Earlier this week musician Glenn Frey, a founding member of the Eagles, died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia.
As reports of Frey's death spread across both news and social media, they were met with not only grief and sympathy but also skepticism and outright disbelief. Many assumed that the report was a hoax, but it was not.
Part of the reason that Frey's fans were shocked was that his illness had not been made public. When a celebrity discloses an illness (such as Magic Johnson's struggle with AIDS, Warren Zevon's mesothelioma cancer diagnosis, or Glen Campbell's living with Alzheimer's disease), people have some idea of what's coming.
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However many dying celebrities prefer not to make their diagnosis public for various reasons including that they consider it a deeply personal issue. Some may not want the public to know simply because they hope or expect to make a full recovery and fear that disclosing their illness will hurt their careers: What agency wants to sign a contract for music, endorsements, or performances with someone who may be dead in a year?
Frey was also the latest in a seeming cluster of high-profile celebrity deaths, most prominently that of David Bowie about a week earlier. Bowie and the Eagles were among the most popular musical groups of the 1970s and 1980s. The death of Frey seemed suspiciously soon after that of Bowie to many fans, and like Frey, Bowie kept his illness private.
Alex Boese, writing in his book "Museum of Hoaxes," notes that celebrity death hoaxes are nothing new: "Between 2000 and 2002 a slew of pop stars were hastened prematurely to their graves... In June 2001 a Los Angeles radio station shocked fans of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake by informing them that the couple had died together in a car crash (like Eminem had the previous year). It was a bad year for Britney Spears because in October she died again, once more in an automobile accident. In this second case a twenty-two-year-old hacker named Tim Fries managed to make it appear as if the report of her demise was part of CNN's website, thus adding far more credibility to the story."
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The original and best-known celebrity death hoax was that of Paul McCartney, who in the late 1960s was said to have died. The remaining Beatles, along with their manager and others, allegedly conspired to keep McCartney's death a secret, going so far as to hire a look-alike and sound-alike to take his place in public appearances. The death hoax turned into a conspiracy, with wild speculation that the truth about McCartney's death could be divined in hidden clues on Beatles album covers.
Why would someone create and share fake news about a celebrity's death? Some do it just for fun. Others are internet trolls who delight in causing alarm and concern. In his book "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet," Russell Frank, an associate professor of communications at Penn State University, explains: "If dead celebrity jokes give voice to the grim satisfaction we may take in knowing that wealth and fame offer no protection from disease and disaster, fake celebrity death news reports seem to express folk exasperation with our culture's obsession with celebrity. Phony grief for dead celebrities deserves to be met with phony stories about dead celebrities" in the hoaxers' minds.
But fake celebrity death stories are also spread by well-meaning fans. Ironically news stories of celebrity death hoaxes (not including this one, of course) help perpetuate the hoaxes. This is because all celebrities do in fact die sooner or later, and when they do, people searching the web in the first minutes and hours for news will find old, false news stories of their death hoaxes. If they don't notice the date they may share the earlier, debunked stories on social media, in effect accidentally using a previous death hoax to (wrongly) discredit news of a real death.
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In fact that was exactly what happened in the case of Glenn Frey earlier this week. As the first news reports started to be shared across social media, many fans were (too) quick to smell a hoax. They searched the internet for "Glenn Frey death hoax" and sure enough they found several blogs and media sites saying that reports of Frey's death were a hoax. They then shared links to those sites on social media debunking the singer's death, not realizing that the hoax was from last year. As more and more reputable news sources (as well as Frey's Facebook page, Frey's manager, and the Eagles' official web site) confirmed the death the confusion faded and people accepted that it was real after all.
While death hoaxes are an expected annoyance to many celebrities, a few have embraced them with dark humor. To help sort fact from fiction, actor Abe Vigoda, who has been the subject death hoaxes dating back to the 1980s, appears on a website informing the public about his mortality status.