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Professional hoaxster Paul Horner, who made a name for himself as a satirist and fake news impresario years before it became a focus of the 2016 presidential campaign, has died.
The Arizona Republic reported on Sept. 26, 2017, that Horner, 38, died in Laveen, Ariz., on Sept. 18.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office told PolitiFact that Horner was found dead in bed. While there were no signs of foul play, but family members said he had a history of abusing prescription drugs. Sheriff’s spokesman Mark Casey said that evidence deputies found at the scene suggested Horner died of an accidental overdose.
PolitiFact confirmed that the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner was investigating Horner’s death. The agency said final case reports, including toxicology results, can take 3 to 6 months to complete.
Horner ran a string of websites that often looked deceptively like mainstream news organizations. Formerly a writer at fake news site NationalReport.net, Horner is credited with authoring stories ranging from Bill Murray running for president to President Barack Obama opening a Muslim museum to Banksy getting arrested.
We mentioned Horner specifically when we named Fake News our 2016 Lie of the Year.
Among his often-used calling cards in online stories are the use of the byline Jimmy Rustling, numerous references to "Fappy the Anti-Masturbation Dolphin" and a plea to donate socks to the homeless. He was behind the real 501(c)(3) charity called Sock It Forward, which gave socks to Phoenix’s homeless population.
His stories also used the name Paul Horner as a source, or made some reference to an individual with that name. Otherwise, his formula was to start his stories with a real photo and some true information before launching into fictional details.
Perhaps his most famous deception was writing a post on fake news site abcnews.com.co that said protesters at Trump rallies were paid $3,500 to disrupt the proceedings.
Horner told the Washington Post he knew it wasn’t true, but wrote it as a parody that could make him money if people actually believed it. Horner said he could make thousands of dollars per month writing fake news posts. Trump’s supporters were easy to fool, he said.
"His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything," Horner said. "I just wanted to make fun of that insane belief, but it took off. They actually believed it."
Trump himself repeated the claim about paid protesters at a rally, and then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tweeted (and later deleted) the story. We rated the claim Pants On Fire, of course.
We’ve rated several statements linked to Horner over the years.
A 2013 NationalReport.net story about President Barack Obama starting a "nationwide Muslim outreach program" earned a Pants On Fire. A 2014 statement on NationalReport.net saying President Barack Obama was running for a third term also rated Pants On Fire. In 2015, we gave a Pants On Fire to a NewsExaminer.net story that said a Vermont pastor got a year in prison for refusing to marry a gay couple. There also was a 2016 NewsExaminer.net story that a Secret Service agent revealed Obama was a gay Muslim (also Pants On Fire). And more recently, a 2017 link on St.GeorgeGazette.com said Trump was resigning (again, Pants On Fire).
For the StGeorgeGazette.com fact-check, PolitiFact was able to reach Horner via email. The satirist offered only jokes as a reply, refusing to address our questions directly. But he did tweet out our item afterward:
Horner’s brother JJ Horner posted a Facebook message on Sept. 22 about his brother’s death:
"It is with a heavy heart that I must share the sad news of the passing of Paul Horner. He left us peacefully in his sleep Monday morning, September 18th at our mother's house in Laveen. He was a loving son and brother, an artist, a heroic writer and story teller, a preacher, a caretaker for our brother Brian, an internet wizard, a humanitarian, an activist, a philosopher, a comedian, a patriot, Banksy (twice), Bill Murray, a dolphin, and my biggest fan. Above all he was the most loving and generous human I've ever known. He will be greatly missed. Rest In Peace brother. I love you so much, I know you're out there somewhere."
JJ Horner told us that the fate of his brother’s charity and network of websites was still being decided, but he and his family were proud of his brother and his brand of satire.
He added that Paul Horner’s hoaxes and fake stories drew plenty of negative attention but also support from people who enjoyed his work and supported what he was attempting to do.
"He wanted to make people think and question reality," JJ Horner said. "If you don't like what's happening in the world, write your own narrative."
The Republic noted that Paul Horner had been arrested in 2011 with $15,000 worth of drugs, and was sentenced to four months in jail.
But Horner did not appear troubled by his past, or allegations that his fake stories possibly influenced the 2016 election.
"I’ve done a few things in the past that I’m not proud of, but I’ve never been a thief. I’ve never done bad stuff," he told the Republic last year. "I’m definitely proud of my life, but more proud of how my writing has become in the last few years."
Editor's note, Sept. 28, 2017: This story was updated with information from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and comments from JJ Horner.
Sources are linked in the text.