While the wave of real stories surrounding the role of hoax news stories on social media in the recent presidential election have included stunning revelations, none are as insane as the claims one of the most prolific hoaxers made in a chat with the Washington Post.
The Post talked with Paul Horner, who’s been spinning fake stories for years with success (like “Yelp sues South Park“) on sites that masquerade as mainstream media outlets but always have a tell: A short two-letter code at the end of the url (example: “Obama bans national anthem at sporting events” from cnn.com.de).Â
Given that Horner has made a living on creating fake news stories, it’s probably wise to take his claims with a grain of salt. Still, some of his comments are startling.Â
“I think Trump is in the White House because of me.”
This seems a bit grandiose and dismissive of other factors that led to Trump’s election (not to mention dozens of other fake news sites) but there’s truth to it, too.Â
Later in the interview, Horner tamps the claim down a bit to a more realistic point of view, saying, “Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].”
Both Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and one of Trump’s sons shared a Horner story. Â
The Post claims this story about Obama declaring a re-vote has been shared on Facebook over 250,000 times. And just wading a bit into the comments shows that many take it seriously. As Mashable’s Damon Beres pointed out, roughly 20 percent of social media users in a Pew Research Center survey admitted changing their views on an issue because of something they’ve seen on social media.
Given the tight election margins in states like Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, 20 percent of the vote makes a huge difference.
“They never fact-check anything!”
In the interview, Horner’s referring to the gullibility of Trump voters. For more context, here’s the full quote:Â
I thought theyâd fact-check it, and itâd make them look worse. I mean thatâs how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out itâs false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters â they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything!Â
The fake news trend revealed the willingness of all social media users to take stories being shared at face value. (While Horner says he was primarily targeting Trump supporters, there were plenty of left-leaning fake news stories being circulated, too.)Â
But Horner’s comments underscore the irony that Trump supporters, who rallied behind the candidate’s condemnation of mainstream media, were susceptible to accepting fake stories dressed to look like they were coming from mainstream media outlets as true.Â
“I didnât think it was possible for him to get elected president.”
So the creators of fake news fell into the same cycle of denial that Democrats did. And, yet, they continued to feed into it by creating more fake news stories that were shared by Trump supporters, allowing the cycle to feed itself.Â
Horner considers what he does satire rather than fake news. And some of the stories he’s written, like claiming President Obama used personal cash to keep a Muslim cultural museum open during the government shutdown, are too outlandish to be real. Yet people keep falling for it.
Horner said, “I like getting lumped in with The Onion. The stuff I do â I spend more time on it. Thereâs purpose and meaning behind it. I donât just write fake news just to write it.”
While it feeds into Horner’s point about fact-checking, the difference is that stories like these, when published on the fake CNN or ABC sites, are made to look real as opposed to satire from The Onion (no stranger to fooling uninformed readers) which is its own distinct publication that doesn’t try to pass itself off as a real, existing news site.Â
“Right now I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.”
This is the key to the whole empire of fake news. With traffic numbers so high, it’s no shock that the ad revenue has been rolling in. Horner and his peers are worried about Google’s new policy of blocking them from AdSense revenue. (Facebook has decided to do the same.)
And, really, this is what it’s all about: money. Even as Horner expresses shock and dismay about Trump’s election and shows some signs of remorse about his role in Trump’s ascent, he’s most concerned about the gobs of money he rakes in.Â
Without getting into too much detail, if Horner is being truthful about his revenue, he’s making far more than most journalists who work on true, factual stories. Especially reporters and editors who slog away at local newspapers, which are an essential endangered species in smaller communities.Â
Horner also indicates that he’s destined to thrive under a Trump presidency when asked if it’s good from a business perspective. “Itâs great for anybody who does anything with satire,” Horner says, “thereâs nothing you canât write about now that people wonât believe.”