In the wake (no pun intended) of recent celebrity deaths like Michael, Farrah, Ed, and Billy, there have been a surprising surge in false rumors swirling about other celebrity deaths: Jeff Goldblum, Natalie Portman, Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Rick Astley, and, yes, even Britney Spears.
The first rumor, around the time Michael Jackson’s death was announced, said Jeff Goldblum fell off a cliff while shooting a film in New Zealand. Natalie Portman was also reported falling off a cliff in New Zealand. Next, George Clooney’s private plane crashed near Denver, Harrison Ford fell overboard from his yacht in Saint Tropez, British singer Rick Astley was found dead in a Berlin hotel, and Britney’s own Twitter post reported her death.
FakeAWish.com, a spoof on “Make-A-Wish,” provides a “celeb fake news generator” that allows users to plug in the full names of celebrities and then choose from four article templates that generate false and implausible “news” (a la “The Onion“). Three templates include a yacht sinking in St. Tropez, a private plane crashing, and a fall off a New Zealand cliff. In the photo above, you can see fake stories created from the celeb name “Charlie Chaplin.” According to Hoover, users plugged in the names of Goldblum, Clooney, Portman, and Ford to create the false stories that lead to a quick media storm via Twitter and Facebook.
As for Spears, her Twitter account was reportedly hacked by someone who cited her false death and other pranksters created an article of Astley’s death using a real-looking AP article template that was then posted to CNN’s user-generated news feed, iReport. TimesOnline.com also points out the irony behind the fake Astley story, since Astley himself has a pranking past (known as “rickrolling”) that helped boost his career. Jeff Goldblum eventually went on “The Colbert Report” to dispel the false death rumors.
In a technologically advanced world, news about anyone and anything can be spread across the internet with a one-second click on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites. While this helps news get around faster than a speeding bullet, it’s also dangerous if uninformed readers take certain news at face value, especially comments and posts from trusted friends who are also misinformed.
The L.A. Times cites a professor who believes these false rumors create “positive reinforcement,” which suggests that some readers may take a disturbing satisfaction in starting false rumors and having people believe them–much akin to high school gossip being fueled and disseminated via an instant text message over cell phones.
While publicists are no doubt fielding a lot of phone and email inquiries to deny rumors of these celebrity deaths, there is something gruesome about adding to the public sense of grief, bewilderment, and disorientation by reporting false celebrity deaths immediately after real celebrity deaths. There is also something disrespectful to the celebrities who have really died as well as the ones who haven’t died. The fascination and enjoyment of gossip mongering and the inability to allow others to properly separate real and false news is surely a recipe for near-mass hysteria, and a dangerous side to free speech gone wild.
What do you think about these celebrity death pranks? Harmless or hurtful? Funny or vicious? Do you think Twitter, Facebook, and other networking sites might also be dangerous for spreading news?