For the second time this year, Twitter's trending topics include "Bill Cosby dead." It happened last February and now it has happened again today.
Fortunately, The 73-year-old comedian is alive and well and, himself, Tweeting: "Again, I'm rebuttaling rumors about my demise. But, I'm confirming I have an app - http://bit.ly/BillCosbyApp :)" Always shilling the product, that guy.
He is the latest (pardon the pun) of a long stream of celebrities whose fans (and family) have fallen victim to these vile celebrity death hoaxes. Russell Crowe, Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber are just a few who also saw their names bandied about as recently deceased.
But why do people spread these hoaxes? If it is satire, as it was in the historic cases of writer Jonathan Swift who predicted the death of his rival, astrolger John Partridge, and Benjamin Franklin who predicted his rival's death as well, or just maintining personal mystery like Jesse James (the cowboy, not the philanderer), then it might be more acceptable. But random hoaxes, in a time when there's such death and destruction all around us, is not really good for the psyche of people who look to their celebrities as a source of escape. Justin Bieber might be like fingernails on a chalkboard to some, but no one wants to logon to the Internet and read that this teen heartthrob has died.
Thanks to the Internet, and the immediacy of social networking sites like Twitter, it is easy to spread a rumor. It's the anonymity and perhaps the feeling of having life and death at your fingertips on your computer that makes this so appealing. There is also something about the power of generating an international story through the help of an anonymous online community that adds to this ever-growing phenomenon.
While I was an newspaper editor, we were so frustrated with inane "breaking stories" we decided to mix elements of some of the top gossip stories one day and create a hot piece of gossip, taking place in a NYC nightclub we made up.
It didn't take a half-hour for this story to become the biggest international gossip story of the day, taking on a life of its own as it was picked up and re-reported by almost every single major news outlet. It was like the game "telephone," where, as it passed from outlet to outlet, it was elaborated on. To the point where our made-up club was "visited," and the manager interviewed. That is how easy it is to spread information today.
With all that power, why not make up stories about beloved celebrities dying? It's the anonymity of the Internet and the obsession with celebrity that empowers some to play with people's virtual lives. Once the realm of satire, celebrity death hoaxes are now far, far from that art.
But the problem is, contemporary hoaxers, you're no Ben Franklin.
Robbie Woliver is the author of Alphabet Kids: A Guide to Developmental, Neurobiological and Psychological Disorders for Parents and Professionals