October 4, 2017

Major fake news creator dies – fake news remains

By Safya Khan-Ruf, journalist

A writer notorious for creating fake news stories during the 2016 US election has died at 38, after a suspected drug overdose in Arizona. But the booming fake news industry has not ended with him.

Paul Horner made his living creating fake news that often went viral. The investigation into his death last month revealed there was no evidence of foul play, according to the County’s Office of the Medical Examiner.

Horner’s false stories were designed to inflame readers and allowed him to deliberately misinform hundreds of thousands of people across the US for at least six years.

“There’s a lot of humor, a lot of comedy in it,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last December.

Even while claiming he was the reason Donald Trump was elected last November, Horner said his work was a form of political satire.

“His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything,” he said to The Washington Post after the US election. “[Trump’s] 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 claimed he hated Trump but targeted conservatives with his stories because they were more profitable. He reached wide audiences, often on websites masquerading as more reputable news sources.

One of Horner’s more infamous fraudulent articles claimed former President Barack Obama was both gay and a radical Muslim. An article about Obama invalidating November’s election results was shared more than a quarter of a million times on Facebook, while one about Obama using his own money to keep open a “federally funded” Muslim culture museum during a government shutdown was reported by Fox News before being retracted.

Fake news sells and Horner told Buzzfeed in an interview that he was making $10,000 a month just from Google-powered ads on his website.

Profiteering from fake news

False information created widespread concern during and after the US presidential race and is now an international issue. Many are worried over the potential of false material influencing the outcome of other elections and politics in general.

Like Horner, fake news creators often try to mimic established news outlets to fool readers. A clone website of The Washington Post was revealed by the FT this month. The articles written in Chinese and credited to the Post’s reporters had amassed a loyal following in China – but the website was not run by the US newspaper.

Meanwhile, the election in Germany last month saw the rise of the far right, with the country’s nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party winning seats in the German parliament for the first time in decades.

German authorities had been alert to any interference through fake news stories in the run up to the election.

In a video broadcast before the German election, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, said his company was also working on protecting the integrity of the election process.

Zuckerberg has previously brushed off claims of Facebook’s influence on the US elections, saying the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way was “a pretty crazy idea”.

However, his stance has changed since then.

Facebook’s role in the election has faced close scrutiny in recent weeks, following the company’s disclosure that a Russian troll farm had purchased $100,000 in political ads during the presidential campaign.

“We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend, from taking actions against thousands of fake accounts, to partnering with public authorities like the Federal Office for Information Security, to sharing security practices with the candidates and parties,” Zuckerberg said.

Other measures include continuing an investigation into the role of fake Facebook news during the US election, making political advertising more transparent and creating more services to engage citizens in the political process.

But Zuckerberg admits the measures being put in place would not solve all interference. “There will always be bad people in the world, and we can’t prevent all governments from all interference. But we can make it harder. We can make it a lot harder. And that’s what we’re going to do.”