Out in Phoenix, Arizona, Paul Horner still can't wrap his mind around it. One day he's just a 38-year-old Bernie Sanders fan making up fake news and spreading it far and wide on the Internet, hauling in up to $10,000 a month in ad revenue from phony click-bait stories about gang-rape parties in India and the mascot for a Christian anti-masturbation group being arrested at Sea World for getting it on with itself, along with a bunch of political smoke and mirrors. But then, two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that his particular line of bull, as promulgated mainly through Facebook, may have played a big part in getting Donald Trump elected to the highest office in the land. "I think Trump is in the White House because of me," Horner told the paper. Suddenly, all hell broke lose and now everyone wants a piece of him. "Inside Edition, CBS News, ABC, the local affiliates, like way more than 60 interview requests," he reports, adding that he's decided to not talk to almost anyone until the situation calms down. "I mean, the Tonight Show used that Post quote and was attacking me because of it. But I didn't mean it like I was trying to get him in the White House," he says. "I was trying to keep him out of it!”
Now, he's worried and aggrieved. All he did is what he's done for the past six years, after a career as a coke-snorting, booze-swilling mortgage company owner and a search-engine-optimisation expert. Make stuff up, like "Amish in America Commit Their Vote to Donald Trump." Post it on Facebook. Drive traffic to any of his eight websites, among them abcnews.com.co, so named to make it seem like the real deal. Rake in a bunch of money. And figure that even the stupidest among his readers would soon get the joke.
"Most of my stuff," he says, "starts off, the first paragraph is super legit, the title is super legit, the picture is super legit, but then the story just gets more and more ridiculous and it becomes obvious that none of it is true." Or at least that any claims ought to be seriously fact checked.
Case in point: Last July's fake story about Ted Cruz saying he would endorse Trump if Trump would make masturbation illegal, with Cruz going on to note that "self-love is a silent killer in this country. This needless act of hedonistic indulgence is leading our children down a dark and destructive path. It starts innocently enough with a JCPenney catalog tucked under your mattress, but it quickly spirals out of control, and before you know it, your mother has to call the coroner because you've died from auto-erotic asphyxiation."
That one got debunked pretty quickly, but others were more subtle. One of the big ones featured a guy named Paul Horner getting paid $3,500 to protest at a Trump rally in early March. ("I'm always a character in my stories," he says. "People were stealing my shit without credit, so I thought it'd be funny if I put my name in so people would know that Paul Horner was at least involved.”) The piece was filled with slightly nutty details, like how Latinos were only paid $500 to protest, Muslims $600 and African Americans $750 and all of them had to attend a six-hour training class where they were taught chants like "Dump Trump" and "Trump Is a Racist." But it seemed believable enough that it went viral the same way most of Horner's stories go viral.
"It usually takes a couple of days," he says. "What I do is what I call 're-dating.' I keep putting it out there, day after day, changing the date of the story to match the current day. That makes it look brand new, like it just happened, which makes it keep going more and more viral.”
In the paid-to-protest case, the story hoodwinked Trump's then-campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski, who tweeted out a link to the post, and Sarah Palin, who cheerfully yalped, "Not even president yet and our guy's already creating jobs!" This one was soon shot down, too, however, but not before it attained a life of its own, with average-Joe Trump fans latching onto it as gospel proof of Democratic Party dirty tricks.
"I was trying to damage Trump's campaign by writing stuff that was just ridiculous, to make his followers and supporters look like fools," Horner says. "Everything I wrote mocked Trump. But they just wanted the stories to be true, and instead of making them look like idiots, they just kept on sharing it."
Horner isn't the only one cranking out fake news. There's tons of sites – National Report, World News Daily Report, Empire News, Daily Buzz Live, the News Nerd, Huzlers – so many of them that speculation about their influence on an unsuspecting or uncaring public has led to massive public outrage. Just recently, Buzzfeed News ran an analysis of fake news that originated on Facebook during the election and discovered that teens in the small Macedonian town of Veles had been cranking out pro-Trump stories purely as AdSense-generating clickbait – a penny a click – to over 100 fake-news sites, with gotta-be-real names like WorldPoliticus.com and USADailyPolitics.com. Mark Zuckerberg shrugged it off at first, claiming that fake news on Facebook wasn't a big deal. (Horner, though, says it sends 10 million visitors a month to his various sites.) But then the idea of "fake news" itself went viral, with every media outlet in the world weighing in on the "epidemic" and "scourge" – NPR, the New York Times, the Hindustan Times, all down the line. Finally, Zuckerberg was forced to say that "we take misinformation seriously" and that Facebook was looking at ways to combat the problem.
Surprisingly, Horner himself is all for a crackdown. His view is that most fake news is fake just for fake's sake, while his fake news has true satirical merit. "I mean, there's so many crappy sites out there publishing fake news and just clogging up the Internet," he moans. "They have no creativity and write with no kind of purpose. If they get rid of a lot of those sites, I think that's good. I'd love to see those sites go, because I don't like being lumped in with them."
He goes on, "My favorite story ever, I had this real nerdy white guy in a diner and he starts quoting from Pulp Fiction to stop a robbery, like, 'Normally, both your asses would be dead as fucking fried chicken but I'm in a transitional period. I don't wanna kill you, I wanna help you.' And he's like, 'Lucky I had my wallet that said "bad motherfucker" on it.' Now that's a good story. It's been viewed millions and millions and millions of times."
Maybe. But fake news is fake news and, like it or not, he could get caught up in a purge. "I definitely could get banned by Facebook," he says. "I've had it happen before, so I don't want to push any limits. Right now, I'm just going to lay low." If only he'd done so before Election Day – but what were the odds of Trump getting elected? "They were like 10 to one," says Horner, sounding glum about his part in what happened. "Looking back on it, I kept wondering how he got into the White House. But at the time, I didn't even stop to think I may have been helping him." Which, in a way, is equivalent to Trump supporters not stopping to think that Horner's stories might be fake. In a post-fact world, unintended consequences are everywhere, among them Trump's ascendancy. And did you know that before he leaves office, a super-pissed-off Obama wants to change the name of the country to Fraudland, USA? Absolutely true. It's been all over the news.