In case you missed it, Facebook and Twitter reported that Joe Cocker died over the weekend.
Actually, the blues-rocker died more than a year ago, but memorials and tributes popped up on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites this month. Some, but not all, of them linked to online news stories time-stamped December 22, 2014 (the date of Cocker’s death).
RIP Joe. Rest assured that you have plenty of company.
Recycled celebrity death reports are a curious social media trend that resurrects old news and presents it online as new. As online posters share the erroneous reports, the stoires pick up steam and spread like viruses in what some have dubbed "Facebook Second Death Syndrome."
In the past year, CNN reports that some of the networks top-trending stories have included second-death reports of not only Cocker, but also actress Rue McClanahan, who died five years ago; British TV presenter Tony Hart, who passed away in 2009; and Dennis Hopper, whose 2010 death was big news — again.
On the other hand, social media also frequently report the deaths of older celebrities who are still very much alive and kicking
When actor Abe Vigoda died last week, many media obituaries noted that the 94-year-old actor’s death had been widely — and erroneously — reported online more than once over the years.
So how can we explain the phenomenon?
First, there’s so much information circulating online that falsehoods are easily picked up and disseminated. Last week, Donald Trump was said to have picked his vice presidential running mate (false) and that Betty White had been cured of Alzheimer’s disease (doubly false — she neither dementia, nor has she been cured of it).
Digital medial Website Mashable.com estimates that in a single minute, Twitter users post more than 100,000 tweets, while Facebook posters share 684,478 pieces of content, and Google receives 2 million search requests.
If such estimates are correct, that adds up to 500 million tweets posted online every day, 30 billion pieces of Facebook content shared monthly, and more than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each second. That doesn’t include content produced and posted by news sites, which publish thousands of articles of their own each day. And the trend is only going to accelerate in the decade ahead. From 2013 to 2020, the digital universe will grow by a factor of 10 — from 4.4 trillion gigabytes to 44 trillion, according to the digital-marketing outfit IDC.
The net result: We are overwhelmed by information — and not all of it accurate. What’s more, it only takes a second for users to post or share content through social media — without first determining whether it’s true.
The second factor driving second-death syndrome is that we love celebrity news. They tend to be the top-trending stories online — and clicks and hits are the currency of media today. It’s almost a point of pride for many Facebook users to be the first to alert their online friends to the death of a favorite actor, musician, or public figure.
Finally, death anniversaries can cause confusion — with memorials and tributes sometimes passed along fresh news.
In addition, social media platforms themselves may be partly to blame, often automatically prompting users to revisit old posts as reminders of where they were a year or more earlier. In some cases, the temptation to hit the “share” or “post” button pushes that information online.
That may explain why certain YouTube videos — the talking dog, cats-afraid-of-cucumbers, and dancing-foul-mouthed-grandma spots come to mind — frequently get second, third, or fourth lives in cyberspace. In fact, many Web-based operations earn their keep by repackaging old content for you to click on it.
So what can you do if you see news stories on line or shared on social media that you suspect are outdated or simply aren’t true?
- Visit sites like snopes.com, which has become a top-visited resource for identifying false — and true — information on the Web. Many reporters bookmark this site to make sure what they’re reporting is not erroneous (you’re welcome!)
- Check out deadoraliveinfo.com, a compendium of live (and not) celebrities that is updated continually.
- Finally, don’t contribute to the problem. Before posting or passing along a link reporting a freshly dead celebrity — or any other alleged “news” on health, politics, or world affairs — take the time to visit these two rumor-neutralizing sites or search the Web for more information, other viewpoints, or news reports.
You only live once — as Joe Cocker was fond of saying. The same should be true for dying.
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