Though President Trump often derides the mainstream media as “fake news,” we know now that there were people who consciously crafted false news stories during the 2016 election and passed them off as real.
One of those people was Paul Horner, who made his living creating news hoaxes that often went viral. Authorities say Horner was found dead last week near Phoenix; he was 38.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office told NPR that an autopsy found no signs of foul play and that Horner’s family said he had a history of abusing prescription drugs. Evidence at the scene suggests that Horner may have died from an accidental overdose, according to the sheriff’s office.
The county’s Office of the Medical Examiner told NPR that its investigation into Horner’s death is open and pending, and thus foul play has not been ruled out.
He considered himself a political satirist. “There’s a lot of humor, a lot of comedy in it,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in December.
He created fake stories for his website National Report that were likely to find a believing audience. In one fake story, The Washington Post reports, he claimed that President Barack Obama used his own money to keep open a “federally funded” Muslim culture museum during a government shutdown. Horner was delighted that Fox News reported that story as fact before they backtracked.
“Is National Report the fake news site, or Fox News?” he asked the newspaper. “You decide.”
In an interview with the Post after the 2016 election Horner said, “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.”
“His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything,” he said. “His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”
It’s difficult to gauge whether Horner was as influential as he claimed. But his stories certainly reached wide audiences, often by masquerading as coming from reputable news sources.
His fake story about Obama invalidating November’s election result was shared more than 250,000 times on Facebook, according to the Post. Horner told BuzzFeed that another of his bogus stories, which claimed 20 million Amish people had committed to vote for Trump, turned up in Google News and garnered 750,000 page views in two days.
Horner told the newspaper that he was making $10,000 a month from Google-powered ads on his websites.
“I hate Trump,” he said. But he targeted conservatives with his stories because he found it was more profitable.
When asked why he would write the stories he did, like peddling the idea that there were paid protesters at Trump rallies, Horner said he assumed someone would fact-check it.
“I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots,” he told the Post. “But Trump supporters — they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything! Now he’s in the White House. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].”
“I do it to try to educate people,” Horner claimed in the interview on CNN. “I see certain things wrong in society that I don’t like.”
Facebook announced last week that it would undertake a number of reforms to guard against interference in elections. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social network wouldn’t be able to catch everything.
“We don’t check what people say before they say it,” he said. “And frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to.”
Horner’s brother told The Associated Press that there was “a genius behind a lot of” his brother’s work.
“I think he just wanted people to just think for themselves,” said J.J. Horner. “Read more; get more involved instead of just blindly sharing things.”