Paul Horner, a leading peddler of fake news and internet hoaxes during the 2016 election, has died at the age of 38.
Horner was discovered dead in his bed on Sept. 18, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Mark Casey told the Arizona Republic. Casey said evidence found at the scene southwest of Phoenix suggested Horner died of an accidental overdose.
Horner was known as one of the biggest publishers of fake news and internet hoaxes, creating many stories that went viral and fooled thousands on Facebook. His hoaxes were often repeated by political figures and news outlets that failed to fact-check his claims.
Facebook users landing on one of Horner’s stories would have read the Amish were backing Trump, for example, and that Obama had banned the national anthem at all sporting events.
Horner, who had with more than 10 fake-news websites with official-sounding domain names like CNN.co.de and Microsoftsite.com, took credit for Trump being elected president.
“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time,” Horner told The Washington Post in 2016. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.”
Even as the term “fake news” gained national attraction, Horner was profiting from his hoaxes. He told The Washington Post after the 2016 election that he made $10,000 a month from AdSense, Google’s ad-placement network.
In the election’s aftermath, Silicon Valley companies grappled with their influence and role over the spread of information.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who at first downplayed the impact his company’s social network may have had on the spread of false news, has now embraced those concerns and is working to address them. Those efforts include working with news organizations to identify false reports and shutting down advertising access to accounts that repeatedly spread it.
The Arizona Republic reported that Horner was arrested in Chandler, Arizona, in 2011 in possession of more than $15,000 worth of drugs, including ketamine, heroin, diazepam, oxycodone and Prozac.
The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s office told the Associated Press that toxicology results were still pending.
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