Media

Fake News Writer Feels Guilty for Helping Put Trump in White House

Conservative Republicans are easy marks, apparently.

Photo Credit: Lolostock / Shutterstock

Gullibility and ignorance, along with racism and misogyny, went a long way on Donald Trump’s behalf this election. Fake news was passed around, not just by voters, but by Trump’s campaign, giving people who are uninterested in facts more misinformation with which to base (and justify) their voting habits. One of the people creating those ludicrous stories is Paul Horner, a writer who has spent the last six years making up news items, getting them up on Facebook and Google, and then collecting the checks that roll in when they go viral. Trump aides Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, and son Eric all sent tweets including links to Horner stories; they never checked to find out if they were true and very likely didn’t care. After all, spreading lies was a key element of what turned out to be a winning campaign strategy.

In a new Washington Post interview, Horner, who said he’s staunchly anti-Trump, admitted to feelings of guilt about how things went. The man behind sites with misleading URLs like ABCNews was apparently surprised to find his stories not only gained so much traction in recent months, but very likely had an impact on the U.S. election. He blamed a pervasive willingness among Trump supporters to believe and pass along anything they were told. Obviously, this wasn’t just true with news they found on social media. Trump voters believed transparent lies that came from their candidate as well.

“Nobody fact-checks anything anymore—I mean, that’s how Trump got elected,” Horner told the Post. “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.”

Horner—who recently posted on Facebook that the group of “people who clicked ads the most, like it’s the cure for cancer, is right-wing Republicans”—added that Trump voters were easy marks for his fake current events write-ups.

“My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time,” Horner marveled. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything. 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.”

Horner said he wrote that particular article because he’d heard Trump supporters already believed anti-Trump protesters were being paid for their actions, an idea he calls “insane.” But however crazy it may have sounded, it became fact for Trump’s faithful.

“I’ve gone to Trump protests—trust me, no one needs to get paid to protest Trump,” Horner told the Post. “I just wanted to make fun of that insane belief, but it took off. They actually believed it.”

The obvious question here is why Horner, who at one point in the interview actually said, “I hate Trump,” kept creating news that jeopardized Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. He contends he thought—and this is a totally understandable belief—that in discovering they were passing along made-up stories, Trump voters would be shamed for sending out lies. The humiliation would reflect poorly on them, and by Horner’s reasoning, cast a shadow over the entire Trump campaign.

It’s now obvious that Horner vastly overestimated the integrity of Trump’s voting base, by leagues and miles.

“I thought they’d fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse,” Horner pleaded. “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. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].”

“I didn’t think it was possible for him to get elected president,” Horner added, which makes him not unlike almost every pollster who prematurely called this whole thing for Clinton. “I thought I was messing with the campaign, maybe I wasn’t messing them up as much as I wanted—but I never thought he’d actually get elected. 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.”

Since the disastrous election that sent a confused, unprepared Trump to the White House along with his white nationalist adviser Steve Bannon, Facebook and Google have both announced they’re putting in stopgaps to weed out the non-news from their sites. That could have a big impact on Horner's wallet, which has grown very fat on the spoils of fake news; he told the Post he makes $10,000 a month from Google’s AdSense. Horner said he thinks a lot of other misinformation sites should disappear, but sees himself as indulging in an art form of sorts. One that sits somewhere just this side of satire and creative writing.

“A lot of the sites people are talking about, they’re just total BS sites. There’s no creativity or purpose behind them. I’m glad they’re getting rid of them,” Horner said. “I don’t like getting lumped in with Huzlers. I like getting lumped in with the Onion. The stuff I do—I spend more time on it. There’s purpose and meaning behind it. I don’t just write fake news just to write it. So, yeah, I see a lot of the sites they’re listing, and I’m like—good. There are so many horrible sites out there. I’m glad they’re getting rid of those sites. I just hope they don’t get rid of mine, too.”

That said, though he expressed worry about his financial future, he’s not entirely convinced the two companies will follow through on their recent promises. Mostly because of capitalism.

“Facebook and AdSense make a lot of money from [advertising on fake news sites] for them to just get rid of it,” Horner told the Post. “They’d lose a lot of money. But if it did really go away, that would suck. I don’t know what I would do.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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