Mom-And-Pop Site Busts The Web's Biggest Myths

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Guy Raz/NPR

David and Barbara Mikkelson are the husband-and-wife duo behind the myth-busting Web site Snopes.com.

You'd think it would take an army to truth-squad the rapid-fire rumors of the World Wide Web. But at Snopes.com, that task falls to husband-and-wife myth debunkers David and Barbara Mikkelson.

Did you hear about how criminals use drug-soaked business cards to incapacitate their victims? Turns out, that's not true.

How about the claim that Jesus will be portrayed as gay in an upcoming film? Also false.

Or that Oliver North warned Congress about Osama bin Laden years ago? Wrong again.

You'd think it would take an army to truth-squad the rapid-fire rumors of the World Wide Web. But at Snopes.com, that task falls to husband-and-wife myth debunkers David and Barbara Mikkelson.

Snopes.com is the go-to Web site for debunking the hottest rumors, hoaxes and urban legends, attracting roughly 5 million viewers a month. NPR's Guy Raz visited the Mikkelsons at their world headquarters — a modest, pre-fab home next to a creek in Agoura Hills, Calif.

The Mikkelsons may be Internet pioneers, but David and Barbara use plenty of old-fashioned tools in their work — like books. Lots of them. Books on word etymologies, history and urban legends, stacked two-deep in the couple's library.

"Our contractor thought I was a little bit odd when I said, 'I want these shelves built so sturdy that you could lay a dead body on each of them,'" Barbara says.

In the living room, a cat and computer are close at hand. A trio of live rats play in their cage nearby (they lost their roaming privileges after chewing too many wires). In the back is David's "office," which he says "is actually a bedroom for cats — in which they have graciously consented to sublet space."

The Mikkelsons estimate they have several thousand articles on their site right now. Their list of the "25 Hottest Urban Legends" is regularly updated with new myths and some "dopplegangers" — stories that have been around forever in one form or another.

"They're kind of like the equivalent of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on the Billboard chart," says David. "They're just there for years, and they never go away."

It's hard not to notice trends if you're a rumor reporter. Stories that stick around for years often involve computer viruses or missing children. Rumors involving immigration or terrorism tend to recirculate with the times.

David even made up an urban legend of his own once — that the famous Mr. Ed was actually a zebra. Zebras are more docile, he argues, than horses.

And sometimes, it turns out that the urban legends the Mikkelsons debunk are actually true.

"Several years ago, there was this narrative going around," David tells Guy Raz. "It was about some group of FBI agents who had supposedly taken over a psychiatric hospital."

"It was this wonderfully funny narrative about an agent trying to convince a pizza delivery place to send a dozen pizzas to a psychiatric hospital full of FBI agents, none of whom had any cash on them, so by the way, will you take a check?"

David tracked down an agent involved in the case, who corroborated the story. It was a debunker's lesson in suspending disbelief.

"What we've learned over time is there's pretty much nothing that you can immediately dismiss as too absurd to be true," David says.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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