Why Are Online Death Hoaxes so Popular?

  • 6 min read
  • Sep 22, 2022

Why Are Online Death Hoaxes so Popular?

Here at Snopes, we’ve had no shortage of death hoaxes to clear up. These are false announcements of the death of a public figure, usually on the Internet. This form of spam, designed to catch the attention of gullible readers because a celebrity is involved, is often clickbait, if not an outright phishing scam, and in rare cases based solely on misunderstanding, misreporting. Offers.

Many of these hoaxes have a weird story about a famous person dying, like when Jeff Goldblum or Tony Danza fell off a cliff (on separate occasions), or when Wayne Knight had an accident, or when a bunch of actors died while snowboarding. They lost themselves. . In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, who was around 96 years old and ailing anyway, the “news” broke months before her actual death in September 2022.

Sources of death tricks

These stories are spread all over the internet and have a wide range of sources. About a decade ago, celebrity death hoaxes were attributed to Fake a Wish, a “celebrity fake news generator” that allowed anyone to create unwanted news and attribute it to a website known as Global Associated News. Been.

Users can enter a celebrity’s name and select a fake story, which is directed to Global Associated News, which generates a plausible-looking page. The site had a disclaimer at the bottom stating that everything was “100% fake”. However, this story is being shared on sites like Twitter without disclaimers. Rich Hoover, the man behind this, made money from running a range of websites like this one. In 2012, he told E! News that these were meant to be harmless pranks.

“This device started seven years ago as a practical joke device,” he said. “People can just enter anyone’s name and then prank their friends. “But people don’t read the fine print and it’s sure to spread like crazy.”

He received a few cease-and-desist letters, but he insisted it was “free press” for some celebrities. He noted that some false death rumors were in bad taste, but he did not have a suicide pattern on his site.

He added: “It’s a black comedy done in poor taste, I’m guilty of that, but the aim is not to damage the person’s character.” I try to make it very easy to dispel the myth, like, “Hey I’m alive and I’ll be on Letterman tonight or I’ll be at the premiere of my movie.” “Fans get upset and ruffle their feathers more than celebrities.”

Another source of death hoaxes was school teacher Tommaso Debendetti, who even fooled the New York Times. He faked the death of author Cormac McCarthy by creating a fake Twitter account for McCarthy’s publisher, Alfred E. Knopf, and faked the possible death of numerous other celebrities. But this attracted the attention of writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa, who wrote: “He is truly a hero of our time. […] He justifies his behavior with this good paradox: “I lied, but only to tell a truth.”

“[McCarthy’s fake death] Debendetti told The Washington Post in 2016, “The account was not reliable and was created minutes before the news of the death, but many major sites believed it. Unbelievable!”

But death hoaxes exist for more than just a dark joke. In the past, we’ve uncovered YouTube scam ads claiming celebrity deaths that ended up driving users to sales pitches for CBD and keto diets. In fact, CBD product designs often use unauthorized images of celebrities to pretend they endorse them. In an investigation, we found that a page claiming the death of Whoopi Goldberg was redirecting to a supposed CBD product line, which in turn would display the scam with a disclaimer when users tried to refresh the page or return to it later. or supersedes service contracts. . Another hoax YouTube ad about the supposed death of Jim Carrey was just clickbait.

Why are they broadcast?

Celebrity death hoaxes proliferate across the Internet largely because they feed off a number of basic instincts among users, such as “acting out” their grief on social media. In the 2019 paper “Death by Twitter: Understanding False Death Notifications on Social Media and the Performance of the Platform’s Cultural Capital,” by researchers at the University of Melbourne, misinterpretation of news is just as much a part of growth. Unsolicited news in the first place:

Given that fake death announcements have become so commonplace as to be a common occurrence, the prevalence of commentary on fake death and digital culture is understandable, and the glow of surprise and shock is dulled by suspicion. In another sense, social media comments about false deaths may be used by users as a way to understand the phenomenon and one’s connection to such forms of social media communication. In this way, social commentary appears to be used to demonstrate one’s identity as a savvy Twitter user familiar with communicative events and cultural issues in response to them, and in turn to distance and criticize those who are represented by “Viral” culture is used. Performance in public mourning

In providing an informed and ironic interaction, we can see the performative display of personal identity, the desire to demonstrate to other users one’s cultural knowledge and technical authority in the recognition of the phenomenon and characteristic of its platform – or what we call “the platform”. We call it “cultural”. Capital”.

The paper concludes that “the capabilities of social media, combined with the usual cycle of user responses, facilitate the widespread sharing of false reports through emotional engagement and ‘viral action’ around mourning.”

And scammers on the Internet are taking advantage of this growing tendency to produce clickbait with shocking headlines, photos, and images. The more popular a celebrity is, the more clicks you can get. More egregious examples ask you to download something or click on more dubious links that allow spammers to collect your data.

How to spot a scam

We’ve written several pieces on how to spot questionable content online, including looking out for dubious or unknown sources, spelling and grammar errors, website URLs, humor disclaimers, and more.

Regarding the online death notice, the following questions should also be asked:

  1. Is the announcement coming from a verified source such as an official spokesperson, a family member, or a verified social media account of a celebrity?
  2. Does the webpage come from a website that appears to mimic a real news site? Watch out for typos, changes in logo, font, or unusual URL (compare it to the URL of the real news site it appears to be imitating).
  3. Does the website/social media page have a disclaimer about its accuracy? Some sites explicitly state that they are satirical in nature.
  4. Where did the story photos come from? If you do a Google image search, the results are often pulled from older, unrelated stories.
  5. What does your own research tell you? If no legitimate news site is talking about it, it’s probably fake.

Regardless of what you see or read, never release your information or click on suspicious links that ask for more details. The alleged death of a celebrity may be interesting to some, but to others it is just clickbait and a black joke.


“Brad Pitt, Other Facebook Celebrity Death Hoaxes May Be Phishing Scams”. CBS news. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brad-pitt-other-celebrity-death-hoaxes-on-facebook-could-destroy-your-computer/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

Considine, Austin. “A return they could pass up.” New York Times, 19 September 2012. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/fashion/celebrity-hoax-death-reports.html. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

Bench, Aaron. “Eddie Murphy Latest Victim of Snowboarding Death Scam”. The Hollywood Reporter, 4 Feb. 2012, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/eddie-murphy-death-hoax-snowboarding-287140/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“Did Oprah Winfrey Endorse Whoopi Goldberg’s CBD Line?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/winfrey-goldberg-cbd/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“Hoaxing 101: How to fake a celebrity’s death.” E! Online, 1 Apr. 2012, https://www.eonline.com/news/218336/hoaxing-101-how-to-fake-a-celebrity-death. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

HW Bush mistakenly announced the death of Nelson Mandela. USATODAY, Sept. 1, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/09/01/bush-mandela-death/2752933/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“Jeff Goldblum is alive and well.” E! Online, 25 June 2009, https://www.eonline.com/news/131264/jeff_goldblum_alive_well. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

Jim Carrey is not dead despite the death hoax in the YouTube ad. Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/jim-carrey-is-not-dead/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

Meet the ‘Internet’s Biggest Liar’ whose Twitter death hoaxes fooled millions.” The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/06/29/meet-the-internets-greatest-liar-whose-twitter-death-hoaxes-have- Deception of millions. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

Nansen, Bjorn et al. “Death by Twitter: Understanding False Death Notifications in Social Media and the Performance of Platform Cultural Capital.” First Monday, December 2019. firstmonday.org, https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i12.10106. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“Queen Elizabeth’s death hoax gained momentum as world news.” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/news/2022/09/08/queen-elizabeth-death-hoaxes/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“Red Flags: How to Identify Suspicious Rumors.” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/articles/401830/red-flags-suspicious-rumors/. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“Unraveling the drama behind Queen Elizabeth II’s death hoax.” E! Online, 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.eonline.com/news/1320786/untangling-the-drama-behind-queen-elizabeth-iis-death-hoax. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

“The Wayne Knight Death Hoax: How and Why These Hoaxes Happen – and How to Stop Them.” Washington Post www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/03/17/wayne-knight-death-hoax-how-and-why-this- hoaxes-happening-and-how-to-stop-them. Accessed on September 22, 2022.

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