If such claims piqued your interest and you plugged "paid protesters" into Google at mid-day on Nov. 17, at the top of the list is this one: "Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: 'I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump's Rally.' "
The link cites not one but two seemingly mainstream media outlets. It’s credited to "abcnews.com.co" and includes the abbreviation "(AP)," which is how the Associated Press marks its stories.
But the story doesn’t have anything to do with ABC News, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Associated Press. It is 100 percent fake.
It was created by Paul Horner, who posts fake news on a variety of websites. Some of his posts go viral, presumably boosting his standing with Google’s news algorithm. The fake news posts typically earn Horner -- according to an interview with the Washington Post -- $10,000 a month in ad sales.
In the Post interview, Horner took credit for the fake news item about the protester being paid $3,500.
"His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything," Horner said. Referring to then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Horner said, "His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist." Here’s a screenshot of Lewandowski’s since-deleted tweet:
Asked by the Post’s Caitlin Dewey why he posted the fake story, Horner responded, "Just ’cause his supporters were under the belief that people were getting paid to protest at their rallies, and that’s just insane. I’ve gone to Trump protests — trust me, no one needs to get paid to protest Trump. I just wanted to make fun of that insane belief, but it took off. They actually believed it."
The story’s high position on Google search results after the election likely stems from Horner’s decision to re-date the post, which originally ran in March. The current version is dated Nov. 11.
Automated algorithms may not be able to tell fact from fiction, but a human with minimal understanding of typical news articles might have noticed, after clicking into it, that the article eventually degenerates into a rant against Snopes.com, the urban-legends site that has regularly debunked articles from websites operated by Horner.
Horner even quoted himself by name in the fake story, something he does in many of his posts.
A web posting headlined, "Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: 'I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump's Rally,' " ranks high on Google searches for the phrase "paid protesters." But the article is 100 percent fabricated, as its author acknowledges. We rate it Pants on Fire.