Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Web of deceit: the internet has killed the celebrity death hoax

I was travelling in Peru when the news broke, enjoying myself at a beachside bar. All of a sudden the music stopped and over the microphone a sombre-toned barmaid announced the sad news of George Michael’s passing. A respectful minute or so of silence passed and then the sound system started up, screeching Michael Jackson’s Bad. After a further minute or so the music cut out again and said barmaid returned to the microphone to clarify the “sad news of Michael Jackson’s passing”.  We stared at each blankly, unsure what was going on, until an Australian friend asked with genuine concern “how is George Michael?”

He was fine of course, unlike poor Michael, but for the first time in my life I found myself worrying about the former Wham singer’s well being. I hoped for instance he was finally getting the upper hand in his battle with cannabis addiction. A year later when he ploughed his car into the Snappy Snaps in Hampstead, I felt a palpable relief that he escaped the crash unscathed. The premonitory effect the mishap had on me brought to mind the celebrity death hoaxes of my schooldays. I recall one such playground rumour that Derrick Errol Evans, better known as Mr Motivator, had expired. The details are a bit sketchy, perhaps that throbbing vein in his head and finally given him the aneurism it had always threatened. Or maybe a naked flame had come into contact with his Lycra spandex. Either way, for the remainder of the day I was certain that sometime between first break and lunch we'd lost a giant of the televised workout world.

The Art of lying

As morally dubious a practice as spreading these rumours was, it's hard not to admire the artistry and effort which went into them. First of all the inventor had to pick a celebrity big enough that everybody knew who they were, but not so big that it would seem far-fetched and unbefitting of their stature for them to die on a school day. Then, because this was the pre-internet halcyon age, the rumour had to be started by actually telling somebody face-to-face. Granted that somebody was more often than not a wide-eyed and gullible 10 year-old, but even so you had to be prepared for even the most rudimentary interrogation. How did they die for instance? When? How do you know?

But it’s not like that anymore. A recent online Eddie Murphy death hoax started on the site Global Associated News gained so much momentum that his brother Charles was forced to respond - "It's really astounding how low people will go for attention. Eddie Murphy is fine!" And this was despite the fact that the website contains the quite unambiguous disclaimer that: "This story is 100% fake! This is an entertainment website, and this is a totally fake article based on zero truth and is a complete work of fiction for entertainment purposes".

Mind you, at least a fatal Swiss snowboarding accident involving the star of Beverley Hills cop is possible, if not exactly plausible. Last week, the comedian Michael Legge started a rumour, (I believe twitterstorm is now the preferred term), that fictional character Gregg Jevin had died - proving you don't even have to exist for rumours of your demise to be greatly exaggerated. Type the word "is" into Google and the search engine prompts you to ask "Is David Guetta dead?” proving both the staying power of internet pranks and the stupidity of people who believe them.


The virtual playground that is the internet has made killing off the stars easier than ever before. As the famous 71 character tweet goes ‘a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’. But the spate of celebicide that has seen Charlie Sheen, Owen Wilson and Adam Sandler go to that great rehab centre in the sky is much less believable than the pranks of yesteryear, especially since they were all said to have died in Swiss snowboarding accidents. Such is the lack of imagination in modern hoaxes they have left me mourning the loss of an art form rather than any celebrity. But maybe I’m just nostalgic for a simpler time, when people remember where they were when they first heard the news of Noel Edmonds’ tragic helicopter crash.  

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