'Death by Twitter': Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital
First Monday

Death by Twitter: Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital by Bjorn Nansen, Dominic O'Donnell, Michael Arnold, Tamara Kohn, and Martin Gibbs



Abstract
In this paper, we analyse false death announcements of public figures on social media and public responses to them. The analysis draws from a range of public sources to collect and categorise the volume of false death announcements on Twitter and undertakes a case study analysis of representative examples. We classify false death announcements according to five overarching types: accidental; misreported; misunderstood; hacked; and hoaxed. We identify patterns of user responses, which cycle through the sharing of the news, to personal grief, to a sense of uncertainty or disbelief. But we also identify more critical and cultural responses to such death announcements in relation to misinformation and the quality of digital news, or cultures of hoax and disinformation on social media. Here we see the performance of online identity through a form that we describe, following Bourdieu as ‘platform cultural capital’.

Contents

Introduction
Background
Research approach
Case studies of false death announcements
Key themes in false death discussions on Twitter
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

On the 23rd of February 2015, a rumour began circulating on Twitter that singer Beyoncé Knowles had died, resulting in “#RIPBeyonce” trending. Searching the hashtag using Twitter’s Advanced Search function reveals that the rumour began with a user, @MattMcGrail, deliberately starting the hashtag, tweeting “I’m bout to get this trending ... #RIPBeyonce” (8:19 PM — 23 Feb, 2015). The hoax quickly spread with numerous users tweeting the news via the hashtag, including an account for ‘anonymous high school confessions’ with a large following (302,000 as at February 2018) advancing the hoax by tweeting both an image of the crash site of actor Paul Walker’s death and a fake news account with the handle @CnnNewsFacts: “BREAKING NEWS: BEYONCE WAS INVOLVED IN A HORRIFIC CAR CRASH! #RIPBeyonce” (23 Feb 2015) [1]. Some users did not believe the initial tweet, immediately recognising it as a hoax and expressing their disapproval: “that’s bullshit I don’t believe it.” (@evanhubleystuff, 8:23 PM — 23 Feb 2015). However, as the initial tweets gained more replies/retweets/likes, and the hashtag trended, there was both a rise in users’ uncertainty about the veracity of the spreading claim, and a greater variation in types of responses, spreading from grief, to doubt, to more critical and cultural commentary on the phenomenon of fake death announcements online (cf., Mikkelson, 2015).

As social media have become spaces in which traces of the dead and expressions of mourning now commonly circulate (Arnold, et al., 2017; Christensen and Gotved, 2015; Cumiskey and Hjorth, 2017), these channels of communication have also complicated notifications of death. Announcements of individual deaths spread rapidly through social networks (Gibson, 2015), whilst public mourning around celebrity deaths are highly mediated and viral events (Burgess, et al., 2018). In turn, the dynamics of social media encourage the swift spread of rumours including false information about individual deaths.

In this paper, we interrogate these dynamics that lead to the creation and spread of either inadvertent misinformation or deliberate disinformation in the announcements of deaths on Twitter. To study the circulation of ‘false deaths’ announcements [2], we focus on news of well-known public figures [3], and ask how social media users respond to such announcements or their inaccuracy. We draw from a range of public sources to collect and then categorise false death announcements on Twitter and then carry out a case study analysis of representative examples of these different types using Twitter’s Advanced Search feature. We classify false deaths on social media according to five identifiable and overarching types: accidental; misreported; misunderstood; hacked; and hoaxed. We then identify patterns of user responses, which cycle through the sharing of the news, to personal grief, to a sense of uncertainty or disbelief. We also identify more critical and cultural responses to such death announcements, which operate in relation to views of misinformation in digital news or cultures of disinformation on social media, and to the performance of online identity through a form of symbolic capital we describe as ‘platform cultural capital’, borrowing from Bourdieu’s (1984) original articulation of cultural capital as a form of embodied and symbolic value displayed through the acquisition of cultural skills, knowledge, and tastes.

 

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Background

Communicating (false) death

Media technologies have long operated as both a means of memorialising the deceased and communicating news of a death (e.g., Arnold, et al., 2017; Jones 2004; Walter, 2015a). News of death has always travelled by word of mouth within defined geographic and social groupings. Print technologies enabled death notices to circulate much further and faster than through word-of-mouth. Early printed reports focused on sensational, violent and graphic deaths, in some ways foreshadowing today’s tabloid news (Hanusch, 2010). For example, in the early seventeenth century, accounts of deaths appeared in the form of pamphlets offering shocking “lurid” accounts of “witches being tortured and burnt”, introduced by headlines such as “Two most unnaturall and bloodie Muthers” [murders] [4]. By the eighteenth-century death notices and obituaries were regularly being placed in newspapers, and discursive features familiar to us today were in evidence: the facts of the death, the naming of kin/bereaved in a death notice, the telling of a life well lived (Barry, 2008; Starck, 2006).

The growth of the news industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the representation of death become a common part of mass media, with classified death notices for private citizens and newspaper obituaries for public figures making news media the main site for the public to gain knowledge about a death (Hanusch, 2010). Despite the emergence of new mass media forms in the twentieth century, such as radio and television, the newspaper death notice and obituary persisted as dominant modes of notifying the public of a death. The audiences of such public communication, however, were predominantly small networked circles until the turn of the millennium. The death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the concurrent uptake of the Internet are often cited together as a pivotal moment in the shift to the more public and interactive mourning we see today (see Walter, 1999; also: Arnold, et al., 2017; Carroll and Landry, 2010; Jones 2004).

More recently, death notices have spread beyond the classified sections of newspapers via electronic communication, including the ‘secondary orality’ of the telephone as well as personal messages or posts spread via the Internet and social media. Electronic communication has then further accelerated temporal limitations on communicating news of a death to a geographically dispersed public (Gibson, 2015). The rise of social media is largely regarded as having brought grief and mourning further out of the relative privacy of modern mourning and into the public realm (Phillips, 2011; Walter, 2015b), whilst the intersection of social media and celebrity culture has transformed the death of a celebrity into a major collective event (Burgess, et al., 2018).

Social media has, in turn, afforded possibilities for false or premature announcements of death, and amplified the affect of such announcements. There are, of course, pre and early Internet examples of false death announcements, through incorrect news reporting or prematurely released obituaries from news organisations: Mark Twain famously responded to a false report of his death with “the report of my death was an exaggeration” (usually misquoted as “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”); whilst in 1998 a subscriber to the Glas Forum Online, a Derrida studies mailing list, “committed a stupid prank and announced Derrida’s death” [5]. Derrida subsequently described his affective response to the hoax of his own death, as well as the communicative efforts he undertook to correct it (Malabou and Derrida, 2004).

False reporting of death online appears to be on the rise. In 2003, a spectacular case emerged when it was reported that CNN had accidentally published draft obituaries for Nelson Mandela, Dick Cheney and Pope John Paul II, among others, on its Web site. Whilst technical or administrative error may be to blame, journalist Stephen Moss (2013) suggests that examples of such grave mistakes, such as when Reuters news organisation accidentally reported that investor George Soros had died, will proliferate as competition among online news media intensifies.

In the intervening years, as we detail below, a number of celebrities have indeed been the subject of false announcements of death that have spread rapidly across social media. Alongside the democratising possibilities of the Internet for publishing, the spread of false death news and announcements have multiplied — often driven by deliberate acts of disinformation, hoax or trolling rather than by error, misreporting, or misinformation.

Social media and public grief

The phenomenon of false death announcements on social media fits within a broader literature on public mourning and its performance within social media. While death studies scholar Tony Walter suggests that the shift to online mourning encourages an “everyday awareness of mortality” [6], others such as Margaret Gibson make a distinction between the impact of encountering death in “‘real life’ contexts” and the impact of witnessing a mediated deaththe latter having little impact on mortality awareness [7]. Such mediated mourning, in addition to online anonymity, enables the rise and publicisation of trolling through abusive comments or images posted to RIP pages memorialising the deceased (Philips, 2011). Research on the intersection of celebrity culture and public mourning, marks out similar terrains of both affective engagement and performative positioning. Writing on the responses to Michael Jackson’s death, for example, Sanderson and Cheong (2010) argue that social media afford interactive exchanges between those mourning the death of a celebrity. In analysing tribute videos for Steve Jobs on YouTube, Harju (2015) complicates this argument by highlighting how fan cultures may experience a form of disenfranchised grief that is not recognised as legitimate.

Gillian Terzis (2015) explores the tensions between authenticity and performativity in public mourning across Facebook. Reflecting on her own experience as a witness to public expressions of grief on the platform, Terzis calls attention to the way grief spreads across online networks in the form of “emotional contagion” [8]. She describes seeing friends post dedications to comedian Robin Williams in the wake of his death, and then reflects upon the posting of her own response, ultimately concluding “the Internet makes us feel we have the emotional bandwidth to mourn all deaths, and that we should do so publicly” [9]. Terzis is predominantly interested in the scepticism that these expressions of grief can attractindeed, she is routinely sceptical herself: “Sometimes it’s hard to know where grievance starts and aspiration begins, whether a moment of revelation, or a humorous quip, or a tribute to the dead is genuine or just a performance strategy” [10]. Acknowledging that the alternative — remaining silent — runs the risk of being seen as “cold or dismissive of catharsis”, Terzis suspects many follow those already publicly mourning as a performative gesture [11].

Whilst Terzis is writing on responses to actual death, rather than false or premature announcements, she nevertheless highlights the speed and readiness with which users in social networks have responded to the death of public figures, and the spreadability (Jenkins, 2013) of such reports, writing: “[w]henever a celebrity dies, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are flush with in memoriams and wistful recollections. These deaths are hashtag-ready, so grief becomes a meme in a literal sense” [12].

Both Mitchell, et al. (2016) and Burgess, et al. (2018) further nuance these discussions by drawing on longer histories of celebrity studies and convergence culture in an analysis of Twitter activity surrounding David Bowie’s death. Mitchell, et al. (2016) propose that this emotional contagion results in a “viral performativity” of sorts, whereby social media users are compelled to participate in public mourning. Meanwhile Burgess, et al. (2018) frame celebrity death online as a specific kind of media event, which draws together varied and often contradictory sentiments and reactions within a temporary public sphere. These include personal nostalgia and affective intimacy, public acts of memorialisation, debate about mediatised celebrity, and reflexive critiques about the role of social media in producing these phenomena.

There is of course a distinction between the cases of public mourning around celebrity deaths and false death announcements examined here. Nevertheless, these public responses to death announcements, whether real or false, raise questions about the viral and performative qualities of public mourning on social media platforms through user engagement. How and why do false deaths emerge and spread on social media? And how do users respond to reports of false death? While research into the history of public mourning is extensive, there is scant academic literature that considers false deaths online. One exception is Chua, et al. (2017, 2016), who analysed tweets made specifically in response to the rumoured death of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, which the authors use to examine how rumours spread and are then corrected by users on Twitter by, for example, pointing to source credibility. While Chua, et al.’s research is tangentially related to ours, it cannot tell us why people create, spread or critique false announcements of death.

Our study of false death announcements on social media shows a clear pattern of individual and personal responses to the announcement of the death of a public figure, beginning with surprise or even shock, perhaps accompanied by grief — or at least an emotion that leads to the expression of grief, then to sharing the news, followed by uncertainty or disbelief about the veracity of the news, then concluding in a mix of critique and sometimes humour. Of course, the varied points at which individual social media users enter and leave this stream of events means that it is not necessarily experienced as linear in any given case. Also important here, are the diverse performative responses to such death announcements, both prior to and following their disproving. These responses direct our attention towards the social, cultural and technical contexts of this phenomenon, highlighting how false death misinformation proliferates in the contexts of digital news, whilst more deliberate disinformation thrives within the ambivalent cultures of public participation on social media.

 

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Research approach

Although we were initially interested in announcements that originated on social media, it soon became apparent that excluding those that had originated elsewhere would result in a typology and subsequent discussion unrepresentative of how many of these cases unfold. Indeed, many incorrect announcements today are still first made elsewhere — in print and broadcast media, both online and off-line — before spreading across social media.

We drew on a range of Internet searches and online sources to identify examples of false deaths, including a useful Wikipedia article titled ‘List of premature obituaries’ [13] that presents a typology of alphabetically-sorted causes [14]. We then compiled a list of cases that we could observe and verify on Twitter. These cases were then categorised according to five identifiable and overarching types of false death announcements: accidental (inadvertent release of pre-prepared death announcement or obituary); misreport (reporting false death announcement based on mistaken information); misunderstanding (user spreading misinformation of death based on misunderstood facts); hacking (false death announcements sent from the hacked social media account); and hoax (deliberately posted fake death information) — (see Table 1 for types and examples).

We then conducted a case study analysis of these types of false death on Twitter using Twitter’s Advanced Search feature to collect data on the timeline, posts, and reactions in response to each false announcement [15]. To render the data manageable, all searches were restricted to a 96-hour period following each premature announcement (see Table 1 for cases and search terms). After selecting the sample of tweets, we then coded these based on each tweet’s apparent primary function, with the key types emerging from the data: to report/spread the news and/or express grief; to express uncertainty and seek clarification from other sources; to disprove the announcement and signal awareness of its prematurity; and to comment on the state of journalism and/or social media.

This typology and case study analysis is clearly not exhaustive, but rather an exploratory approach to the publication and circulation of false death information on Twitter. Nevertheless, this research points to the persistence and extension of established forms of error, misinformation, or misreporting, such as accidental obituary releases that are first published in legacy media (misreport; accidental release), which are then taken up and amplified through social media. More significantly however, our research highlights the rise of deliberate disinformation, designed to mislead, emerging through the affordances of social media for user-created content, fraud, and misrepresentation (hoax; hacking). These deliberate misreports can be understood as one way in which Twitter users are exploiting the platform’s affordances for and reputation as a source of news, despite its limited (albeit increasing) capacity to control the spread of unverified information.

More specifically, we propose that users who respond by disproving false death information or criticising those who are misled are signalling their familiarity with the platform, and how (mis + dis)information circulates on Twitter — or what we call “platform cultural capital” — as a mode of performing identity and digital media literacy. More generally, our analysis highlights the ways in which both established and new forms of false death announcements, and themes of user response to them, stimulate contemporary criticism of both digital news journalism and social media cultures.

 

Table 1: Types of false death announcements.
Type/definitionProminent examplesCase studySearch terms [16]
Accidental:
Inadvertent release of pre-prepared or draft of obituary or death announcement, due to human or technical error.

CNN incident:

Dick Cheney (2003)

Fidel Castro (2003)

Nelson Mandela (2003)

Pope John Paul II (2003)

Queen Elizabeth II (2015)

Prince Philip
(3 May 2017 and 2 August 2017; 63 + 33 tweets coded)
“Prince Philip” AND death OR dead OR died OR die OR rip OR passed OR hoax OR rumor OR rumour
Misreport:
Reporting false death announcement based on mistaken information, often news of illness or brush with death

Jeff Goldblum (2009)

Gotye (2012)

Jesse Winchester (2014)

Lee Kuan Yew (2015)

Prince Philip (2017)

Tom Petty
(2 October 2017)
“Tom Petty” AND death OR dead OR died OR die OR rip OR passed OR hoax OR rumor OR rumour
Misunderstanding:
Unintentionally spreading misinformation of death based on misunderstood facts in news story or social media.

Jaclyn Smith (2009)

Queen Elizabeth II (2010)

Bob Seger (2014)

Gene Hackman (2015)

Gene Hackman
(27 January 2015)
“Gene Hackman” AND death OR dead OR died OR die OR rip OR passed OR hoax OR rumor OR rumour OR retired
Hacking:
False death announcements sent from the hacked social media account of either a public figure or news outlet.

Miley Cyrus (2008)

Barack Obama (2011)

Roger Goodell (2016)

Jack Black (2016)

Jack Black
(5 June 2016)
“Jack Black” AND death OR dead OR died OR die OR rip OR passed OR hoax OR rumor OR rumour OR hack OR hacked
Hoax: Disinformation, deliberately posted fake death information, often as prank or phishing scam.

Kanye West (2009)

Pelé (2014)

Macauly Culkin (2014)

Michael Jordan (2015)

Sasha Grey (2015)

Al Pacino (2015)

John Cena (2016)

Angelina Jolie (2016)

Rowan Atkinson (2017)

Beyoncé
(23 February 2015)

Brad Pitt
(20 September 2016)

#ripbeyonce [17]

“Brad Pitt” AND death OR dead OR died OR die OR rip OR passed OR hoax OR rumor OR rumour OR hack OR hacked OR suicide OR scam

 

There were some limitations in conducting this case study analysis. Firstly, a significant number of tweets (approximately 10 percent) contained links to images and other tweets that had been deleted. This is not surprising, as it is easy to imagine journalists and Twitter users removing content upon learning that the report of death was false. Secondly, and equally unsurprisingly, there were widely varying levels of engagement — i.e., original tweets and replies/retweets/likes in responseacross the six case studies. As a result, we only considered tweets that received some kind of feedback (a reply, retweet and/or like) for some cases, while examining all tweets for others [18]. Finally, Twitter’s search function does not return tweets from private accounts; as a result, these tweets are not included [19].

 

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Case studies of false death announcements

Accidental release of drafted obituaries and announcements appears to be the rarest of false deaths online, as well as the most connected to traditional news media, with most accidentally published obituaries coming from news websites, either as a result of a human error or technical glitch. These types of false announcements tend to refer to public figures that are either old or in ill-health and are the subject of pre-prepared and filed draft obituaries. A recent example occurred when Prince Philip was prematurely announced dead twice in 2017, the first of these instances occurring on 3 May. It transpired that on that day Buckingham Palace called an emergency meeting to announce Prince Philip’s retirement. Speculation about the purpose of the meeting led to concerns quickly spreading about the well-being of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, due to their advanced years. French media began speculating that Prince Philip had died, and U.K.’s Royal Central then reported that some French media had confirmed Prince Philip’s death (Mezzofiore, 2017). Reports and expressions of grief (though expressed without certainty) began circulating across Twitter. The Sun then accidentally published a drafted obituary for Prince Philip on its site, prompting more widespread discussion on Twitter, with initial posts (mis)reporting the death and/or expressing grief (these often go hand in hand; tweets that (mis)report the death often simultaneously express grief):

  • “UK RADIO NOW CONFIRMING THE BUCKINGHAM PALACE EMERGENCY MEETING TOOK PLACE OVER THE DEATH OF PRINCE PHILIP. STORY IS DEVELOPING ...” (@KennyGGee, 3 May 2017)

Other posts expressed uncertainty, doubt or disbelief:

  • “Can anyone send me links to Reputable French news sites that are confirming Prince Philips death? (@alexiafedz, 3 May 2017)
  • “I don’t know what to believe! Some people are saying Prince Philip has died others are saying it’s not true. #buckinghampalace” (@JoshuaDixen, 3 May 2017)

A further set of tweets questioned the reporting and rumours, or tried to disprove rumours by reference to reputable media reports, or from journalist/news tweets:

  • “Seeing random tweets suggesting either Her Majesty or Prince Philip may have died. I haven’t seen anything credible yet. Watch for fake news” (@Adam_Stirling, 3 May 2017)
  • “Believe nothing about Prince Philip being dead until the BBC announce it. As it stands, it is all rumours.” (@mrjoshz, 3 May 2017)

Another set of tweets engaged with the rumour through humour about previous false death stories about the royal family often provided alongside direct references to the impact of social media or the broader news media in circulating misinformation:

  • “Twitter is a case study in fake news tonight with rumors of Prince Philip’s death. Everyone wait til 8am UK time, stop spreading crap.” (@DexBarton, 3 May 2017)
  • “Let us again praise #SocialMedia. No 3am “emergency meeting”. It was at 10. Oh ... and #PrincePhilip isn’t dead. Aside from that — nailed it!” (@NormanHermant, 4 May 2017)
  • “Big ol’ LOL to everyone who decided to take the Daily Mail & the Sun as “reliable sources” during Prince Philip’s “I’m not dead yet” episode” (@pptsapper, 4 May 2017)

Misreports of death occur where news media outlets inadvertently misinterpret information about an illness or a brush with death, or rereport such misinterpretations. In the current media landscape, these misreports are usually made on the basis of ‘fake news’ hoaxes that legitimate news providers have failed to recognise as such, or in response to a legitimate report of a public figure’s ill health or ‘brush with death’. In the latter case, the circumstances of their supposed death (e.g., an accident) appear to have been verified; accordingly, audiences tend to believe the misreport more readily than they otherwise would.

For example, when Tom Petty went into cardiac arrest on the 2 October 2017, CBS News prematurely announced that he had died. A number of other news outlets, such as Entertainment Weekly, HuffPost, and Slate also quickly posted articles, echoing CBS (Koblin, 2017). While the article published by CBS made no reference to a source, the CBS Twitter account attributed the news to the Los Angeles Police Department in a tweet that was later removed when, about an hour later, LAPD tweeted the following:

  • “(1/2) The LAPD has no information about the passing of singer Tom Petty. Initial information was inadvertently provided to some media sources” (@LAPDHQ, 2 Oct 2017)
  • “(2/2) However, the LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.” (@LAPDHQ, 2 Oct 2017)

Around the same time, Rolling Stone prematurely reported that Petty had died and published an obituary before replacing it with reports that Petty had only been hospitalised (Farhi, 2017). Mass confusion was spreading across Twitter when Petty’s daughter, Kimberly Violette, made a post on her Instagram account, condemning Rolling Stone for misreporting:

“My dad is not dead yet but your fucking magazine is. Your (sic) slime, has-been pieces of tabloid dog shit. You put the worst artists on your covers, do zero research. How dare you report that my father has died just to get press because your articles and photos are so dated. I will fucking shit down your throat and your family’s. Try not being a Trump vibe. This is my father not a celebrity. An artist and human being. Fuck u.”

A few hours later, Petty’s manager announced that Petty had been taken off life support and he did, in fact, die shortly after. As in the Prince Philip case, initial tweets expressed grief in reporting on the death, and confusion, given the conflicting reports and events:

  • “Wait ... I went to take a nap, Tom Petty was alive. Woke up, he’s dead. Ran some errands, and now he’s alive. CAN SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT’S WHAT?” (@987Woody, 3 Oct 2017)

Others questioned the reporting and rumours, or tried to disprove rumours by reference to reporting in reputable media, or coming from official sources:

  • “Tom Petty didn’t die? His daughter posted on Instagram that he’s still alive. Come on fam.” (@___PantheR, 3 Oct 2017)
  • “ABC news just said Tom Petty is not dead but hanging on to life !” (@CMMHanford, 3 Oct 2017)

Some Twitter users acknowledged their part in spreading misinformation, apologised, and backtracked by, for example, deleting the original tweet:

  • “Out of love & respect for Tom Petty we deleted our tweet that he had passed. Hoping he can recover & hoping his family have strength” (@thecanadiankop, 3 Oct 2017)

And like Prince Philip, we saw two key threads of commentary and critique emerge about the social and technical contexts of false deaths. One is about social media and laughing at the persistent circulation of rumours:

  • “Anyone else get the feeling that the Internet could crash solely from people repeatedly checking as to whether or not Tom Petty has died?” (@NonStopPop, 3 Oct 2017)

The second key thread that became prominent in this stream of exchanges was about the state of news media in the current digital, social and political climate. Problems of credibility, professionalism, and poor-quality journalism, including fake news, were seen as rampant in a climate in which news room budgets are cut, stories are sourced online, and news organisations race with one another and with social media users to be first to print:

  • “Not sure if Tom Petty is dead but journalism sure is.” (@_Nicoko_)
  • “lol, this whole Tom Petty problem (fake reporting of death) happened because CBS decided TMZ was a real news source” (@coverlit, 3 Oct 2017)

Misunderstanding refers to users posting false death announcements based on ambiguous, incorrect or misunderstood information circulating in news or social media. For example, on 27 January 2015, pop-culture blog Grantland posted an article on Gene Hackman’s retirement from acting with the headline “The Greatest Living American Actor at 85: Gene Hackman Is Gone But Still in Charge”. The vague use of the word ‘gone’ led some readers to believe that Hackman had died. As a result, some readers took to Twitter to express their grief, and the misunderstanding spread from there. News outlets such as Time and AOL quickly cleared up the confusion in articles of their own, and Grantland edited the headline of the article, replacing ‘gone’ with ‘retired’.

Here again, user responses initially expressed grief about the events, uncertainty about their veracity, and pointed to the absence of references to legitimate sources of information as evidence of the falsity of the report:

  • “Did Gene Hackman die? I just saw @DylanMcDermott post that he did but I can’t find proof on the Internet. Another #celebritydeathhoax?” (@heathercnick, 27 Jan 2015)
  • “Gene Hackman is not dead. Grantland wrote a clickbait headline about him being “gone”, but was referring to his ongoing retirement.” (@ChimpFour, 28 Jan 2015)

These initial sentiments of grief and uncertainty quickly turned into slamming journalism and social media as it became clear that Hackman was still alive, but in other cases, posts became less critical in register, instead turning to humour to comment about social media affordances, trends and cultures:

  • “So Grantland puts up a confusing headline that presumes Gene Hackman is dead and it goes viral. Click-bait has once again reached a new low.” (@sleepyskunk, 28 Jan 2015)
  • “Twist on the forwarded-without-reading problem — Gene Hackman death hoax started by a poorly worded HEADLINE.” (@krelnik, 29 Jan 2015)

Hacking is characterised by false death announcements sent from the hacked social media account of either a public figure (though this public figure is not necessarily the public figure reported as dead), or from an established news provider. This type of announcement tends to spread more widely and persist longer than false news hoaxes (see below), given that audiences are less likely to question the authenticity of an announcement that seemingly emerged from reputable sources. Prominent examples include Miley Cyrus’ YouTube account being hacked and used to falsely report she had died in a car accident, and Barack Obama was the victim of a premature announcement when a hacker collective gained access to a Fox News Twitter account.

In another well-publicised example, on 5 June 2016, Twitter user @Ruthless hacked the account of Jack Black’s band Tenacious D (@RealTenaciousD) and announced that Black had died. The user repeated the false claim across a number of tweets:

  • “I’m sad to officially announce the death of Jack Black at the age of 46, rest in peace brother.” (@RealTenaciousD, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “#RipJackBlack” (@RealTenaciousD, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “It is with a heavy heart I am to announce that Jack Black passed away last night at 3:37am. The cause of death is yet unknown.” (@RealTenaciousD, 5 Jun 2016)

Despite the fact the announcement was oddly repeated across separate tweets, the news was quickly accepted by many as legitimate on account of having been posted through the band’s official account. The hashtag “#RipJackBlack” started trending shortly after, but many users began expressing doubt of the announcement’s veracity. Twitter user @tprincedelamour then shared a screenshot of a photo shared by DJ/producer Diplo on Snapchat, showing Diplo posing for a photo with Black only hours earlier. While this did not necessarily disprove the report, many users saw the post as an indicator that the announcement was most likely false:

  • “Tenacious D’s Twitter may indicate that Jack Black is rip but Diplo’s snapchat tells a whole different story.” (@ItIsBurnout)

A short while later (it is not clear exactly how long, as tweets have since been deleted), the hacker revealed their identity and responded to criticism from other users in a series of tweets:

  • “Calm down guys! It’ just a prank bro, look there’s the camera ...” (@RealTenaciousD, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “The Legend is still alive, it is ok guys :)” (@RealTenaciousD, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “Just a meme bro” (@RealTenaciousD, 5 Jun 2016)

Tenacious D regained access to their Twitter account shortly afterwards and reiterated that the announcement was a hoax: “WE had our Twitter account hacked. We can assure you that Jack is ALIVE and WELL and that this was a sick ‘prank’” (@RealTenaciousD, 6 Jun 2016).

Uncertainty tended to be more persistently expressed in cases like this where the rumour had either originated from or appeared to originate from a legitimate source, e.g., as in the first Prince Philip case and, most evidently, in the Jack Black case. The accusations of reporting a false death were, understandably, targeted less at news media for false reporting, and instead were much more centred on social media, and the ease with which misinformation, and especially deliberate false news or hoaxes, can be generated and circulate on social media. Given the source of the announcement, and contradictory information online, much of this attention quickly turned to accusations of hacked accounts:

  • “Jack Black is trending on Twitter because Tenacious D Tweeted that he’s dead. What the hell is going?!” (@ladbible, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “Is Jack Black actually dead, or did @RealTenaciousD account get hacked? Please be a hoax.” (@paigecardona, 5 Jun 2016)

And sentiments of responses oscillated between anger and humour at social media platforms for enabling such misinformation, or at users for being easily convinced by a single or unauthoritative source:

  • “Okay, so Jack Black clearly isn’t dead. The @RealTenaciousD account has been hacked. This seems to be happening a lot lately, so look out.” (@andrethe97th, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “No, Jack Black is not dead. It is a (pretty poor) hoax. Carry on with your Sunday, Twitter.” (@Bruno_Di_Gradi, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “If the people who hoax-killed Jack Black could actually die, that’d be great” (@Piwikie, 5 Jun 2016)
  • “Remember kids, not everything you read on the Internet is true. Jack Black is alive and well. Shame on those who made such a gross rumor.” (@PunkGam3r, 5 Jun 2016)

Hoaxing is a category of false death, which like hacking and unlike the other categories, are deliberately deceptive rather than inadvertent. Hoaxes are by far the most common type of false announcement we encountered online and tend to refer to the deaths of very well-known public figures. Hoax death posts often emerge from articles published in fake news that present as a legitimate news Web site or that Web site’s social media page. The motivations behind hoax deaths vary from pranking or lulz to clickbait that gathers up and directs users to phishing pages for scamming.

Prominent examples include: a fake news Web site, Cronica MX, sharing an article across social media reporting that Michael Jordan had died; Buzzfeed.net (a fake news site, distinct from Buzzfeed) reporting that Sean Penn had been found dead; a Twitter account using the hashtag #RIPBeyonce in early 2015, which ultimately functioned as a false announcement of Beyoncé’s death. In another prominent example, on 20 September 2016, news broke that Angelina Jolie was divorcing Brad Pitt. In the days that followed, a link to a false news article claiming Pitt had suicided circulated widely on Facebook. The viral post was in fact a phishing scam — a ploy to gain access to the profiles of those who clicked on it. The link, which purported to be a Fox News story, loaded a permission request from a disreputable app when users clicked on it and prompted users to unknowingly share their login credentials (Earl, 2016; Evon, 2016). Despite this hoax being specific to Facebook, some took to Twitter in response to the news, to either report on the supposed death or to disprove the hoax, signaling how false announcements can easily spread across platforms.

It is also worth noting that the clickbait Facebook app responsible for this hoax, ‘Fox Breaking News’, has also falsely announced the deaths of Vin Diesel, Nicholas Cage, Jaden Smith, Jim Carrey, Sylvester Stallone, John Cena, and Angelina Jolie, among others (Evon, 2016).

As with the hacked account posts, hoax deaths, including those acting as clickbait for phishing scams, run through the cycle of user responses, from sharing the news, grief, uncertainty and disproving, before developing into criticisms of the socio-technical contexts that enable these false deaths to be published and spread. Criticisms, we found, are less often levelled at the news media (and how digitisation has undermined or diminished its accuracy and legitimacy), and instead are much more directed at the affordances of social media that facilitate publishing and spreadability. In the Beyoncé case, responses did not blame false news as much as they blamed the Internet and social media and Twitter and hashtags for enabling such misinformation to spread fast and wide:

  • “I love when Twitter kills off celebrities #RIPBeyonce” (@loveyahbrooke, 23 Feb 2015)
  • “I didn’t for a second believe #RIPBeyonce. That shit would’ve flooded the news way before I accidentally hash tagged it on a tweet” (@rihancka, 24 Feb 2015)
  • “#RIPBeyonce is trending, but don’t panic ... IT’S A HOAX. Don’t play with us, Twitter!!” (@DishNation, 23 Feb 2015)

Or alternatively, posts blamed users of social media for their gullibility, or sometimes acknowledged their own complicity in the process. Tweets aimed at disproving (or more broadly questioning) the announcement operate as a way to signal to the user’s network that they are ‘in the know’, arguably more digitally literate and media-savvy than those who have not yet recognised the announcement’s falsity (a kind of third-person-effect):

  • “lmao yall are fools” (@mkletskov, 23 Feb 2015)
  • “RIPBeyonce is trending as is a photo of Paul Walker’s death site. You people are idiots.” (@AdmiralOfAges, 23 Feb 2015)
  • “#RIPBeyonce is trending, and me tweeting this will only help that.” (@WikileaksTruck,23 Feb 2015)

 

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Key themes in false death discussions on Twitter

Following the pattern of user responses to false death announcements, which typically move through surprise and shock, to grief and information sharing, to uncertainty or disbelief, and questioning the veracity or debunking, we observed a number of cultural critiques related to the social media contexts in which false deaths were published and spread. These criticisms went beyond blaming individual users and their error in posting or believing posts, to questioning the accuracy and quality of digital news or the public and viral participation in rumour on social media.

Interestingly, inadvertent reports of false death on Twitter (accidental, misreporting, misunderstanding) tended to begin elsewhere on the Internet (Facebook or a fake news Web site, for example) before spreading across Twitter; and the critical discussions of inadvertent reports largely centred on the role played by news media and journalism practices in a digital media landscape for spreading misinformation about deaths. Deliberate acts of disinformation (hoax, hacking, phishing), however, were as likely to emerge from within Twitter as they were from outside. In the critical responses to these announcements were forms of social commentary that mocked social media platforms: for providing a space for trolls and lulz; for inviting affective participation and ‘viral performativity’ around public mourning; and, for contributing uncritically to the collective spread of public rumour and misinformation about false deaths.

News media and false death online

The increasing speed of online journalism and its effect on news accuracy and credibility is an issue that repeatedly appeared in critiques of false death announcements. Such criticisms target both individual journalists, such as in the Grantland case and its vague Gene Hackman headline, and news media in general, such as disapproval of various news organisations prematurely (mis)reporting the death of Tom Petty.

The increased pace of news brought about by the internet is well established and commonly linked to accusations of a decrease in journalistic rigour and integrity in both popular and scholarly discourse. As journalism scholar Michael Karlsson observes, while the impact of speed on the accuracy and perceived credibility of news has long been a prominent area of interest in media studies, most academic inquiry into this relationship has taken place without the support of empirical research [20]. Karlsson suspects that an “appreciation of immediacy” suggests audiences’ willingness “to trade accuracy for speed” [21]. The evidence provided by this analysis of false death announcements on Twitter suggests that news organisations’ attempts to be first to print can often lead to misinformation or misreporting.

While all forms of news media have long regarded it as important to be the first with new information, the affordances of digital media can make false reporting more likely. For example, older media had relatively lengthy production processes involving many people, which offered opportunity for intervention prior to publication. In the case of digital media, a pre-written and filed obituary can be accidentally published by a single individual within a few seconds, whilst a false report can be generated and spread more easily by not thoroughly checking sources of information.

As Gibson (2015) notes, in this media ecosystem, notifications of death are not only accelerated, but journalists operate alongside and in some senses in competition with regular social media users in sharing such information:

“professionally employed news journalists operate within a media landscape that destabilizes hierarchies of both information knowledge and release ... Randomness, the decentralization of media sources and 24-hour information flow have enabled strangers, acquaintances and friends to announce a death, offer condolence and set up memorial pages before official sources ... .” [22]

Where a post is found to be false, however, it appears from the volume and ferocity of responses criticising the sources of the report, and the media and the individuals that spread it, that audiences are highly critical of trade in speed for accuracy. One user writes: “There’s always a couple of friends who are first with the “RIP celebrity” post on FB ... Just waiting for them to fall for the Jack Black hoax!” (@QN1981, 5 Jun 2016). Whilst some revel in disproving journalists or news media false reports, others also note the affective burden this places on users themselves to question and check facts about RIP posts. Moreover, users express dismay that the speed of information access that in part leads to false reporting is not turned on its head and used to support accurate reporting. Users ask why there seems to be a lack of fact checking or correction of misinformation by journalists and other users. As one user writes, “Not sure if Jack Black is dead or alive? Surely if it was a hoax somebody would have confirmed hes still alive by now?” (@adam_wilkinson, 5 Jun 2016).

In turn, those who may have believed a false announcement and posted a public response later regretted, are motivated to erase their part in history by deleting their premature response. This practice has been more broadly observed by Mondal et al. in their study of users’ management of “longitudinal exposure” on Twitter: “more than 28% of 6-year old public posts (tweets) on Twitter are not accessible today”, having been “either selectively deleted by users or withdrawn by users when they delete or make their accounts private” [23].

Social media and false death information

A more reflexive and ironic commentary about false deaths on Twitter can be located within the broader phenomena of irreverent and ambivalent Internet culture (Highfield, 2016; Philips and Milner, 2017). That is, the long history and popularity of mischief, oddity, jokes, and antagonism that characterise much online media content and communication, including online memorialisation (Philips, 2011). Responses to false reports of death indicate that news media institutions still maintain a legacy of trust within discourses of the public sphere, whereas posts about the role of social media in spreading false death announcements did not share such ideals about the role of digital platforms in information sharing. Instead, these posts used humour and social critique to take swipes at aspects of digital culture, ranging from fake news, to celebrity, to contagion, to trolls, to memes:

  • “Social media is awesome. Within an hour prince Philip had died and been resurrected. Damn that’s good. Took Jesus three days.” (@rickyg14, 3 May 2017)
  • “You know you’re famous when Twitter claims you’re dead. #Gotye” (@jayneilouise, 1 Jul 2012)
  • “Anyone else get the feeling that the Internet could crash solely from people repeatedly checking as to whether or not Tom Petty has died?” (@NonStopPop, 3 Oct 2017)
  • “The Jack Black death hoax proves one thing. Children and idiots should not be allowed to use the Internet unsupervised! That is all.” (@OriginalKrush, 5 Jun 2016)

Platforms affordances and vernacular uses (Gibbs, et al., 2014), from hashtags to fake accounts, facilitate the spread of false death reporting. The ‘spreadability’ [24] of false death announcements is, thus, enabled through technical functions for easily posting, copying, editing, and circulating content, often using remixed events or information already in the public domain to provide a greater sense of veracity. At the same time, such media artefacts are culturally exploited by hackers and hoaxers (in the Beyoncé, Brad Pitt, Jack Black cases), with some users mocked for being gullible in how they consume information. Often, more general conclusions are drawn about how such events are inevitable given the dynamics of the Internet in which social media allow for easily creating, publishing, and sharing content without much gatekeeping.

Within these contexts, broad Internet or social media jokes filter down to more specific memes and targeted in-jokes. For example, tweets in the Beyoncé case recycle jokes about her being immortal. Some tweets frame this immortality as a superpower or a divine trait. One tweet expressed disappointment at the announcement’s prematurity, while another tweet framed the hashtag as a reaffirmation of the deterioration of Beyoncé’s career (“Lol seriously could not be more true #RIPBeyoncé your crown is GONE” (@TheGlamonster, 9:38 PM — 23 Feb 2015).

The prevalence of commentary on fake death and digital culture is understandable given false death announcements have become routine enough to be a mundane occurrence, and the gloss of surprise and shock is dulled by suspicion. In another sense, social media commentaries about false deaths may be deployed by users as a way to understand the phenomenon and one’s relationship to such forms of social media communication. In this way, social commentary also appears 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 and critique those fooled by the culture of ‘viral performativity’ in public mourning.

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

Bourdieu’s (1984) original articulation of cultural capital as a form of embodied and symbolic value displayed through the acquisition of cultural skills, knowledge, and tastes has been taken up to understand forms of media literacy and cultural distinction in online contexts, including digital games (Walsh and Apperley, 2009), online reputation management and branding (Hearn, 2010), and as a resource for social status within social networks more broadly (Levina and Arriaga, 2014). We, however, extend this work to locate cultural capital within social media platforms, showing how such platform cultural capital plays out in the specific communicative and cultural context of false death announcements. Here, mocking other users’ participation in the ‘viral performativity’ of public mourning, or in the role of social media in the collective spread of rumour, contributes to one’s ‘platform cultural capital’ — a display of technical and cultural knowledge deployed to distinguish one’s status in reference to the platform, its public, and the phenomenon of false death communication.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

Our examination of false announcements of death and user responses to those announcements points to the persistence and extension of established forms of misreporting or accidental reporting in legacy media, which are then taken up and amplified in the spreadable contexts of social media. Here, the affordances of social media together with the typical cycle of user responses, facilitates widespread sharing of false reports through affective participation and ‘viral performativity’ around public mourning.

More significantly however, our research suggests the rise of intentional misreports emerging through digital cultures of irreverence and ambivalence involving user-generated content, fraud, and misrepresentation. This deliberate disinformation can be understood as one way in which Twitter users are exploiting the platform’s reputation as a source of news despite its limited capacity to control the spread of unverified information. We propose that users who either exploit the affordances of social media for false information, or mockingly draw attention to its role in false death news, do so as a way to signal their identity and distinction through technical knowledge and cultural authority, or what we describe as platform cultural capital. More generally, our analysis highlights the ways in which forms of false death announcement, and types of user response, stimulate contemporary criticism of both digital journalism and participatory social media cultures. End of article

 

About the authors

Bjorn Nansen is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, and a member of the DeathTech Research Network. His research focuses on emerging and marginal forms of digital media use in everyday life, with current research projects explore childrens mobile media and digital play practices, the digitisation of death and memorialising, and the technological mediation of sleep spaces and practices. He is a co-author of Death and digital media (Routledge, 2018).
Send comments to: nansenb [at] unimelb [dot] edu [dot] au

Dominic O’Donnell is a sessional tutor and research assistant in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His research is currently focused on social media and its effects on practices associated with death and mourning.

Michael Arnold is a Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science Programme at the University of Melbourne. His on-going research activities lie at the intersection of contemporary technologies and daily life.

Tamara Kohn is Professor of Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her work critically explores issues of identity, the body and senses, communities of practice, death, and methods and ethics in anthropological research.

Martin Gibbs is an Associate Professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems, the University of Melbourne. His research interests lie at the intersection of Science Technology Studies (STS) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI). His recent co-authored book, Death and digital media, was published by Routledge in 2018.

 

Acknowledgements

This research was supported with funding from the Australian Research Council.

 

Notes

1.Both of these tweets have since been deleted, along with the account @CnnNewsFacts, so time of tweet can only be estimated. However, retweets suggest both tweets were sent soon after @MattMcGrail’s initial tweet, that they attached the image of the crash site of actor Paul Walker’s death, and that the posts played a significant role in the initial spread of the rumour.

2. We have deliberately chosen to use the term ‘false’ rather than ‘fake’ death announcements, due to the narrow association of the term ‘fake news’ with recent political disinformation spread on social media. False death announcements are broader and include both deliberate and inadvertent information, as we discuss in this paper.

3. While there are certainly incidents where non-celebrity false death has spread across social media, as illustrated by Facebook’s accidental memorialisation of two million user accounts in November 2016, such incidences are beyond the scope of this article. That mass event, however, highlighted the capacity of social media platforms themselves to act (independent of users) and participate in the spread of inaccurate reports of death.

4. Starck, 2006, p. 3.

5. http://hydra.humanities.uci.edu/derrida/may.html.

6. Walter, 2015b, p. 10.

7. Gibson, 2007, p. 415.

8. Terzis, 2015, p. 19.

9. Terzis, 2015, p. 24.

10. Terzis, 2015, p. 15.

11. Terzis, 2015, p. 23.

12. Terzis, 2015, p. 16.

13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_premature_obituaries.

14. Note, the article includes a range of older and offline types of fake deaths that may intersect with social media, but are excluded from this analysis due to lack of relevance for public mourning or lack evidence for their frequency on social media, including administrative or government error, faking one’s own death, missing in action, misidentified body, name confusion.

15. This analysis was undertaken on Twitter, a particularly popular social media platform for the circulation of news of celebrity death and related public mourning (Burgess, et al., 2018).

16. We aimed to keep search terms as consistent as possible while also tailoring them to the specificities of a few cases.

17. As this case was centred on this hashtag (the emergence of the hashtag as a trending topic on Twitter functioned as the premature announcement) other search terms were excluded as a way of restricting the population to a more manageable size.

18. Advanced searches for the cases regarding Tom Petty, Prince Philip, and Jack Black were filtered to only return tweets that had received at least one reply, retweet or like, while the searches regarding Gene Hackman, Beyoncé, and Brad Pitt had no minimum feedback requirement.

19. All public tweets quoted in this article include user handles, as unless deleted or private, these were deemed to be participating in a public dialogue about public figures and events.

20. Karlsson, 2011, p. 287.

21. Karlsson, 2011, p. 291.

22. Gibson, 2015, p. 339.

23. Mondal, et al., 2017, p. 238, emphasis added.

24. Cf., Jenkins, 2013, p. 18.

 

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Editorial history

Received 13 May 2019; accepted 28 October 2019.


Copyright © 2019, Bjorn Nansen, Dominic O’Donnell, Michael Arnold, Tamara Kohn, and Martin Gibbs. All Rights Reserved.

‘Death by Twitter’: Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital
by Bjorn Nansen, Dominic O’Donnell, Michael Arnold, Tamara Kohn, and Martin Gibbs.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 12 - 2 December 2019
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10106/8294
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i12.10106





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