Paul Horner may have fooled you into thinking he was someone else. He pretended to be the real person behind Banksy — twice. He pretended to win a massive Powerball jackpot. And he pretended to be a teenager who was sent to prison on domestic terrorism charges for “swatting” a video game opponent.
Horner was one of the oldest and best-known creators of fake news on the Internet. He earned a living writing semi-believable nonsense for a series of fake-news sites with official-looking domain names, like abcnews.com.co or cnn.com.de. If an experienced hoax-watcher saw his name in a viral but unconfirmed news article rocketing around Facebook, it was an immediate clue that the story might be just another one of his fictions.
So when Horner’s brother announced in a Facebook post last week that the writer had suddenly died, many seemed to suspect that his death might be just another one of Horner’s hoaxes. An article in the Phoenix New Times covering the family announcement of the Phoenix-area writer’s death even carried a disclaimer over the weekend noting that the paper had been unable to confirm Horner’s death with anyone except for his family — the medical examiner’s office wouldn’t be open until Monday, it explained.
Like many reporters who had written about Horner’s hoaxes before, I couldn’t decide whether I believed what I was reading when I first saw the announcement Sunday. I reached out to the police to make a request for, essentially, proof that a Paul Horner had died in Phoenix and that he was the one I was looking for. It was a macabre request, but that sort of second-guessing speaks to the reach of Horner’s work. Death hoaxes are common on the Internet; maybe Horner was trying to one-up his competition by fooling the media into writing about his own.
And it appeared I wasn’t alone. For days after Horner’s death was announced, most national news outlets that had written about his work weren’t touching the story.
But it was not a hoax, according to authorities. On Tuesday, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Horner, 38, had died Sept. 18, at an address his relatives identified as his mother’s home in the Phoenix area. In an email to the media outlets that reached out to them to confirm that Horner really had died, officials said that they suspected no foul play. He was found dead, in a bed, in a home. The investigation was still open, pending toxicology reports.
“Interviews with Mr. Horner’s family indicate the deceased was known to use and abuse prescription drugs,” the statement read. “Evidence at the scene suggested this could be an accidental overdose.”
In a follow-up email, the Sheriff’s office said that the email was sent to about 10 media outlets who asked them about Horner, and that each of those requests mentioned Horner’s “online persona” as a hoaxer in requesting that confirmation. As soon as authorities provided it, a cascade of national news outlets picked up the story.
However, not everyone who has covered Horner is completely convinced.
“We are divided down the middle,” said Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of Snopes, an Internet rumor fact-checking site that is extremely familiar with Horner’s body of work. Despite the police confirmation of Horner’s death, Binkowski said that it was “not impossible that some other Paul Horner in Maricopa County died.”
After getting off the phone with Snopes, I checked: a public records search for “Paul Horner” in Arizona turns up what appears to be several different people with that name, but just one of them in my search results was listed as 38 years old. An address associated with that Paul Horner matches the one given by police as the location of his death; the listed names of other members of his household matched those of his relatives.
In other words: at this point, for Horner’s death to be a hoax, it would have to be an extremely elaborate and unlikely one, Binkowski acknowledged. “but if anybody’s going to do it, it’s this guy.”
“It’s bad that we are late to this story,” Binkowski added, noting that Horner often talked about Snopes as if the site was a nemesis, “but it’s worse if we are taken in.”
The possibility seems extremely remote. But the fact that Snopes is questioning whether Horner is still somewhere, waiting to reveal that he pulled off the greatest hoax of his career, is a testimony to just how successful he was at getting people to believe things that were not true.
The words to describe what Horner did kind of depended on whom you asked. Horner himself said his work was satire and often tried to contextualize what he did with the idea that he believed he could use his powers for good. When interviewed by the media about his role in helping to spread fake news before the elections, he’d plug the charity he founded to hand out clean socks to Phoenix’s homeless.
And some of his most notorious election-era articles now carry moralizing disclaimers right at the top. One particularly viral article of his, “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: “I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally,” was tweeted by Corey Lewandowski. Horner added the following note to the top of the body of the article:
This story is not real. No one needs money to protest Donald Trump. I personally went to two Donald Trump rallies and I can say with 100% certainty that NONE of the protesters were getting paid. This story I wrote is mocking all of you sheep who think protesters are getting paid. Do your own thinking, retards.
But for many, Horner became the human face of the rising tide of fake news that many Hillary Clinton supporters blamed for aiding Trump’s surprise win in November. In a post-election interview with The Washington Post last year, Horner said the outcome wasn’t a shock to him. He’d been writing fake news for years, he said. But something had changed in the months before the election.
“I thought they’d fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse. I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters — they just keep running with it!” Horner told The Post then.
At another point in the interview, he said, “I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me.”
This story has been updated to include a comment from Snopes.