Celebrity Death Hoaxfest

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, The History of Pranks, Urban Legends

From David Emery’s About.com Urban Legends, June 30, 2009:

Celebrity Death Hoaxes Abound

art.spears.200It was a bumpy weekend for the rich and famous, with the entertainment industry mourning the loss of three pop culture icons even as the Internet churned out one hoax after another declaring more celebrities dead.

The hoaxfest was triggered by mid-week announcements confirming that Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson had died. By Thursday afternoon the Internet was rife with false reports claiming that actors Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford had died as well. Death announcements for Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Ellen DeGeneres, Louie Anderson, P. Diddy, Natalie Portman, George Clooney, and Rick Astley “” all bogus “” followed in quick succession.

Pranksters used a variety of tactics to promulgate the rumors, including generating fake news stories on the Web, vandalizing Wikipedia pages, and hacking celebrities’ Twitter accounts. Despite their rapid dissemination, all were debunked in fairly short order.

Convenient as it is to blame the Internet and social media in particular for this tidal wave of bunk (one blogger even recommended, presumably in jest, that Twitter be equipped with a fact-checking application), this isn’t the first time a “rumor panic” has gripped the nation in the wake of a high-profile death. As Museum of Hoaxes curator Alex Boese noted earlier today, the same thing happened after Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. According to the New York Times, “rumors of killings, accidents and deaths involving prominent persons flooded the city” in the days that followed, with callers jamming the switchboards of newspapers, radio stations, and government offices to inquire about the fates of Frank Sinatra, Van Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, and other top celebrities of the time.

The Post-Gazette reported the same phenomenon in Pittsburgh. “The day after the President’s death was announced, scores of people called to report Jack Dempsey dead,” one beleagured switchboard operator was quoted as saying. “On Monday, the rumor-relayers killed off Van Johnson and Jack Oakie; on Wednesday they said Himmler and Hitler were dead; on Thursday, it was Henry Ford and Truman and today we had dozens of calls saying Truman had been assassinated. Today, of all days, too, with us trying to handle all the calls about the baseball game between the Bucs and the Cubs!”

The technology has changed; human nature hasn’t.

More on this topic:

  • Celebrity death rumors spread online, by John D. Sutter, CNN, July 1, 2009
  • The Great Death Rumor Craze of 2009: An Analysis, by Alex Boese of The Museum of Hoaxes, July 1, 2009