You may believe Paul Horner is the real name of anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. It is not.
You may also have heard that Horner is a Facebook executive, bent on introducing a monthly user fee. Or a hapless 15-year-old, sentenced to life in prison for “SWATing” a video game opponent. If you’ve read up on the “Big Lebowski” sequel, coming soon to a theater near you*, you may also believe he’s an up-and-coming actor, recently cast to play a big role in “The Big Lebowski 2.”
(*There is no “Big Lebowski 2.”)
In reality, of course, Horner is none of these things. The 35-year-old Arizonan, who recently convinced 4.8 million people that he was the elusive artistic mastermind Banksy, is a serial hoaxer and lead writer for National Report, the wildly successful fake-news site that the Intersect debunks with exhausting frequency. Horner has been alternately described as a media troll, a liar and a hack, but he sees his work in a different light: one part activism, one part fan fiction, and many parts subversive, absurdist comedy.
“Do you know who Bob Odenkirk is? Saul in ‘Breaking Bad’?” He asks on the phone from Phoenix, where he says been awake for 48 hours, posting (as Bansky) to his new legions of “fans.” “He is so funny. He just does the funniest sketch comedy — it’s really weird, and just ridiculous. I love that kind of humor … That’s what I want to do.”
In Horner’s universe not everyone gets the joke. This is, for instance, the second time that his so-called “satire” has convinced vast swaths of the Internet that he is Banksy, and that he/Banksy have been arrested. (As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 4.8 million people had read his latest breaking news post on the subject.) Horner has spent days fielding foreign interviews, including several from reporters who don’t entirely seem to understand that he’s not the real deal.
Meanwhile, Horner’s hoax-story on Facebook starting a monthly user fee was shared on Facebook more than 1.4 million times. And another piece he wrote, about a 15-year-old sentenced to 25 years in prison for calling a SWAT team on a fellow video gamer, was picked up by several legitimate news outlets, including the tech site Boing Boing.
Horner’s greatest coup, however, remains a fake story he wrote during the government shutdown roughly a year ago. In a ridiculous piece titled “Obama uses own money to open Muslim museum amid government shutdown,” Horner claimed President Obama paid out of pocket to keep a “federally funded” Muslim culture museum in Mississippi open. Despite the fact that no such museum exists, it was reported, as fact, on Fox News.
“Then there was a break, and they didn’t mention it again after,” Horner said, cracking himself up. “I guess they learned how to use Google during the commercials or something.”
Horner is fond of evoking this anecdote as proof of the justness of his cause. “Is National Report the fake news site, or Fox News?” he asks. “You decide.”
Fake news is, incidentally, a relatively new addition to the media landscape. The Internet’s always teemed with rumors and scams, of course. But the fake news industry — a crop of Web sites dedicated solely to passing off fact as fiction, for the resulting ad revenue — has only exploded within the past two years. National Report was registered in February 2013, and is now so successful that it’s planning an empire of five more fake-news sites. Some of its most popular competitors, like World News Daily Report, the News Nerd and Huzlers, came even later than that. By August, fake news had become so widespread — and so problematic — that Facebook began slapping a “satire” tag on articles from those sites, the better to protect gullible readers.
Some of those so-called satire sites, like the venerable Onion, have a long-held reputation for cutting social commentary that only wears the guise of fake news. Others are openly mercenary: When I spoke to a popular writer from the hoax site Empire News in April, he bragged about tricking readers, “rip[ping] their hearts out,” and profiting in the process. But far more common are sites like National Report, which straddle the line between legitimate satire and shameless hoaxing — or which try to blur that line out all together, advocating for an online space where there is no “truth” or “fiction.” Just laughs. After all, such a space would let writers collect their monthly pay-out from Google Adsense without the lurking specter of guilt.
“It’s not really satire,” said Horner, who struggles through an articulation of the genre, peppered with “I means” and “I don’t knows.” “It’s just a story … You know, just those ridiculous stories you share on Facebook.”
It’s not always funny, he clarifies later: “just entertaining.” That’s the standard.
Horner, an occasional stand-up comedian himself, didn’t always conceive of his genre that way. Five years ago, he wasn’t even writing: he says he ran a successful mortgage company, making as much as $20,000 a month, “but having heart attacks every day from the stress.” (“I was doing way too much cocaine and drinking too much,” he elaborates. “I was out of the office every day at 2 p.m., going to some VIP somewhere. It was too much, I don’t know, it’s a long story.”)
Burnt out from the work, if not the long hours, Horner moved to Hawaii and spent some time in school before deciding to start his own Web design and search-engine optimization company. On the side, he started a Web site of his own: It was called IYWIB.com, for the meme “if you watch it backwards,” and it was the petri dish for Horner’s early comedy.
The son of an artist and a controversial activist — Horner’s estranged father, Steve, has made something of a career protesting/litigating against ladies’ nights at bars — the adrift 30-year-old had plenty of material. He loved mocking “far-right Bible-thumpers” like his father with stories that played on fears about Islam, Obama and gay marriage. He liked Photoshopping politicians into absurd or awkward situations — he once did an entire series on former congressman Ron Paul in various states of undress. (“I love Ron Paul, I voted for him the last two elections,” Horner said. “But I mean, this was just ridiculous s—! It looked so realistic.”) One post, which Horner is still pretty proud of, is just a series of close-up photos of Callista Gingrich’s face.
Alas, while many an Internet stoner may have appreciated this vein of humor, IYWIB.com just wasn’t catching on. But Horner had reached an important realization: There was big traffic potential in humor or trolling disguised as news. He launched another site, Super Official News, where he perpetrated his first Banksy hoaxes. From there, he hooked up with National Report, where his stories regularly see millions of readers … and tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue.
Horner claims that, in the past three months, he’s made $30,000 off ads alone. Since this latest Banksy story went viral, Horner has pocketed as much as $10,000 a day — and that doesn’t even count whatever he’s making from his sale of “I Am Banksy” T-shirts and coffee mugs. But it’s not about the money, he insists: Instead, it’s about paying tribute to Banksy. Or scaring impressionable kids away from the SWAT-ing trend. Or exposing the stupidity and hypocrisy of people Horner thinks deserve it. (“My stories always have a point,” he says, several times.)
“Remember bath salts a couple years ago? Bath salt zombies?” he asks. “I wrote about a zombie attack in DeQuincy, [Louisiana] — it’s so ridiculous. And I included a number for the Louisiana Zombie Hotline, which is actually the Westboro Baptist Church, just to keep their phone lines tied up. F— them.”
After he posted the story, Horner got death threats. And he loved them.
“Like, are you serious?” he laughs. “What are you going to do, hit me with a 30-pack? … You live in DeQuincy, you can’t get to Phoenix anyway. So I just kept writing on it, you know, I had this whole thing — like the government nuked the whole town, and only bath salt zombies were left, and then they built their own zombie Subways and McDonalds and stuff. People thought this was real. Yes! They really did.”
He later wrote a story about marrying his dog that likewise convinced a lot of people; Horner says a TV show in Los Angeles even invited him and the dog on for a segment about “weird relationships.”
“It was just to make fun of the fact that super anti-gay people are like — ‘what’s next? A toaster?'”
Ultimately, he bought matching scarves for himself and his dog in preparation for their big TV appearance, but he couldn’t actually go through with it. He was worried the host would try to ask him if he had sex with the dog, and that was something he couldn’t discuss, even in jest.
“I don’t know. I should’ve done it,” he says now. “It would have been funny.”
“Funny” means different things to different people. That’s the messy, paradoxical reality at the heart of Horner’s work. In certain lights, it’s despicable that he panders to biases, that he preys on the gullible, that he essentially lies for six figures a year. But in other lights, what he has managed is so fantastically absurd — so profoundly unlikely — that it takes on the color of actual comedy. Half the world believed, for a hot minute, that this drawling bro in Arizona was an artistic genius.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s f—ing nonsense.” And well, frankly, he’s right.
Horner is getting messages from Banksy fans by the dozens now; in the three minutes it took me to call him after he sent his number, he said he was messaged more than 20 times. His Facebook wall is swimming in their support and adoration, papered over with messages from people who truly believe in “Banksy’s” work. Horner isn’t doing anything to disillusion them, either: Yesterday he began advertising a line of Banksy merchandise, complete with the (fake) message that the (real) artist wanted fans to buy in.
But is that still funny? I asked him. Is that really a tribute? Or some meta-commentary on humor or belief? Or even — and we’re stretching now — an indictment of media literacy?
At what point, I wonder, does this all just collapse into a cynical, mean-spirited lie?
“Point taken,” Horner types in Facebook chat, where he’s been monitoring fan mail all day. “I will reword it, as I am not Banksy.”
Now the shirts just say “I AM BANKSY.” They’re selling for $32.49.
If this entire enterprise is just for laughs, then Horner — as always — gets the last one.
Correction: This post originally said Horner had pulled the Banksy prank three times already; he’s actually only done it once before, and the first time was — he says — “weak.” Apologies for slipping some fake news of our own in there.