Fake-news pioneer Paul Horner, whose hoaxes drew international attention on the Internet and during the 2016 presidential election, died in Phoenix on Sept. 18, officials confirmed. He was 38.
For at least six years, Horner sprayed the Internet with intentionally false stories designed to inflame readers. Those stories often went viral on Facebook, allowing him to misinform tens or hundreds of thousands of people — including eventual voters — from his Phoenix apartment.
“All the stuff I write has a moral purpose of targeting things I don’t like in society,” Horner told The Arizona Republic in a September 2016 interview. “Anybody who gets tricked by my stuff is people that I’m targeting, trying to make them change the way they think.”
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Calbert Gillett told The Arizona Republic that Horner’s death was still under investigation Monday and would not rule out foul play or impairment. He died in the Laveen area of southwest Phoenix.
Horner’s brother, JJ, said in a Facebook post that Paul Horner died peacefully and in his sleep.
Paul Horner also was a stand-up comedian and host of a downtown Phoenix comedy show called “Mystery Show,” which attracted a few dozen attendees each show. But once Horner’s fake news gained traction online, his infamous influence spread throughout the country.
“There’s nothing that I’m putting out now that’s not getting at least 20 to 50 thousand views,” Horner said last year. “And that’s not really viral. A hundred-thousand is viral.”
Spreading a fake-news empire
Using official-sounding domain names like CNN.co.de and Microsoftsite.com, Horner’s stories swerved from over-the-top jokes to political firebombs, namely the super-viral “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.”
His stories followed a simple formula: Use a famous name, include a real photo and make at least the first few sentences read like a standard news story. That way, his stories would have credibility before readers began to doubt.
“Anybody can write a story,” Horner said. “I’ll make sure the first couple paragraphs are always super-legit. The title will be legit, the image when you share it on Facebook will look super-legit, everything will look super-real, perfect. And then after that, I’ll just gradually have more and more ridiculous bulls–t.”
Many of his hoaxes were picked up by news outlets and political players who failed to fact-check the claims.
President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, tweeted a link to Horner’s story about paid protesters. Fox News once reported that President Barack Obama had personally funded “The Museum of Muslim Culture” during a government shutdown — a story Horner made up. Stories about Obama banning “patriotic stuff” constantly went viral.
That influence led the Washington Post to credit Horner with an “enormous impact” on the 2016 presidential election.
“I think Trump is in the White House because of me,” Horner told the Post in November. “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).”
As “fake news” became a household phrase after the election, Horner gained recognition as the Internet’s most prolific hoaxer. He appeared on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” and spoke before the European Parliament.
In a post on Reddit, he said he made an average of $3,000 to $5,000 per month from his writing, sometimes up to $18,500.
JJ Horner told The Republic that his brother’s career choice was a continuation of how they grew up.
“When we were really young, before I ever read the newspaper, he would read the paper front-to-back,” he said. “And then he was making these crazy elaborate political cartoons while he was still in elementary school.”
The hoaxes began on a site Paul Horner called Microsoftsite.com, where hastily written jokes and pranks earned him $100 a month. As readers started returning to his site and revenue built, he bought more domain names and made fake news a full-time job.
Horner, who was born in Minnesota, attended Tolleson High School and often used Arizona as the setting for his hoaxes:
Bill Murray Accidentally Stops Robbery In Phoenix, Arizona.
Joe Arpaio’s Tent City In Phoenix Will Be Closing This December.
Gay-To-Straight Program To Be Used In All Arizona Schools.
A history with drugs
The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed Monday it had an open case involving Horner. Autopsy and toxicology results were pending.
Horner was arrested in Chandler in 2011 and found to be in possession of more than $15,000 worth of drugs, including 247 grams of ketamine, heroin, diazepam, oxycodone, Prozac and paraphernalia, including hundreds of syringes.
He was under the influence of ketamine at the time of his arrest, police said. In a police report, investigators said Horner “appeared to be coming down from an opiate-based high” and suspected he may be an addict.
Horner was found guilty of one count of possession of dangerous drugs for sale, a Class 2 felony, and sentenced to four months in jail.
JJ Horner said he doesn’t know if his brother was still using drugs or if they contributed to his death.
“At this point, it’s irrelevant,” he said. “He has definitely had health complications in the past, so it could be anything.”
Behind the satire
Comedians and writers have posted on Facebook remembering Paul Horner as genuine and kind.
His 501(c)(3) charity, Sock It Forward, gave clean socks to Phoenix’s homeless population. He purchased and delivered every pair of socks himself, spending as much as $400 a month on packs of Gildans at Walmart.
He had also begun to expand his fake-news footprint, paying local writers $50 for stories published on one of his many websites.
And despite his regrets, Horner said he never felt guilt for the fake news that bears his name and may have influenced an election.
“I’ve always done the right thing,” Paul told The Republic in the 2016 interview. “I’ve never stolen from anyone. I’ve done a few things in the past that I’m not proud of, but I’ve never been a thief. I’ve never done bad stuff. I’m definitely proud of my life, but more proud of how my writing has become in the last few years.”
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