Why are online death hoaxes so popular?

Here at Snopes there has been no shortage of death hoaxes to debunk. These are false reports about the death of a public figure, mostly on the Internet. This form of junk news, aimed at getting gullible readers to pay attention because a celebrity is involved, is often clickbait if not outright phishing scams, and on rare occasions simply misreporting due to a misunderstanding.

Many of the pranks tell an offbeat story about the death of a famous person, like the time Jeff Goldblum or Tony Danza fell off cliffs (on separate occasions), or when Wayne Knight got into a car accident, or when a number of actors died snowboarding . In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, who was already around 96 years old and ailing, the “news” broke months before her actual death in September 2022.

Sources of Death Scams

These stories spread across the internet and have wide ranging sources. About a decade ago, Fake a Wish, a “celebrity fake news hoax generator” that allowed anyone to create junk news and attribute it to a website called “Global Associated News,” Fake a Wish, a ” Credited to Celebrity Fake News Hoax Generator.

Users could enter a celebrity’s name and select a fake story, which was redirected to Global Associated News, which generated a plausible-looking page. The site had a disclaimer at the bottom stating that everything was “100% made up”. Nevertheless, the story then spread without waiver on sites like Twitter. Rich Hoover, the man behind this, has made money running a number of sites like this one. In 2012, he told E! News that these were meant to be harmless pranks.

“It started as a joke machine seven years ago,” he said. “People can just type in any name to prank their friends. But people don’t read the fine print, and in fact it’s spreading like crazy.”

He got a few cease and desist letters, but he insisted it was “free press” for some celebrities. He pointed out that some fake death rumors are in bad taste, but he doesn’t have a suicide template on his website.

“It’s a dark comedy, done in bad taste, I’m guilty of that, but the intention is not to hurt one’s character,” he added. “I try to make it very easy to dispel the myth, like, ‘Hey, I’m alive and I’m going to be at Letterman tonight or at my movie premiere.’ The fans get upset and annoyed more than the celebrities.”

Another source of death fraud was schoolteacher Tommaso Debenedetti, who even duped the New York Times. He fabricated the death of author Cormac McCarthy by creating a fake Twitter account for McCarthy’s publisher Alfred A. Knopf and the alleged deaths of numerous other famous people. But that got him the attention of writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, who wrote, “He really is a hero of our time […] He excuses his behavior with the nice paradox: ‘I lied, but only to tell the truth.’”

“[McCarthy’s fake death] The story reveals the media’s horrifying situation,” Debenedetti told the Washington Post in 2016. “The report was not reliable and was made minutes before the news of the death, but many major websites believed it. Unbelievable!”

But death hoaxes have other reasons to exist than just being a dark joke. In the past, we have uncovered fraudulent YouTube ads claiming celebrity deaths that ultimately led users to CBD and keto diet sales pitches. In fact, CBD product systems have often used unauthorized celebrity images to pretend to endorse them. Upon investigation, we found that a page claiming the death of Whoopi Goldberg redirected to an alleged CBD product line, which in turn disguised the scam by replacing it with disclaimers or terms of service if users later attempted to update or return to the page. Another fraudulent YouTube ad about the alleged death of Jim Carrey turned out to be just clickbait.

Why are they spreading?

The celebrity death hoax is spreading across the internet largely because it feeds on a number of more basic user instincts, such as “portraying” their grief on social media. In the 2019 article “Death by Twitter: Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital,” by researchers at the University of Melbourne, commenting on the falsehood of the news is also part of the growth of junk news coming first :

The proliferation of commentary on suspended animation and digital culture is understandable, given that fake obituaries have become routine to be a commonplace occurrence, and the glare of surprise and shock is tempered by suspicion. In another sense, social media comments about user fake deaths can be used to understand the phenomenon and one’s relationship to such forms of social media communication. In this way, social comment also seems to be used to signal one’s identity as a savvy Twitter user, familiar with communicative events and cultural tropes in response to them, and in turn used to distance oneself from those and to criticize them who are deceived by the virus’ culture ‘performativity’ in public mourning.

In the delivery of a knowing and wry engagement, we can see a performative display of personal identity, a disposition that signals to other users one’s cultural knowledge and technical authority to recognize the phenomenon and its platform specificity—or what we’ve called “platform-cultural” capital “.

The paper concludes that “the capabilities of social media, coupled with the typical cycle of user response, facilitate the widespread exchange of hoaxes through affective involvement and ‘viral performativity’ surrounding public mourning”.

And online scammers are capitalizing on this growing tendency to generate clickbait with shocking headlines, photos, and graphics. The better known a celebrity is, the more clicks can be achieved. The more egregious examples encourage you to download something or click on more suspicious links that allow spammers to steal your information.

How to recognize a hoax

We’ve written numerous articles on how to identify suspicious material online, including detecting dubious or unidentified sources, spelling and grammatical errors, website URLs, satirical disclaimers and more.

When submitting an online obituary notice, you should also ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the announcement coming from a verified source such as an official spokesperson, family member, or a celebrity’s verified social media account?
  2. Is the web page from a site that appears to be mimicking a real news site? Look for typos, logo changes, font changes, or an unusual URL (compare it to the URL of the real news site, which it appears to be imitating).
  3. Does the website/social media page have a disclaimer as to its own accuracy? Some websites directly state that they are satirical in nature.
  4. Where are the photos in the story from? When you do a reverse Google image search, the results often come from older, unrelated stories.
  5. What does your own research tell you? If no legitimate news sites are talking about it, then it’s probably fake.

Regardless of what you see or read, never give out your own information or click on suspicious links asking for more information. The supposed death of a celebrity may be interesting to some, but to others it’s just clickbait and a black joke.

Sources:

“Brad Pitt, Other Celebrity Death Scams on Facebook Could Be Phishing Scams.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brad-pitt-other-celebrity-death-hoaxes-on-facebook-could-destroy-your-computer/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

Considine, Austin. “A comeback they might skip.” The New York Times, September 19, 2012. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/fashion/celebrity-hoax-death-reports. html. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

Couch, Aaron. “Eddie Murphy Latest Snowboard Death Hoax Victim.” The Hollywood Reporter, February 4, 2012, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/eddie-murphy-death-hoax-snowboarding-287140/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Did Oprah Winfrey Endorse Whoopi Goldberg’s CBD Line?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/winfrey-goldberg-cbd/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Hoaxing 101: How to Fake a Celebrity Death.” E! Online April 1, 2012 https://www.eonline.com/news/218336/hoaxing-101-how-to-fake-a-celebrity-death. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“HW Bush falsely announces death of Nelson Mandela.” USATODAY, September 1, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/09/01/bush-mandela-death/2752933/ . Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Jeff Goldblum is alive and well.” E! Online June 25, 2009, https://www.eonline.com/news/131264/jeff_goldblum_alive_well. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Jim Carrey Is Not Dead Despite Death Scam In YouTube Ad.” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/jim-carrey-is-not-dead/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Meet the internet’s ‘biggest liar’ whose Twitter death hoaxes fooled millions.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/06/29/meet-the-internets-greatest-liar-whose-twitter-death-hoaxes-have- fool-millions/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

Nansen, Bjorn, et al. “‘Death by Twitter’: Understanding Social Media False Obituaries and the Performance of Platform Cultural Capital.” First Monday, Dec. 2019. firstmonday.org, https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i12.10106. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Queen Elizabeth death hoaxes accelerated as the world waited for news.” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/news/2022/09/08/queen-elizabeth-death-hoaxes/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Red Flags: How to Identify Suspicious Rumors.” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/articles/401830/red-flags-suspicious-rumors/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Unraveling the Drama Behind Queen Elizabeth II’s Death Hoax.” E! Online 02/24/2022 https://www.eonline.com/news/1320786/untangling-the-drama-behind-queen-elizabeth-iis-death-hoax. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

“Wayne Knight Death Hoax: How and Why These Hoaxes Happen — and How to Stop Them.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/03/17/wayne-knight-death-hoax-how-and-why-these-hoaxes- happen-and-how-to-stop-them/. Retrieved 22 Sep 2022.

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