DENVER – “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.”
That’s what Paul Horner, who The Washington Post calls the “impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire,” told The Post about how he inundated Facebook and the rest of the internet with fake news in the lead-up to the General Election.
The Post spoke with Horner in a story published Thursday about how fake news was propagated across the internet via Facebook, Google and other social media sites, and made its way into the daily reading of both conservatives and liberals alike.
FAKE NEWS SPREAD BY MAJOR CAMPAIGN FIGURES
BuzzFeed News found that fake news stories generated more overall engagement than real news in the final months leading up to Election Day – outpacing the New York Times, Washington Post and ABC News, among many others.
Their analysis found the top-20 fake election stories generated around 8.7 million total reactions, shares and comments during that time, compared to 7.3 million in total engagement for the top-20 stories from major news outlets.
It’s likely you’ve seen, read or shared some of the fake news yourself.
A fake story by fake news outlet the “Denver Guardian” saying an FBI agent involved in the Clinton email scandal was found dead got more than 500,000 comments, reactions and shares, though it was quickly outed as a fake by most Denver news outlets.
The most-shared fake news story came from another fake outlet, “ETF News,” which stated that Pope Francis had “shocked the world” by endorsing Donald Trump for president.
Horner is behind one of the highest-trafficked fake news sites, abcnews.com.co, which many mistook as American news outlet ABC News.
Some of Trump’s closest advisors and family -- Kellyanne Conway, Eric Trump and Corey Lewandowski – all tweeted or retweeted an article from his fake site about a “Trump protester” who said he was “paid $3,500 to protest Trump’s rally.”
Thousands of people shared the story, and it is still cited by many people as proof that anti-Trump protesters who have taken to the streets both before and after the election are being paid by liberal groups or the Clinton campaign.
“His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact,” Horner told The Post. “Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”
One person who shared the story saw it receive hundreds of shares and reactions, even though Snopes had de-bunked the story as fake several days earlier.
FACEBOOK, GOOGLE ADDRESS FAKE NEWS SITES
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg originally said that the idea that fake news being spread on his platform influenced the election was “a pretty crazy idea” two days after the election.
But days later, he published a long post saying that “more than 99% of what people see is authentic” on Facebook, but that the company had “already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here.”
Some have pointed to the spread of fake news happening after Facebook got rid of the people who controlled its news algorithm over complaints they were censoring conservative content. The company switched to a mostly-automated system that at times put fake news at the top of its “trending news” category.
Google said it was suspending its paid web advertising service, AdSense, for fake news sites after BuzzFeed uncovered a slew of Macedonians creating fake news sites for profit.
“This whole Google AdSense thing is pretty scary. And all this Facebook stuff,” Horner said. “Right now I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.”
And while many have blamed Facebook, Google and other social media sites for aiding in the spread of such fake stories, Horner blames people themselves.
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber,” he told The Post. “They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks things anymore.”
Horner said he started making fake news sites to further his career in parody; he said he aims to be like The Onion when writing the stories. He says he operates at least 10 fakes news sites, but didn’t tell The Post all of them.
But his fake ABC News site has some of the most-shared fake news of the past several months: “Obama Signs Executive Order Declaring Investigation Into Election Results; Revote Planned”; “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The National Anthem At All Sporting Events”; “DRUGS IN COLORADO: New Deadly Strain Of Marijuana Turning Users Gay”; “Donald Trump Tweets Image Of His Penis – WARNING: Graphic Content” are among a few on the front page of the site.
On Thursday, Poynter published an open letter from an organization of fact-checkers calling on Zuckerberg and Facebook to “start an open conversation on the principles that could underpin a more accurate news ecosystem on its News Feed.”
“Facebook should strengthen users’ ability to identify fake posts and false news by themselves, as the scale of the problem is too vast for a purely top-down approach,” the letter continued.
President Barack Obama criticized the spread of fake news while in Germany Thursday, calling such reports a "threat to democracy," according to the New York Times.
The ball now appears to be in Facebook and Google’s court. As arguably the two-largest information sharing networks in the world, it will be up to them to determine what changes are necessary and implemented.
Until then, it will take a concerted effort on behalf of news media and consumers alike to out any fake news as false.