What do Nelson Mandela, Charlie Sheen, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Jackie Chan, Jim Carey, Gordon Lightfoot, Kanye West, Paris Hilton, Eminem, Aretha Franklin, Avril Lavigne, Aaron Carter, Russell Crowe, Taylor Lautner, Bill Cosby, Christian Slater, Hugh Hefner, Morgan Freeman, Lindsay Lohan, Jeff Goldblum, James Avery, BB King, Satoshi Tajiri, and yes, even the Biebs, have in common?
They’re just some of the celebrities who ‘died on Twitter’.
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Abraham Lincoln
The exact origins of some of these death hoaxes can be hard to find. This article traced a few of the bigger ones back to a few specific tweeters, and usually once the people behind the handles realize they’ve posted something that’s wrong they will try to correct themselves. But think about how Twitter works for a second. Whether people are saying “RIP Charlie Sheen” or “omg Charlie Sheen isn’t dead u guyz”, it contributes to the trending topic “Charlie”. When someone tries to see why “Charlie Sheen” is trending, they may only see people offering their condolences and so the hoax carries on.
It’s been a bit easier to fix now that Twitter shows a “Top Tweet” in each topic so if the originator can get a correction up there and delete the original tweet, the truth can be spread a bit easier. That’s part of why there haven’t been many big hoaxes lately. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice the big ones always have a few things in common. For example….
The most recent hoax centered around Steve Jobs. He’s been ill for several months and has a long and complicated medical history which makes it a ‘believable’ hoax, especially since he stepped down as CEO over health reasons. A correction was posted fairly quickly, and that’s a good thing too since the account that posted it may not have a lot of followers but it definitely seems like a credible source and that can be enough for some people. It has a fancy background, a link to CBS.com, and everything is spelled correctly. Seems trustworthy, right? So it’s believable, the source looks legitimate, and the ‘target’ is certainly someone who can generate a buzz. All key ingredients. (By the way, the show associated with that Twitter account was affiliated with CBS News prior to the hoax, and it seems like that’s come to an end now…)
A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. -Winston Churchill
I think another reason some of these succeed is people see them and say to themselves, “What does someone have to gain from lying about whether or not Charlie Sheen is dead?”. Sometimes, it’s your information. Unscrupulous people or companies will use trending topics to spread malware and other viruses and take control of your computer. That’s why you need to carefully check your source, question it, and remain skeptical until you’ve heard it verified by a trustworthy news agency. Better yet: if it’s a big enough celebrity, check their personal website. You could also look at their Twitter or Facebook page, but make sure it’s theirs and not one that is fan-run.
For some people, one time is not enough. Jackie Chan has been the victim of two death hoaxes this year alone. And some real deaths, like Ronnie James Dio’s, are reported, then deemed a hoax, then turn out to be true a short time later. This makes it harder for news agencies and Twitter users to really know if someone is actually dead. But approaching it with a healthy dose of skepticism isn’t a bad thing, especially when the end of the world doesn’t depend on you knowing the answer this second.
This may not be a ‘celebrity death hoax’, but just days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 NBC News’ Twitter account was hacked, with those behind it posting about a supposed attack on Ground Zero. And similarly, @FoxNewsPolitics was hacked in early July and the hackers (same group as with the NBC hack) used it to spread a death hoax about US President Barack Obama. So if you see something on a website or coming from a Twitter account that you trust, but believe the news itself is suspect, it’s always better to wait than risk being taken for a ride or sharing something that could be harmful with your friends and followers. Also, consider following some of these hacker groups like LulzSec on Twitter so you can see what they’re up to. LulzSec is technically defunct and has stopped posting, but I’m using them as an example.
While the old adage about not trusting everything you read online covers the point of my article nicely, I think it bears repetition when you’re browsing social networks because we do tend to establish a sort of personal connection with what we read and who is telling us this information. That can be dangerous sometimes. The media contact for the local fire department tweets out a lot of information when he’s live on the scene of a fire, but I always call to verify before that info goes to air because I never know who might’ve picked up his phone or got his password from somewhere. My intent is not to scare you off of Twitter or online learning, but to remind you to always question the things you are reading on the internet.
Which reminds me…if you have any questions, comments, or feedback be sure to leave them at the bottom. Looking forward to speaking with you on this topic! Happy tweeting, and safe travels on the web!