SAN DIEGO – September 5, 2012 – It all started with Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. After the singer’s shocking death followed by the death of the actress a day later to cancer in August 2009, Twitter users started claiming other celebrities were dead too. Britney Spears. Sean Combs. Paul McCartney.
When actor Jeff Goldblum was reported to be dead a week after Jackson, Stephen Colbert reported the “news,” only to be “interrupted” on camera by a very much alive Goldblum. Yet there were still people who believed Goldblum was dead.
After the situation calmed down, this phenomenon should have died its own death. Instead it’s become a Twitter parlor game. The list of people who have been subjected to the celebrity death hoax is becoming its own odd “Who’s Who” list. Singer Jon Bon Jovi, Missy Ellliott, Reba McEntire, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber. Actors Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Adam Sandler, Tom Hanks, and Ryan Gosling.
Every few days, it’s another name in the news denying rumors of his or her death. Singer Rihanna, reportedly dead from an alcohol-induced heart attack. Eddie Murphy, killed on a snowboard in Switzerland. Take note that a lot of the celebrities die in snowboarding or skiing accidents, which should be cause for suspicion alone.
The latest is Bill Cosby, for about the fifth time. Over one million people have searched Google looking for information on Bill Cosby’s most recent and completely false death report.
The cyberkillers weapon of choice is the deadly hashtag, starting a rumor with nothing more than posting “#RIP (name)” to Twitter. In the recent Cosby case, someone went so far as to create the Facebook page “RIP Bill Cosby.” Others read the message and reflexively share the shocking “news” to their friends by retweeting (reposting) it. The hashtag starts to rise up the trending terms list.
Once it hits the Top Ten, which can happen with a critical mass of retweets within minutes, it gets even more attention and spreads like a wildfire doused with gasoline until the celebrity puts out the flames via a legitimate news source with a denial.
When the cyber thugs are especially aggressive, they attack on multiple fronts. Singer Chris Brown not only got the standard Twitter death rumors, false condolence comments were posted on dozens of his music videos on his official YouTube page.
Why are people motivated to start such rumors for sheer sport? San Diego-based clinical psychologist Michael Mantell says while the technology is new, the human motives behind the hoaxes are as old as the “Martian panic” created by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio show in 1937 and the boy who cried wolf.
“Twitter allows liars to creatively manipulate a sense of power over tens or hundreds of thousands of followers. The power they wield works because they play on our adoration of the stars they write about coupled with our emotions upon hearing of a “death” or tragedy occurring to them, blinding our rational thinking and normal skepticism,” explained Dr. Mantell. “They want us to feel emotion instead of use our critical thinking.
“It builds the sense of power in the perpetrator of the hoax, but only temporarily. He/she must do it again to keep up their otherwise failing and false sense of power. They do it to build up their own sense of poor self-esteem that borders on self-loathing.
“There is also the “I want to be first to spread the news—makes me feel important—I’ll tell my friends before anyone else does.” This helps cement the erroneous belief we hold onto. We believe things more when we spread them to others,” said Dr. Mantell.
But now that we all know about the celebrity death hoax phenomenon, why aren’t we more skeptical? Why don’t we stop to check these reports out first since so many of them, especially on Twitter, turn out to be completely false?
“We have always been able to put our critical reasoning aside. We are physiologically built to focus on what’s alarming and dangerous, and the media knows this well,” explains Mantell. “Social media also allows us to see immediately a large number of others who “believe the hoax” by the sheer outpouring of grief, shock and wailing, which we instantly believe must be true if everyone else is believing it. We think, “If so many people are reacting, it must be true.”
There is no way to stop the rumors being planted. Anyone can start one. A report about the demise of an especially appealing or infamous celebrity can go viral within a few hours, if not minutes.
We need to play our part as individuals in making the celebrity death hoax trend stop. We managed to shut down most of the worst email hoaxes by getting wise to them, and taking individual responsibility not to answer or spread them.
We each need to do the same with the celebrity death hoaxes. It seems that people are finally starting to get wise and get fed up with this insidious little form of sick entertainment. Unless the rumor comes from a legitimate news source and you have independently verified it with an online web report about the individual, refrain from retweeting or reposting or even commenting on any “RIP” reports of a celebrity or entertainer’s death. Eventually the hoaxsters will need to go find some other cyberstreet to play in.
But Dr. Mantell says it won’t happen overnight. “It will take awhile for most people to react to these “news flashes” on Twitter the way we do to our Nigerian ambassador email—simply dismiss it out of hand. Until then, if it shows up on Twitter before it shows up on credible news sources, it probably is another hoax. Don’t send a condolence card too fast,” he laughed.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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Copyright © 2012 by Falcon Valley Group
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