In Paul Horner’s world, Bill Murray would be the incoming president-elect.
The satirical articles that the Phoenix-based comedian writes and posts on the seven or so websites he maintains – each designed to look like legitimate news outlets, with sorta-real-looking web addresses like abcnews.com.co and nbc.com.co – often star the oddball actor as the unlikely yet somehow believable hero in an endless string of fortuitous social encounters, many inexplicably happening around the Greater Phoenix area.
In Horner’s spurious scoops, Bill Murray saved the life of a choking man at the Meritage tavern at JW Marriott Desert Ridge by performing the Heimlich maneuver. He “accidentally” stopped a robbery at a Phoenix area Wells Fargo ATM when the robber stopped to talk to him. And he announced a six-week “party-crashing” tour that would “take him to American locales as far-flung as Scottsdale, Arizona.” In another exclusive by Horner, Murray even announced he was running in the 2016 presidential election.
Of course, none of these stories was true, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from sharing them on the Internet (the story about the party-crashing tour even inspired fans across the U.S. to pose on Instagram with signs proclaiming, “Bill Murray can crash here!”). For Horner, a 38-year-old part-time stand-up comic who pays the rent by writing sensational “fake news” stories that pay by the click on Facebook and Google news feeds, Murray has been a gold mine. The famously amiable star is known for crashing weddings and photobombing delighted strangers in real life, often departing with what’s by now become his catchphrase: “No one will ever believe you!”
“The thing I love about Bill Murray is he’s always doing these really cool things that seem totally random,” Horner says. “Everyone will always believe a good Bill Murray story. People just want it to be true.”
Last year, Horner found another unpredictable populist hero with fans eager to believe any outrageous story written about him: Donald Trump. At first, Horner – a self-identified Bernie Sanders supporter who says he disdained Trump – was simply trolling. He posted outlandish stories with headlines like “The Amish in America Commit their Vote to Donald Trump, Mathematically Guaranteeing Him A Presidential Victory,” with the intention, he says, of duping the Republican’s supporters into thinking Trump had the election in the bag, thereby discouraging them from voting. (Horner’s story put the U.S. Amish population at 20 million; it’s actually about 300,000, with historically low voter turnout.)
But the Internet works in mysterious ways, and Horner’s good fight shifted gears, seemingly overnight, when he published a fake news story about a demonstrator at a Trump rally who said he was paid $3,500, presumably by Hillary Clinton’s camp, to protest Trump’s appearance. According to Horner, the intent was to fool Trump’s working class followers into believing there was money to be made in switching sides. The real effect was much different. Members of Trump’s team – including his then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and even his own son, Eric – retweeted the story as proof-positive of Clinton’s crooked capers.
“They ran with it like it was a true story, never bothering to fact-check it,” Horner says, still in disbelief over Trump’s win. “I started thinking that, in the end, my stories might have actually helped their cause.” In an interview with The Washington Post days after the election, Horner told reporter Caitlin Dewey, “I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me.”
It was a suitably clickbait-worthy quote that not only put Horner on the map (interviews with Rolling Stone, Anderson Cooper and Ted Koppel followed), but sparked a much-needed national debate over the growing toxic influence of concocted stories masquerading as fact. Horner wasn’t the Internet’s only fake news writer, but he was by far the most open. As Rory Carroll, U.S. West Coast correspondent for British-based The Guardian observed upon trying in vain to interview fake news writers (many of whom appeared to be Macedonian teens working in web content mills), “Misinformation peddlers appear to be shy woodland animals.” Not so with Horner, a Hunter S. Thompson fan who delights in inserting his own name into almost every gonzo news story he writes – a pattern few of his re-tweeters pick up on. That protestor at the Trump rally who said he was paid $3,500? The very same “Paul Horner” that Bill Murray saved from choking, who also won America’s first $1.5 billion Powerball lottery and received the “world’s first successful head transplant.”
The fun and games came to a halt, however, after an armed Trump supporter opened fire on a Washington pizzeria that had been named in a fake news story (not one Horner wrote) as an establishment running a child trafficking ring involving members of the Democratic party in its (non-existent) basement. Immediately, concerns about the unintended effects of intentionally fraudulent news stories escalated. Hillary Clinton, in only her second public appearance since losing the November election, addressed the growing practice by saying, “This is not about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk, lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days to do their jobs, contribute to their communities. It is a danger that must be addressed, and addressed quickly.”
Quickly indeed, Horner’s press tour began to turn on him following what came to be called “Pizzagate.” He became prickly on CNN, trying to convince Cooper that his fake news had a higher purpose. In Horner’s defense, most of his satirical screeds do work in a plug for his charity, Sock It Forward, a group that provides Phoenix’s homeless population with about 1,000 pairs of new socks per month, or promote upcoming shows by Valley stand-up comics at the Tempe Improv or Phoenix’s The Lost Leaf.
But Cooper remained laser-focused on how much Horner had told The Washington Post his fake news writing generated: $10,000 a month, a figure repeated on numerous mainstream news sites, ironically without fact-checking. (Horner tells PHOENIX his biggest check from Google’s AdSense was closer to $8,000, with some added revenue from other sources.) “You’re not doing this as a sociological experiment,” Cooper interrupted a squirming Horner via a remote interview between Cooper in New York and Horner in Phoenix. “You’re making money off the spread of misinformation.”
After that, Horner became atypically media-shy, even difficult, finally turning uncooperative with PHOENIX photographers. If he really is making 10 grand a month, he’s clearly not squandering it on his living quarters: When this reporter went looking for him, his address led to a quintessentially low-rent Downtown Phoenix apartment.
Could Horner’s intentions be misunderstood? Scrubbing through his Facebook posts, it appears he may be financially assisting his mother, who cares for his disabled brother. He continues to stress he’s not doing it purely for financial gain. Then again, he has been known to invent stories.
“There’s so many fake news sites that are just all about the money,” says Horner, who did toil in search engine optimization before creating his own sites and understands how clicks translate into ad dollars. “I could write a death hoax about somebody the public loves, like Paul McCartney, that would make $20,000, easy. But there would be no purpose behind it, beyond just greed. That’s just putting out junk to make money.”
Professionals in the fact-checking field agree that Horner’s work is a cut above what they’re usually forced to deal with – i.e., it’s more clearly self-identified as satire. “Seeing Horner’s name in his stories definitely tips us off to the source, and that’s helpful,” says Louis Jacobson, a senior correspondent with the fact-checking website PolitiFact who has debunked several Horner stories. He doesn’t quite rank Horner up there with The Onion, the 28-year-old granddaddy of satire sites that clearly telegraphs its jokes to all but the dimmest readers. “I think the one thing most fact-checkers can agree on is that The Onion is really smart satire,” Jacobson says. “In general, the more recent generation of ‘satirists’ aren’t as obviously fake – or, frankly, as clever.”
Horner does follow The Onion’s mold: His stories typically start off sounding legit but become more and more ridiculous. “Still, most readers aren’t even getting that deep into the story,” Jacobson notes. “They just see the headline and share or retweet.”
Bill Adair, a former reporter at the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette who went on to found PolitiFact and is now a journalism professor at Duke University, fears too many fake news writers are calling their work satire to keep the heat off. “Most of them today are not really satirists, they’re opportunists,” Adair clarifies. “They’re trying to write outrageous things just so that they get web traffic. So consumers need to be critical thinkers.”
Now Horner says he’s backing away from fake news – at least until the smoke clears. He even appears to be thinking of ways to make amends with his stories, though the last few months may have dulled his sharp sense of humor.
“I think I’m going to write a story about Twitter planning to take down Donald Trump’s account, quoting a spokesperson saying, ‘We don’t tolerate racist comments, hate and ignorance,’” he says, failing to elicit a laugh from even himself.
In a case of real life imitating fake news, a few days after Horner privately floats this idea, San Franciscans staged a protest outside Twitter headquarters, demanding Trump’s account be deleted.
Had he written that story, Paul Horner probably would have been proud.
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