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#RIP: The New Media of Celebrity Deaths

One year after the live-tweeted attack on Osama bin Laden, a look at the history of how real and fake death news spreads

Whitney Houston's death news spread on Twitter faster than traditional media could catch it, while Paul McCartney has been the subject of death hoaxes for years.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage; Rob Verhorst/Redferns
May 1, 2012 12:40 PM ET

"I was awake," Sohaib Athar told Rolling Stone about that night one year ago, when he unknowingly broke one of the biggest news stories of the decade via Twitter:  Osama bin Laden was dead.

In what proved to be perhaps the greatest instance of today's breakneck-paced, organic citizen journalism, Athar, a lifelong Pakistan resident, tweeted real-time updates of a helicopter hovering in the dark above Abbottabad. The Obama-ordered attack on bin Laden's hideout soon followed, about a mile from Athar's house, while most of the country slept.

"That was one of the reasons that I was able to go out and take pictures of the compound," he said. "It wasn't just for my own curiosity, but also to share with the world, because I didn't have an office to go to in the morning. Otherwise things may have been a bit different."

This freelance IT consultant who sleeps during the day had scooped the world's journalists overnight. The BBC called first, and emails from several hundred media outlets appeared faster than Athar could read them. Within weeks, his modest Twitter following (@ReallyVirtual) multiplied to more than 100,000. Athar's role in news-gathering was unprecedented – his series of tweets beat the president's announcement by several hours. And it earned Athar a spot at this past March's South By Southwest Interactive festival, where he addressed reporters and students about the experience. 

These days, history has a way of rapidly repeating itself:  In February of this year, on the day before the Grammy Awards, the media found itself chasing the little guy once again when another ordinary Twitter user broke big news an hour before the wires could confirm it:  Whitney Houston was dead. 

These are examples of quickly spreading truths, but of course there are also the hoaxes, those deliberately fake news stories that spike our news feeds like poison in the party punchbowl. Celebrity reactions to the false ones have varied:  Jon Bon Jovi's publicist claimed that the rocker was still living after a phony press release declared him dead in December. Kim Kardashian tweeted shock to her 13 million followers over a trending topic that claimed Cher had died. And in 2010, Gordon Lightfoot phoned radio stations to set the record straight – he was indeed alive, and driving home from the dentist's office when he had heard otherwise.

Twitter, Facebook and countless blogs have killed off Adele, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Drake and Paul McCartney – since January alone.

And though McCartney appeared alive and well during his performance at February's Grammys ceremony, former Detroit radio DJ Russ Gibb recalls a time when he questioned the former Beatle's existence.

Gibb famously helped ignite the "Paul is Dead" rumor firestorm in 1969 when he dissected Beatles albums for hints suggesting that the group had replaced McCartney with an impostor following a fatal car crash three years earlier. The reported clues – McCartney's resemblance to a walking corpse on Abbey Road's LP art, a voice allegedly mumbling "Turn me on, dead man" backward on the White Album's "Revolution 9," among many others – live on as fodder for conspiracy theorists more than 40 years later.

Such an elaborate death hoax would not have survived so long had Twitter existed, Gibb told Rolling Stone. "Instantly, it would have been cold," he said, suggesting that Beatles publicist Derek Taylor might have confronted Gibb via text message given today's tools. "Radio was your friend. It was just a voice that came at you, and at least it was real."

Not always. In 2001, two Dallas DJs angered listeners and tied up first responders when a broadcast claimed that a car accident involving Britney Spears had killed the pop princess. The deliberate trick was a far cry from 1938's "War of the Worlds," Orson Welles' fictional drama that also frightened its audience, though inadvertently.

"Anybody can become a kind of Orson Welles," said Alan Abel, the world's most notorious living prankster, of social media. "It creates a bit of a problem, as well as it does an avenue of escape and performance, if you so desire." In 1980, Abel faked his death and duped The New York Times into running his obituary. In those days such a hoax demanded calculated planning, he said, whereas today it takes only a tweet and a hashtag to fast-track a rumor.

When it comes to burying a viral death hoax that finds new life as a trending topic, what role do our social-media platforms have in chasing down and reeling in those false reports? For six years, Twitter has curated our fact and fiction, our news and gossip, and alerted us to everything we never knew we cared about. But we should all assume the role of citizen journalist when sorting through the noise as social media matures into a consistent, credible breaking-news source, says Ben Scheim, director of Social Media Week. "The responsibility is entirely incumbent upon us as human beings. It's not about Twitter, it's about us, just as it's always been," he said.

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