This week, comedian Paul Horner died at the way-too-early age of 38. Though most Americans won’t recognize the name, Mr. Horner, in addition to being a successful stand-up comedian, founded a charity called Sock It Forward which gives socks to homeless people.
He was also largely responsible for calling attention to fake news.
No, I’m not referring to The Donald’s false characterizations of CNN, The New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, and other mainstream news organizations. I’m referring to hundreds of phony “news” websites and the thousands of fraudulent stories and memes circulated on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
You see, during the 2016 elections, Paul Horner was one of the most prolific originators of satirical “news” stories which he posted on his Facebook page, on a variety of Internet domains, and on his website National Report. Many of his stories went viral. Some were even picked up by Fox News Channel and other national media.
For example, under the byline Jimmy Rustling, Horner posted a story that claimed protesters were being recruited and paid $3,500 to disrupt Trump rallies. He also claimed that white people with fighting skills were being paid to attend the same rallies. Even after labeling the stories with a disclaimer that this story is not real, they were shared more than 50,000 times. He authored another story which detailed how the Amish were locking up the victory for Trump. Yet another of his stories claimed Twitter was about to delete Donald Trump’s account over his obvious racism.
During an interview on Democratic Perspective radio, we asked him to explain his motivation. He responded by saying that his pranks, Internet hoaxes and satirical “news” articles were intended to poke fun at the real news media and to draw attention to their lack of objectivity. He also made money when the stories went viral.
Asked why so many of the stories seemed to focus on Trump, he said that he originally wrote stories aimed at both Democrats and Republicans; liberals and conservatives. But he quickly discovered that Democrats and liberals were more inclined to fact-check his stories. As a result, those stories seldom went viral. Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, seemed to have less desire to learn the truth. So, if a story aligned with their beliefs, it was accepted as fact.
Following the election, Horner was vilified – crowned the “King of Fake News” and credited with helping to elect Trump. As a result, he was interviewed by more than 500 news media….even by the European Union Parliament.
As I mentioned during our own interview with Mr. Horner, I believe he did us all a great favor. By calling attention to fake news, he not only helped expose the hidden agendas of many of the news media, especially the right-wing media, he helped expose the problems with social media. During his interviews, he called out Facebook, in particular, for permitting so many fake news stories to be shared.
More important, the attention eventually led to the exposure of Russian trolls who created fake news stories with a much more sinister motive – to undermine Hillary Clinton’s election chances, to further divide US citizens and to sow chaos in democracies throughout the world. Without the attention focused on the King of Fake News, we likely wouldn’t know about Putin’s troll farms and the $100,000 worth of Russian-placed ads to benefit Trump and other right-wing politicians. And that’s only scratching the surface. We are now learning that Russian trolls, posing as Americans, used social media to divide US citizens in a variety of ways – by claiming that Clinton and Sen. John McCain created and funded ISIS; by impersonating a US-based Muslim rights group; by impersonating Black Lives Matter; by verbally attacking refugees and immigrants.
So thank you, Paul Horner. May you rest in peace. Perhaps your family and friends will take comfort in the fact that your death has been reported by virtually all of the mainstream media – both nationally and internationally. I’m certain that, in life, the attention would have given you much pleasure.