In October 2020, a series of threads was posted to the anonymous internet forum 4Chan as part of operation "Snopes-Piercer," a smear campaign with the stated goal of "red-pilling some normies" — internet slang for a propaganda technique in which distorted, fabricated, or skewed information is used to further a self-determined "truth." In order to "red-pill" these people (one thread noted that "boomers" were the primary target), the plan was to create and circulate doctored screenshots of Snopes fact checks to make it appear as if Snopes fact-checkers addressed claims that we had not.
Over the next few days, users created and shared these fake Snopes screenshots in a number of additional 4chan threads. These images were also posted on social media sites, like Twitter. The fact-checking website Leadstories addressed one doctored image that supposedly showed a Snopes fact check of photos allegedly depicting Hunter Biden, the son of 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, writing:
Lead Stories emailed Snopes October 16, 2020 to check the authenticity of the claim about Snopes. Founder and Executive Editor David Mikkelson wrote back almost immediately to say that Snopes did not publish a fact check titled "Are the photos of Hunter Biden smoking crack real?" and has never published a piece stating that a photo of Hunter Biden asleep with a meth pipe is real.
The meme is formatted and structured similarly to Snopes' fact checks, leading with the question, "Are the photos of Hunter Biden smoking crack real?" and then following up with the claim, "It is claimed that the above photo is of Hunter Biden, asleep with a crack pipe." It even includes the Snopes' logo and the design Snopes uses for a false rating. But Lead Stories conducted a search of Snopes.com and found no instance of this post anywhere on its website. Similarly, a Google search turned up no instance of this purported fact check.
The doctored image involving the Biden photos is still circulating on Facebook, but the social media network has added an overlay atop noting that the post contains false information. Here is how it currently appears:
We found a handful of other images made in this fashion. Some were humorous (we did not actually address the claim that CNN reporter Chris Cuomo was actually Fredo from "The Godfather"), some were insidious (we did not really publish a fact check questioning the Holocaust), and some were political (we did not publish a fact check questioning the results of the 2020 election before the election happened):
In another "Operation Snopes-Piercer" thread, forum users were once again asked to "red-pill the normies," but this time they were urged to be more subtle with their forgeries. Instead of making up claims out of whole cloth, they were tasked with finding real Snopes articles featuring a "Mixture" rating and inserting a sentence or two to make the rating seem particularly ill-conceived or biased. In other instances, they cropped images of real screenshots to include only the "What's True" portion of a "Mixture" fact check and omitted the "What's False" portion.
Not a New Strategy
This smear campaign appears to have been stoked by some users' belief that Snopes' articles are opinionated, or biased, or that our work is done not with the intent to sort fact from fiction, but rather, they claim, because we serve some nefarious party or masked mega-donor. As the evidence is apparently too thin to bear out these accusations (FYI, we share ownership and annual financial disclosures on our website here), the "Snopes-Piercers" resorted to doctoring images to support their claims.
This propaganda tactic — sharing misinformation, doctored content, or complete forgeries in order to advance a self-determined "truth" — is old hat for 4Chan users and other purveyors of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Over the years, we've seen several similar smear campaigns based on the idea of "red-pilling" people, a term derived from the 1999 movie "The Matrix," which means, in short, to awaken the world to "truths" that were supposedly hidden from them. Of course, associating these smear campaigns with the "truth" is a tough pill to swallow, as these efforts are are all about the dissemination of falsehoods.
In 2015, while the world was dealing with a refugee crisis, some social media users determined, without sufficient evidence, that the "truth" about these refugees was that they were dangerous and violent. In an attempt to prove this "truth," some deceitful internet users set about creating "evidence," including a compilation of violent video clips that had little to do with the refugee crisis.
In 2018, after Nike and Starbucks voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement, some social media users determined the "truth" about these companies was that they were racist against white people. With insufficient evidence to prove this "truth," another attempt was made to create "evidence" in support of this false reality. A series of doctored ads containing racist language were created and shared as if they had originated with these companies.
These smear tactics have also been used in an attempt to "red-pill" or convince people that the LGBTQ community is connected to pedophilia. As there is insufficient evidence to support this "truth" (and ample evidence to debunk it), nefarious netizens set out, again, to manufacture "evidence" to further this false reality. This time, it came in the form of a doctored flyer claiming that the LGBTQ community was adding the letter "P" to their name (i.e., "LGBTQP") in order to include pedophiles. The Black Lives Matter movement, antifa, and the environmental group Extinction Rebellion have also been subjected to these smear campaigns.
If Starbucks and Nike were truly discriminating against white people, if Black Lives Matter was calling white people the enemy, if antifa was calling for the murder of children, if Snopes was being controlled by puppetmasters, why would all of this doctored content be necessary in order to prove these "truths?"
Because "red-pilling the normies" isn't about awakening the world to reality. It is, like in the movie "The Matrix," about people escaping into a fantasy world of their own creation. "The Matrix" is not real. Agent Smith is not real. Neo is played by actor Keanu Reeves who, despite what the red pill might tell us, can't actually stop bullets with his mind.
These red pill campaigns all follow a basic formula. The user decides what they want to be true and then they set out to find, or manufacture, the evidence to support that truth. A concerted effort is then made to spread these false narratives to as wide an audience as possible in order to "red-pill" the general population.
In this formula, the desired "truth" comes first. The "evidence" comes second. It goes without saying that this method is antithetical to the mission of Snopes, fact-checkers in general, journalists, and anyone seeking an objective view of reality.