Web traffic-goosing tricks come and go. But if there’s one that has enduring appeal, it’s the celebrity death hoax.
In the past few weeks alone, internet pranksters have “killed off” Queen Elizabeth, Tony Hawk, Miley Cyrus and Hugh Hefner, to name a handful that have been debunked by the website Gossip Cop. Some trace its peak to the site Global Associated News, a fake-news headline generator that web entrepreneur Rich Hoover said he started as a joke.
Since then, others have discovered the celebrity death hoax as a tried-and-true scheme to drive traffic to their sites, which they’re monetizing with ads. The fake stories follow a loose pattern: Often coming from sites with legit-sounding names like Msmbc.co and Nbctoday.co, the stories tend to focus on young, popular celebrities with many fans who would be shocked by their premature death, causing a burst of traffic to the site, which is paid for with programmatically served ads.
Michael Lewittes, founder of Gossip Cop, said he once was seeing as many as two or three death hoaxes a week. “Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler have died, probably collectively, 15 to 20 times on the internet,” he said.
The rise of platforms and ad tech have enabled the spread of celebrity death, just as it has other types of fake news. Some pranksters have used Twitter to fool people about celebrity deaths, using accounts that sound like actual news outlets.
There are fake BBC Twitter accounts claiming that Queen Elizabeth has died. It’s a hoax. Pls don’t RT them. pic.twitter.com/w5gXACf1I1
— Craig Silverman (@CraigSilverman) December 29, 2016
The huge network power of Facebook and Google with its predictive technology has enabled all manner of fake news to spread. In a widely traveled example, shown below, an ad pronouncing Tiger Woods dead appeared right opposite a post by Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s efforts to crack down on fake news.
Third-party content-recommendation engines that most major publishers host on their sites also have been exploited, perhaps unwittingly, to disseminate headlines that are not only bogus but click through to completely unrelated direct-response ads for sketchy health products.
“The vendors who are serving up these ads mix ad content with content from the sites themselves with clickbaity headlines, and the user is tricked into thinking it’s all content,” said Rob Leathern, founder of Optimal.com, which has an ad blocking app. “The use of celebrity images is one that historically has improved response rates on ads to a tremendous extent. People want to click on those things, be the first to share them.”
The celebrity death hoax works because it taps into people’s emotions, which is what makes people share articles in the first place, said Craig Silverman, who writes about fake news for BuzzFeed. A claim about Willie Nelson’s death got more than 400,000 shares, according to Silverman’s research; one about Hugh Hefner’s death got nearly 200,000.
“Fake news relies on viral sharing,” he said. “If you think about why so many stars are subject to death hoaxes, they’ve been part of a pop culture that people have an emotional connection to. And that is at the core of what makes fake news work.”
As with all fake news, stamping out death hoaxes is a complex problem. The internet’s rise as a communication tool paradoxically works both for and against the spread of celebrity hoaxes, said Bonnie Fuller, president and editor-in-chief of HollywoodLife.com. Communication is instant, so as fast as rumors can spread, the celebrity can debunk them. On the other hand, the internet enables them to talk to their fans more, which strengthens fans’ emotional connection to them. “That helps the rumors spread more because the fans are more invested in the celebrities they care about,” she said.
Facebook and Google have announced steps to stop fake-news sites from using their ad tools and being spread on their platforms. The big content-recommendation engine Outbrain said that as part of an effort to purge sensational content from its system, it has blocked keyword combinations like “celebrity X went broke” or “celebrity Y you didn’t know died this year.” But purveyors of fake news have proved adaptable, and fact-checking projects are already being criticized as biased.
Spreading fake celebrity death news may not sway the outcome of an election, as some fear happened with fake hard news during the presidential race. And its defenders might say there’s no such thing as bad PR for a star. But to Lewittes, who calls himself a reformed gossip columnist, such stories can cause emotional harm or career-damaging change in perception.
“While the person who’s doing it thinks it’s a harmless prank for which they’ll be rewarded with traffic and revenue, there is a very big downside,” he said. “What if a relative sees it and believes it? It’s actually a horrendous prank to pull.”