An Arizona man who founded a fake news website that repeatedly went viral during the 2016 presidential election was found dead at his home near Phoenix, local authorities say. He was 38 years old.
The death was reported just before 12 p.m. MT on September 18 when deputies were called to the 5800 block of West Olney Avenue in Laveen Village, which is a community about 8 miles (12.5 kilometers) southwest of downtown Phoenix. Authorities confirmed his death on Tuesday.
Mark Casey, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies entered the residence and found 38-year-old Paul Horner dead in his bed. He said the exact cause of death is still under investigation, but noted that there were no signs of foul play.
“Interviews with Mr. Horner’s family indicate the deceased was known to use and abuse prescription drugs. Evidence at the scene suggested this could be an accidental overdose,” Casey said. An autopsy was conducted and toxicology reports are pending, which could take several months.
“The case will remain open until the toxicology results are known and a cause of death is finalized,” Casey said.
Horner began as a writer for fake news website “National Report,” where he wrote a story that identified himself as the notorious street artist Banksy. Horner claimed that more than 10 million people visited the story, in which he wrote under a pseudonym that he himself had been arrested.
About a year later, in 2014, he launched a website called “News Examiner.” He also created websites that mimicked the URLs of news organizations, including a website called “ABC News” that repeatedly went viral during the election campaign.
Horner told the Washington Post in an interview in November 2016 that he made about $10,000 a month through advertising on his websites. Horner, who told the interviewer that he ‘hated’ Donald Trump, said his hoaxes were created to specifically target conservatives.
“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything – they’ll post everything, believe everything,” Horner said in the interview.
As an example, Horner pointed to a story he wrote in March 2016, claiming that a man admitted to having been paid $3,500 to protest at rallies held by Trump. The story was shared on Twitter by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who later deleted the tweet.
“I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist,” Horner said.
In another instance, Horner wrote a story that claimed then-President Barack Obama had signed an executive order to declare the election results invalid and to order a special presidential election in mid-December. The fake news story was shared at least 250,000 times on Facebook alone.
Horner told the Washington Post that he believed his fake stories had unintentionally helped the Republican candidate. “I didn’t think it was possible for him to get elected president. I thought I was messing with the campaign, [but] maybe I wasn’t messing them up as much as I wanted,” Horner said.
Horner edited some of his articles after the election to mock those who fell for them.
“This story is not real. No one needs money to protest Donald Trump,” Horner said in a note which he added to the story about people being paid to protest. “This story I wrote is mocking all of you sheep who think protesters are getting paid. Do your own thinking, retards.”
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