Dead again? Why celebrities die over and over online

Posted at 4:46 PM, Jun 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-30 16:46:43-04

Hey, in case you haven’t heard the news, Twitter says Joe Cocker is dead.


Well, actually, still.

The gravel-voiced singer died in December, but you wouldn’t know that from reading social media in recent days. Condolences began appearing Saturday and continued to trickle in Tuesday, many of them linking to the timestamped obituary for Cocker that CNN ran in December.

In fact, so many social media users clicked the link that it became one of CNN’s top referred stories of the week.

The singer’s, um, resurrected death report is the latest in a trend peculiar to the social media age: the sudden widespread resurgence of old news that so-and-so has died, and what a shame it is.

One poster calls it “Facebook Second Death Syndrome.”

It also happened this month with actress Rue McClanahan, who died five years ago.

In February, the death of popular British television presenter Tony Hart trended for a time on social media in the UK, despite the fact Hart had passed away six years before, the Guardian newspaper reported.

And then there was the case of Dennis Hopper, whose 2010 death inexplicably reentered the collective consciousness several months ago.

The “news” that Cocker had died began trending again Monday, with a flood of condolences and #RIPs for the 70-year-old singer. Among the digital mourners: actress Debra Messing.

Three hours later, the Internet set her straight.

Still, Facebook posts and tweets announcing the death and commemorating the singer continued to accumulate.

What explains such behavior?

Well, for one thing, with 500 million tweets a day, 30 billion pieces of Facebook content a month, 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each second and news sites pumping out thousands of articles a day (you’re welcome), we’re all overwhelmed with information, says Glenn Sparks, a mass media professor at Purdue University.

“We’re occupied with all kinds of information,” he said. “Something goes by, and people miss it.”

Pair that with the powerful lure of being first with tasty content, and it’s no surprise that some social media users are quick to hit the “post” button without doing a bit of research first, he said.

Death anniversaries can also cause confusion, as the Washington Post suspects occurred when word of McClanahan’s death resurfaced in early June, five years after it happened. Fans reposting memorials probably dropped the date from early posts, causing the confusion for those who weren’t big fans of the “Golden Girls” star.

The computer algorithms used to highlight content on Facebook and other social media platforms may also sometimes be to blame, suspects Karen North, professor of digital social media at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Every six months or so, she says, a certain news item posted by a distant Facebook friend who’s not terribly active on the service seems to pop back into her feed, inviting her to take a look at it. Such entreaties might explain why some people surface old news, she said.

It’s not just deaths, either. Have you noticed how “top 10 celebrity” lists, old photos or jokes seem to come around again every so often? There’s a cottage industry in repackaging old content and getting you to click on it, she says.

So what to do? Simply searching for news about a celebrity or hitting up a site such as before posting a link can spare you an embarrassing gaffe.

But in the end, it may not matter all that much. Rarely are such episodes malicious, Sparks said. It’s just a bit of collective amnesia.

“We can’t keep track of who’s alive and who’s dead anymore,” he said.

So, did you hear about Charles Durning? Loved him in “Tootsie” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” #RIP, man.