It’s actually quite common – you wake up in the morning to realize that a famous personality had passed away the previous night. You might read it on a website, or in most cases, see in on your social media feed – shared by friends and followers along with the customary ‘R.I.P’ message. As you have to get ready for work, you do the noble thing – create a personalized message and share it yourself. Later, when you raise the topic while having lunch with your co-workers, you become a subject of ridicule as you realize that you have fallen victim to one of the countless numbers of death hoaxes that perpetuate the Internet at various times.
News regarding a person’s demise has the propensity to spread faster, as they tap into basic human emotions of insecurity and fear. It’s no wonder that such news articles constitute a major aspect of Fake News – which relies on “Sensationalism” to spread itself among people. In today’s digital age, it’s not only easier to fabricate such false stories but also to spread them – thanks to a gullible population relying on Facebook and Twitter for information about the world. If the ultimate goal is to attract internet traffic and generate ad revenue, why not do it by falsely claiming that a famous personality has passed away.
On 6th August, 2018, the star of Back to the Future trilogy, Michael J. Fox, became the subject of one such death hoax. A website, designed to look like Yahoo! News, posted the headline: “Beloved Actor and Back to the Future Star Michael J Fox Has Died at the Age of 57”. The horror and sadness of fans were quickly replaced by rage and anger when they realized the news was, indeed, “fake”.
In July, 2018, the much beloved British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, was also at the forefront of such a cruel joke. A website featured the headline “FOX Breaking News” before delving the information that the comedian had passed away, and provided the link to a video clip. Clicking the play button on the video clip would send the user to a fake “Security Error” page claiming that the system has been infected by a virus. The news was later found out to be a hoax by scammers to try and obtain personal data from users who have clicked on the video and gotten infected by a “fake” virus.
Even before the advent of the internet and social media, death hoaxes were making rounds around the world. The infamous “Paul is dead” rumor, started in the late 1960’s, led fans around the world to believe that Paul McCartney, the beloved member of The Beatles, had passed away – and was replaced by a doppelganger. The rumor became a global sensation at the time and prompted McCartney to debunk it himself through an interview. However, conspiracy theorists still believe it’s his look-alike, who still remains one of the two surviving members of the band to date.
Studies have shown that such death hoaxes increase in frequency around the real deaths of celebrities and famous personalities. As fans get rattled by the death of one superstar, it becomes easier to slip in the news of another “false” demise. At the end of the day, spreading false rumor regarding the death of a person is, at its core, an extremely despicable and evil act. One must confirm the story from several independent sources before sharing it on social media.