Paul Horner published some of the most popular fake news stories of the 2016 presidential election. Horner even said that he believes his deliberately false stories helped get President Trump elected. But the fake news writer reportedly had a history of prescription drug abuse, and he was found dead in his bed on September 18th. He was 38.
Horner’s fake news stories were shared widely under several domains, including ABCNews.com.co, a website that intentionally tried to trick people by appearing, at first glance, to be ABC News. The stories touched on everything from lies about President Obama invalidating the 2016 election results to lies about paid protesters at Trump rallies. And each story was shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook and other social media outlets.
“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me,” Horner told the Washington Post back in November, shortly after President Trump was elected. “His followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything.”
Influential members of the Trump team even shared the stories, like when former campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski tweeted an article about protesters who were paid $3,500 to oppose Donald Trump. That story was completely fabricated. Donald Trump’s second eldest son Eric Trump also shared Horner’s fake stories.
But the entire fake news enterprise made Horner, who lived just outside of Phoenix, a lot of money. He said that he raked in roughly $10,000 per month from ads during the election season, even as companies like Google were trying to crack down on fake news.
As CBS News reports, Horner’s cause of death hasn’t been finalized as toxicology reports are still pending, but the Maricopa County medical examiner performed an autopsy and claims there were “no signs of foul play.” A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office told CBS News that, “evidence at the scene suggested this could be an accidental overdose.”
Horner appeared on CNN in December and defended his actions to Anderson Cooper. He said that CNN and Fox News also spread misinformation saying “they have agendas” whereas his articles are clearly satire.
Paul Horner’s brother, J.J. Horner, also defended his brother’s fake news empire by saying that he simply wanted people to think critically before sharing things that might be fake online.
“I think he just wanted people to just think for themselves and be credible for their actions,” J.J. Horner told CBS News. “Read more, get more involved instead of just blindly sharing things.”
After the election, Horner said that he was a Hillary Clinton supporter and didn’t believe Trump could actually get elected. But he defended his work as “satire” and seemed to constantly insist that everyone who helped his stories go viral should have done some fact-checking.
“I didn’t think it was possible for him to get elected president. I thought I was messing with the campaign, maybe I wasn’t messing them up as much as I wanted—but I never thought he’d actually get elected,” Horner told the Washington Post.
“I didn’t even think about it. In hindsight, everyone should’ve seen this coming—everyone assumed Hillary [Clinton] would just get in. But she didn’t, and Trump is president.”