables running from living room to bedroom.

With about 150,000 visitors per day, scopes.com has for many Web surfers become an authority not only on urban legends and folklore but on more topical matters, including politics and current affairs. Even journalists have been known to quote the site.

Over the last few years, the Mikkelsons have parsed stories on John Kerry’s Swift boat experiences during the Vietnam War, Hillary Clinton’s alleged ties to the Black Panthers and President Bush’s IQ.

“We weren’t intending this to be a full-time job,” said David Mikkelson, 44, taking a midmorning break last week from what has recently evolved into a full-time gig. “It started out as a hobby, writing about urban legends. But it’s grown into something bigger.”

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Because of the site’s increasing popularity -- it experienced an inexplicable spike in visitors this last year -- David recently quit his day job as a computer programmer to devote all of his time to it along with his wife, Barbara, 45.

Nervous about turning his hobby into a business, David acknowledged it costs $2,000 to $3,000 a month to keep snopes.com going, not counting his and Barbara’s labor. He says there is rarely an hour in the day that they are not talking, thinking or writing articles for snopes.com aimed at either debunking a rumor or giving it the stamp of authenticity.

He figures they can make a go of it if they keep visitor numbers high and attract more advertisers, which now include a broadband phone service and a Las Vegas hotel chain. The Mikkelsons also plan to start selling website-related merchandise, such as T-shirts and bumper stickers, to supplement their income.

Snopes, named for a recurring family of characters in several William Faulkner novels, is not without its critics. Some say the Mikkelsons promote a liberal agenda and are slow to correct their mistakes, misleading millions of visitors on matters of national importance, especially in an election year.

“They’ll phrase things in a certain way to make it sound like the story is false, when it has largely been confirmed,” said John Berlau, a writer for Insightmag.com, a conservative online magazine affiliated with the Washington Times. “People should be skeptical about everything on the Web, including urban legends websites. They shouldn’t be so quick to accept what’s written there.”

The Mikkelsons say they try to conduct thorough investigations, poring over computer databases, newspapers and magazines. They also watch videos, TV shows and movies and sometimes speak directly with sources before reaching their conclusions.

“It’s not like we’re a more viable source than anyone else,” David said. “We look up what’s been reported and connect the dots.”

If all else fails, they will post a question or a questionable photograph on their website and solicit answers from visitors.

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That is what they did with the photo of the man with maggots in his brain. A visitor involved in the case told them the picture was taken at Stanford University, where the elderly man had been treated for advanced cancer that ate away his scalp and infested his brain with parasites.

“He was not in a great deal of pain,” Mikkelson said he was told by the visitor.

The Mikkelsons field hundreds of e-mails each week and say they answer each one, no matter how long it takes. But they carefully select those questions they will research and post on snopes.com, saying they don’t have time to investigate every query. And sometimes they don’t want to, like when someone sends in an entire editorial from the New York Times, asking if it’s true or not.

“We tell them it’s an opinion and leave it at that,” David said.

Their posted answers, sometimes pages long with sources listed at the end, are accompanied by a green bullet for “true,” a red bullet for “false” and a yellow bullet for “unknown or ambiguous.” There is a white bullet for a legend “of indeterminate origin or unclassifiable veracity.”

They recently added a half-green, half-red bullet for stories that are partly true.

Take the allegation raised by Michael Moore in “Fahrenheit 9/11" that the U.S. government allowed members of the Bin Laden family to fly out of the country when airspace was closed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Mikkelsons determined that Osama Bin Laden’s relatives were allowed to fly within the United States while airspace was closed but flew out of the country after airspace had been reopened. It earned a red-green bullet.

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“We started discussing politics and the war because that’s what people were asking about,” David said, adding that the majority of snopes.com visitors tend to be interested in legends and rumors.

Carin Rhoden, a 33-year-old facility coordinator for a biotech incubator in Cincinnati, is a regular visitor to the website. She said she often forwards stories to snopes.com to check their veracity.

“I use it a lot,” Rhodes said. “Sometimes I just browse for entertainment, but I get a lot of e-mails, and I like to check their authenticity. There’s a lot of stuff floating around out there that isn’t true. I like Snopes because they usually list their sources.”

The Mikkelsons met on the Internet 10 years ago, before the advent of browsers made the World Wide Web accessible to anyone with a computer. Fittingly, they found each other on a text-only newsgroup devoted to urban legends.

Barbara, who was living in Ottawa at the time, moved to Southern California to be with David. They started the website in 1995 under a different name and acquired the domain snopes.com in 1997.

David said the site will continue to thrive as long as the questions keep coming, like the one about the killer with an arm hook. It received a red bullet.


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