Paul Horner, a prolific fake news writer whose hoaxes repeatedly went viral during the 2016 presidential campaign, was found dead last week in his mother's home outside Phoenix. Horner was 38.
Horner died "peacefully in his sleep" on Sept. 18, according to Horner's brother, JJ.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office told BuzzFeed News there were no signs of foul play, but "evidence at the scene suggested this could be an accidental overdose." The sheriff's office said Horner was known to use and abuse prescription drugs, but the results of a toxicology report will not be available for months.
Horner wrote absurd fake news stories long before publishing misleading or false information became a thriving online industry. In previous interviews with BuzzFeed News, he talked about his disdain for fake news publishers who he said were just in it for a quick buck. He considered his own work to be satire.
Although Horner didn't identify as a Democrat or as a Republican, his fake news stories usually poked fun at conservative politics and beliefs. One of his recurring characters was Fappy the Anti-Masturbation Dolphin, the supposed mascot for a Christian group who was perpetually getting caught in public acts of indecency.
Horner's fake stories also had an impact on the 2016 presidential campaign. One false story about paid anti-Trump protesters was shared by two of Donald Trump's campaign managers, Corey Lewandowski and Kellyanne Conway, as well as his son Eric.
"It's just fun to mock the far-right because they don't fact-check," Horner told BuzzFeed News in a 2016 interview. "They just put anything out there."
Horner said he donated much of his income from his viral pranks to charitable causes, and he was passionate about his own charity, Sock It Forward, which provides clean socks to homeless people.
Horner "had a huge heart," his brother JJ told BuzzFeed News.
"I truly believe what he was doing was high art," he said of Horner's fake stories. "His objective was to make people question their reality through this relatively new medium, the internet and information sharing. Hopefully he has inspired others to write their own narrative."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the online announcement of Horner's death was treated with skepticism by his friends on Facebook.
"I can't believe it. Literally and figuratively," said one person on Horner's profile.
"If Paul Horner taught me anything," wrote another friend, "it's to check my sources."
The Nevada County Scooper, a site that publishes satirical articles as well as the occasional hoax, published an obituary for Horner that included a quote from its publisher.
“I’ve known Paul for years. He’s a legend in our business,” said the man identified as Randall Finkelstein. “Horner set the standard. That guy was a workhorse. He knew how the system worked and he played it to great success. It’s safe to say that everyone here at the Scooper is both shocked and saddened by his passing.”
This article has been updated with comment from Horner's brother.