If 2016 was the year of fake news, then Paul Horner was one of its kings.
Now, however, the Arizona resident who created a small empire focused on bogus online information has been found dead in his bed at age 38, reports the Arizona Republic. Police don’t suspect foul play. Horner had a history of drug abuse, and authorities say evidence at the scene points to that as the cause of death.
Horner unapologetically made up fake stories that frequently went viral, perhaps most famously one with the headline, “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.'” In interviews, he said he considered his work satire designed to get people to think more critically. “Anybody who gets tricked by my stuff is people that I’m targeting, trying to make them change the way they think,” he once said.
Horner also credited himself with changing the world. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me,” he told the Washington Post in November, expressing regret about it. “Trump supporters—they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything!”
Horner had a formula: He used standard journalistic prose and style to write his stories, especially the tops of them, which were then posted on sites with legit-sounding domain names such as CNN.co.de and Microsoftsite.com. Horner said he typically made $3,000 to $5,000 per month, but sometimes cleared as much as $18,500. (Another popular story claimed that President Obama had banned the national anthem at sporting events.)
The stories often included a reference to a charity called SockItForward, and that turned out to be authentic. It was created by Horner himself to provide socks for Phoenix’s homeless.