By: ankita kulkarni
August 30 2023
(Source: Logically Facts)
On August 23, the world woke up to a shock. The walls of the internet were splashed with news that former Zimbabwe cricket team captain Heath Streak has died. News articles were published, condolences poured in, tributes were penned, and his battle against cancer was praised…Only for the world to find out hours later that it was a hoax!
Streak expressed his disappointment to English daily Mid-Day about rumors circulating on social media. Though Streak passed away days later, the initial rumor exposed how death rumors are very popular on the internet.
Countless celebrities have been victims of such hoaxes – Lil Tay, a 16-year-old American child influencer, was reportedly announced dead recently. Later, it was clarified by her family that she is alive. Similarly, Dolly Parton, Justin Beiber, Steve Harvey, Simon Cowell, Bruce Wills, Dwayne Johnson, Indian politician Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Indian film actor Dharmendra are the ones to name a few. But why does this happen? Why do death hoaxes repeatedly go viral?
A report published by The New York Times in 2012 quoted Mark Bell, an adjunct professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who studied deception in digital media, stating that many fake deaths that circulated back then were created using the Fake a Wish website. He continued that this website would allow anyone to create a fake and baseless story, credited to Global Associated News. Bell added that these websites were popular and widely shared mainly because "there's not a lot of cost, either financially, morally, legally or criminally in doing this."
It fits squarely in today's world, where the internet and social media are easily accessible to every age group. An analysis published by the University of California's Center for Information Technology and Society on how fake news spreads states that "To be most effective, fake news needs to be spread through social media to reach receptive audiences." The article details how bots are employed to share fake news, which is then shared by real people.
The analysis explains that microtargeting propagates fake news and deals with how "cookies are used to track people's visit to websites, create personality profiles, and show them fake news content that they are most receptive to." It also argues that the troll accounts on social media are for the purpose of fanning misinformation.
Kamna Chhibber, a clinical psychologist at Fortis Healthcare in India, says that such hoaxes usually pop up on social media when a specific event comes up in the celebrity's life or even after that. Sometimes, hoaxes gain traction if the celebrity is suffering from some illness.
"People sharing such hoaxes without verification often live a fantasy life, hold their aspirations towards the celebrity life to lead like one, and see them as role models. These are also done to draw people's attention toward an individual's profile or website to gain traction, viewers, subscribers, likes, shares, and much more."
Screengrabs of posts claiming Bruce Willis's death. (Source: Facebook/Altered by Logically Facts)
Chibber also adds that several times, hoaxes are generally amplified by the fan pages. She says, "People share things without verification in an urge to be the first one to report on the news of their favorite celebrity, and sometimes, it is also associated with fan page enmity that leads to the spread of death hoaxes."
However, there is a combination of factors that influence this. Bhavana S, a clinical psychologist and counselor based in Bengaluru, India, says, "A combination of personal, professional, and societal factors could influence each individual's motivations. It's important to note that specific cases would require detailed analysis to determine the exact psychological factors at play."
According to psychologists, death hoaxes are mainly circulated by people who desire to gain attention and be publicly known.
Fact-checkers are often put to task when death hoaxes spread; misinformation travels much faster than fact-checks do.
"Death hoaxes are one of the most enduring types of misinformation and are most effective when they are about a public figure who is aging or has some sort of ailment that lends credibility to the claims. Political figures are also prime targets for such misinformation," says Daniel Funke, a Digital Investigation Editor at AFP. He added that such hoaxes play into people's emotional attachment to celebrities.
Canadian Singer Celine Dion has also been a victim of a death hoax several times. Posts like these have been emerging on social media following the news of her being diagnosed with an incurable neurological condition, stiff person syndrome.
Angie Drobnic Holan, Director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and editor-in-chief of PolitiFact says that these hoaxes "seem to play on a number of human impulses, especially our interest in celebrities and the way that death provides an important sense of closure and time for reflection. When they center on a beloved, popular or controversial figure, they do tend to go viral."
Former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson was declared dead on the internet when he moved out of the channel in April 2023. The screenshot being shared was actually an altered image of a CNN article. Similarly, in May 2023, philanthropist George Soros was also falsely reported to be dead.
If these rumors are so widely popular, how do you detect them?
It is important to be aware of why such narratives are going viral. Ask yourself these questions – Is there a significant event attached to the personality's life that could have triggered the rumor? Is any credible source reporting on it? Is it just on social media?
"Social media users should exercise caution when they see bold claims that a well-known person has died. Before you share, stop, open up a new tab, and do a quick search to see if any credible media outlets have reported on it. If not, then that should give you some pause," says Funke.
Holan says, "With the spreading awareness, I've also seen people online become much more skeptical of death announcements. In other words, people have started fact-checking death announcements to make sure they are accurate."
Logically Facts has been working towards creating awareness on how to interact with news and information on the internet. You can read our stories on reading beyond headlines, geolocation among others here.
(Update: The story has been updated to reflect that Heath Streak passed away on September 3, 2023, days after a rumor about his death went viral.)