By Anna Swann-Pye
Photo courtesy of Chris Favero.
In 1897, roughly 13 years before his actual demise, Mark Twain wrote: “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” To comment on one’s own death before it’s even happened seems unusual, but Twain was merely answering a reporter who mistook Twain for his cousin, who had recently taken ill.
As ridiculous as this seems, celebrity death hoaxes have been prevalent for hundreds of years. From Samuel Coleridge in 1816 to the “Paul is Dead” craze 150 years later, fake celebrity deaths have been stirring up the media for about as long as ‘celebrity’ has been a relevant term.
But why is it that, in recent years, the fake death count has sky rocketed? The most obvious answer is the internet. Mark Bell, professor at Indiana University, who studied deception in the media, told the New York Times that, “what’s different today is the ease and speed with which such rumors can be created and circulated.”
And it’s true – the internet appears designed especially with this sort of anonymous prankage in mind. With websites like fakeawish.com, where one can enter the name of their favorite (or least favorite) celebrity then invent that celebrity’s death scenario with a click of the mouse, it’s no wonder that these hoaxes aren’t happening more often. Founder, Rich Hoover, talked to E! Online about his site and Global Associated News, a now-defunct front and platform to spread about celebrities demises that launch from fakeawish.com.
“It started off as a practical joke machine,” he says, “people can just plug in anybody’s name so then they’ll prank their friends. But people don’t read the fine print, and sure enough, it spreads like mad.”
Sure enough, on the Global Associated News website, there is very small print. “FAKE” it says at the bottom, “THIS STORY IS 100% FAKE.” But the font is undetectably small and it’s no wonder that it is often looked over.
Hoover went on to argue that this sort of publicity was in fact good for celebrities, but celebrities themselves feel differently. Both Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby have been on Larry King Live to talk about the upsetting effects of the ‘practical joke.’
Cosby said, “emotional friends have called about this misinformation. To the people behind this foolishness, I’m not sure you see how upsetting this is.”
But we ought to wonder if there is any method to the madness of these internet hoaxers. Are they merely craving attention at the expense of others, or are they trying to teach America some sort of valuable lesson?
The last of the many Bill Cosby death rumors emerged earlier this year, from the appearance of a R.I.P Bill Cosby Facebook page created by one Jonathan Gorman. When the announcement was finally discovered to be a hoax, Gorman came clean to US Weekly:
“My name is Jonathan Gorman and I am the page admin/creator. With the recent slowdown of likes and high amount of attention from news sources,” wrote Gorman. “I have come to the conclusion that I should tell you all the truth. Bill Cosby is not deceased… I made 315 THOUSAND [sic-ed.] people angry”
But it didn’t seem that Gorman’s intention was simply to make people mad. According to the Huffington Post, Gorman posted one more thing on his R.I.P Bill Cosby page after the scandal had unraveled (the post has since been taken down). He wrote:
“I hope you all have learned your lesson. DON’T RELY ON SOCIAL MEDIA AS YOUR ONLY NEWS SOURCE.”
Similarly, when @originalcjizzle’s ‘Morgan Freeman is dead’ tweet raced through the cybersphere, he admitted that no one was as surprised as he was. “It was an inside joke between friends,” he later tweeted, “I had no intention of things turning out this way.”
While occasionally – as is the case with Rich Hoover of Global Associated News – these rumors come from a genuine malcontent, they are more likely pranks meaning no harm. Although Gorman and the other internet hoaxers are pretty intolerable – finding pleasure at the expense of celebrities and their families – he does have a point. The problem is only in part the vast quantity of internet death hoaxes. It is also, in part, the naivete of those who believe them. In 1969 when rumors spread that Paul McCartney had died, it wasn’t particularly easy to confirm the hoax (especially if you believed, as many did, that he’d been replaced by a look-a-like).
Now, though, there is really no excuse.