GUY RAZ, host:
There's a good chance, as an NPR listener, you've come across a forwarded email from a friend describing a recent report about how NPR's funding is about to be cut off. Usually, it describes Nina Totenberg, our legal affairs correspondent, as the one breaking the bad news.
Well, that email or a version of it has been circulating on the internet since 1995 and, no, it's not true. But don't let that stop you from making a contribution to your local public radio station, please.
Anyway, you may have also come across this story that a woman named Barbara Mikkelson tells.
Ms. BARBARA MIKKELSON (Snopes.com): Well, I can remember feeling absolutely aghast when a friend had told me how the daughter of another friend had come back from Mexico after meeting some wonderful guy down there. And after spending two weeks of wild romance down there, she unwrapped this gift from him on the plane. It was a coffee cup and looked at it and it said: Welcome to the world of AIDS.
RAZ: Barbara Mikkelson used to believe that story. It shocked her. That is, until she started hearing many, many different versions of it, sometimes it was a coffee mug, sometimes a ceramic coffin, sometimes it was a note scrawled in lipstick on a hotel mirror. She eventually discovered the story was a lie, an urban legend. And that moment changed her life.
Barbara Mikkelson and her husband David are the myth busters behind the website Snopes.com. All day long, they scour the internet and sometimes even the bookshelves at real, brick and mortar libraries and they look for information, information to bust myths and rumors that circulate online, like...
Mr. DAVID MIKKELSON (Snopes.com): Asparagus, the idea that asparagus wards off cancer...
Mr. MIKKELSON: ...an upcoming film that will supposedly portray Jesus as gay...
Mr. MIKKELSON: ...a plea to find missing girl named Ashley Flores. That's another favorite. She was never missing.
RAZ: And every month, about five million people visit Snopes.com to find out, for example, whether it's true that Oliver North once warned Al Gore about Osama bin Laden in 1987. It's not. Or if there really was a basketball court inside the peak of the Matterhorn at Disneyland.
Ms. MIKKELSON: There isn't now, but there was a half court way up there that was just sort of used for employee fun time.
RAZ: All that myth busting comes out of the Mikkelsons' two-bedroom, pre-fab home perched above a stream deep in the hills outside Los Angeles, a home they share with five cats and three rats.
Mr. MIKKELSON: We can see what we sort of hubristically refer to as my office, although its actually a bedroom for cats in which they have graciously consented to sublet space.
RAZ: The Mikkelsons used to allow their rats to roam free, but they started to chew up the internet cables and phone lines strewn along the floors.
Mr. MIKKELSON: They had to stay in cages after that.
RAZ: And they seem perfectly fine with that. Aside from the rat cage, the house is packed with cat toys, cables, old magazines and books, hundreds of books.
Ms. MIKKELSON: This whole area up here is all of word etymologies and phrases, ideas of where various words came from, when they entered the language, how they've changed...
RAZ: Every rumor or legend the Mikkelsons debunk or confirm is backed by carefully footnoted research. Often, they add links to original documents, official transcripts or video.
The story of how Snopes.com got started begins in the early 1990s when Barbara was living in Ottawa, Canada, and David was here in Agoura Hills, California.
Mr. MIKKELSON: Barbara and I actually met online back in the pre-Web days. We met on a text-based online discussion group about urban legends. So we, you know, emailed back and forth for a while and I went and visited her in Ottawa and afterwards she came out here to live with me.
RAZ: And by 1995, Snopes was up and running.
Mr. MIKKELSON: We never had any intent of running what our site has become now. It was intended to be sort of like an encyclopedic reference of urban legends. But we ended up going where the audience led us, which was writing about all kinds of political screeds, scams, hoaxes, missing child alerts, you know, household warnings and everything else that circulates on the internet.
RAZ: And it turns out in many, many cases, the legends they debunk are modern versions of very old stories.
Ms. MIKKELSON: We tell now of a story about a woman who was at a shopping mall and comes back and finds that her car is disabled. It has a flat tire or perhaps just won't start and there's a helpful stranger that seems a little creepy who offers to help her and...
RAZ: The man then tries to get in the car with her. She drives off and later discovers a bag he left in her trunk. Inside is duct tape, an ax and a rope.
Ms. MIKKELSON: There was a precursor to that from the - prior to the American Civil War in which a suspicious passenger in a stagecoach was basically tricked and gotten out of the stagecoach by the driver, so that they could ride off without her, because it was dressed as a woman. And only afterwards, they find the carpetbag of the supposed lady and, of course, it contains a great, big revolver.
RAZ: At Snopes.com, the Mikkelsons keep a tally of the "25 Hottest Urban Legends" circulating around the internet at any given time.
Mr. MIKKELSON: Some things are literally around for years and never go away.
RAZ: Even after you've debunked them.
Mr. MIKKELSON: Yes. They've been in our top 25 lists almost constantly for years.
Mr. MIKKELSON: They're kind of like the equivalent of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" on the Billboard chart. They're just there for years, and they never go away.
RAZ: Things like warnings about computer viruses or the email that says if you forward it, Microsoft will send you a free laptop or free cash.
Now, while a lot of the rumors the Mikkelsons deal with might seem silly or harmless, many, they say, are not, like the persistent emails that suggest President Obama is a foreign agent bent on undermining America. Or a recent photograph circulating on the net in which Michelle Obama poses behind an apple that seems to reflect the image of Karl Marx. Many people actually believe this stuff.
Ms. MIKKELSON: I will confess, there are mornings when I go to David and I say, why are we doing this website again? Why are - why is everyone so crazy? But I also look at my inbox and see all of the emails that come in from perfectly normal people, from folks who are - who write to say thanks. I was about to get taken by this scam.
RAZ: Oh, and more thing. You know how despite it all, Mussolini still managed to keep the trains running on time? Well, that's a myth too. You can read about it at snopes.com. And you can see a photograph of the Mikkelsons at our website, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.