Social media played a huge role in this year's election. Our president-elect Donald Trump is notorious for his use of Twitter, and some of his biggest supporters are now being suspended from the social media platform because of hate speech. Facebook also had a big impact on the election: in the last three months of the election, fake news had more engagement on Facebook than real news. Trump benefited from many of those fake news stories, like one claiming Pope Francis endorsed Trump. (Here's a list of sources that you should be skeptical of.) Now, even the people who write the fake news admit, "I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me."
Fake news writer Paul Horner made that confession, which he said is "real scary," in a recent interview with Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post. The 38-year-old is responsible for fake stories like "The Amish In America Commit Their Vote To Donald Trump; Mathematically Guaranteeing Him A Presidential Victory" and "Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The National Anthem At All Sporting Events Nationwide."
Horner has made his living from fake news stories for years now. He's convinced the internet that he's Banksy on multiple occasions and was behind the viral hoax claiming Yelp is suing South Park. Now, thanks to his viral fake news stories, he makes "like $10,000 a month" from Google AdSense.
Horner's fake stories have been picked up by people you'd hope wouldn't be sharing fake news—like Donald Trump's son Eric, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and Trump supporters in the media like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. With Google's current system, fake news stories by Horner and others often appear as news on the search engine—which Google is trying to fix.
When asked why his fake news stories go viral so often, Horner replied: "Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it."
In response to a question about his impact on Trump's campaign specifically, Horner confessed, "I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything." Noting that even Trump's campaign manager shared one of his fake stories about paid protesters, Horner admitted, "I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist."
So why would he write such a story, knowing it's completely fake? "I just wanted to make fun of that insane belief, but it took off," Horner said. "They actually believed it." And he feels bad about that: "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! They never fact-check anything! Now he’s in the White House."
Even after his fake stories—which he describes as satire—were spreading across the internet, Horner didn't feel guilty about his impact at the time. "I didn’t think it was possible for him to get elected president. I thought I was messing with the campaign," he said. "I didn’t even think about it. In hindsight, everyone should’ve seen this coming — everyone assumed Hillary [Clinton] would just get in. But she didn’t, and Trump is president."
Horner has previously said about his audience, "The people who clicked ads the most, like it’s the cure for cancer, is right-wing Republicans." Does that mean fake news targeting conservatives is more profitable? "Yeah, it is," Horner said. "They don't fact-check."
When asked about efforts to limit fake news, Horner is glad Google and Facebook might get rid of the "just total BS sites." But regarding his own work, Horner acted as if his viral hoaxes have actually had some sort of positive impact: "I spend more time on it. There’s purpose and meaning behind it. I don’t just write fake news just to write it."
Perhaps H.L. Mencken was right: Nobody "has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby."
You can read the full interview here.