As a social phenomenon, probably the most interesting thing about celebrity death hoaxes is that they are a social phenomenon at all. There's no point to them. They're not particularly funny (aside from the resulting lulz if the celebrity in question gets all offended about it), and they have the added downside of being quashed almost immediately when the celebrity turns out, in fact, to be alive. Really, they're about the least clever prank in the history of pranking. Nevertheless, the celebrity death hoax seems to be turning into one of the primary uses for Twitter, everyone's favorite churning rumor mill.
The celebrity death hoax, of course, is nothing new -- Paul McCartney has been presumed dead by conspiracy theorists and the extremely stoned since around 1969, for example -- but never before has it been quite so pervasive. Just over the Christmas weekend, rumors that both Aaron Carter and Charlie Sheen were dead spread like a case of chlamydia at a frat party, earlier this month, it was Morgan Freeman and Keith Sweat, and that's in addition to Russel Crowe, Bill Cosby, Lindsay Lohan, Johnny Knoxville, Paul McCartney (the replacement?) and Justin Bieber, all rumored at one point or another to have died this year -- Bieber several times, in addition to his rumored (and far more hilarious) bout with syphilis.
The question, then, is why?
Back in 1969, the purpose was satire -- specifically, to skewer the overanalysis of pop music and, to a lesser extent, possibly to just fuck with potheads. It's uncertain how the rumor began, but it took off when a University of Michigan student published a "review" of Abbey Road devoted to decoding the clues the album artwork offered toward the conclusion of McCartney's death, a theme that was then hilariously picked up by news outlets across the country. It was in many ways the original death hoax, and it's still the best, specifically due to the rumor's allegation that McCartney was not just dead, but replaced.
That's the component that celebrity death hoaxes lack these days, leaving them easy to rebut and thus devoid of any real purpose. Unlike back in 1969, though, these days we don't have to depend on media to spread rumors -- we have a platform to do that ourselves, and if the rumors pick up enough momentum, then the media will pick them up.
That was the case with a rumor from earlier this month that Morgan Freeman was dead, which was also a rare example of said rumor being traced to its source. It came, apparently, from a guy named @originalcjizzle, who tweeted: "RT @CNN: Breaking News: actor Morgan Freeman has passed away in his Burbank home
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The answer to why these hoaxes start, then, is probably twofold: A) because Twitter makes it possible, and B) just to see if we can. And we obviously can.
That fact makes Twitter an excellent tool for spreading false but hilarious information, a source for potentially endless schadenfreude. It's just a shame that the only rumors it seems to be spreading are so uninteresting.