The Washington Post

Wayne Knight death hoax: How and why these hoaxes happen — and how to stop them

It’s an odd and uncomfortable quirk of the digital age that, occasionally, an actor or other notable must take to social media to assert … his own existence.

Wayne Knight, best-known for playing Newman on the sitcom “Seinfeld,” found himself in this awkward situation over the weekend — courtesy of an Internet death hoax, that weird, undying racket beloved by spammers, Internet cons, and people with nothing better to do. Why do these catch on? Who starts them? And what, exactly, is the point? In light of this weekend’s (faux) news around Knight’s tragic end, we answer some of Twitter’s most pressing questions.

Nope, Wayne Knight is alive and well — as the actor himself announced via Twitter Sunday afternoon. He’s merely the latest victim of the celebrity death hoax, which has previously nabbed Jackie Chan, Justin Bieber and Bill Cosby, among many, many others.

People start online death hoaxes for a few reasons. The most obvious (and perhaps the most pathetic!) is for pure entertainment — the same reason people carry out pranks. Mark Bell, a professor who studies digital media at Indiana University, told the New York Times that “people like to lie. They get a thrill from it.”

The site that sparked these Wayne Knight rumors —, a tricky rip-off of the legitimate — is registered to a random man in San Antonio. Meanwhile, popular hoax-generator exists only to “punk mass media” — which I suppose means I just punked myself. generates semi-legit-looking death notices from “Global Associated News.” I just made one for myself by plugging in my name. (

There are other, more capitalist motives for hoaxes, as well. runs ads on its pages that make money when an “article” blows up., a similarly shady gossip site, has published hundreds of near-identical “death” articles to better game search engine results and, presumably, juice their pageviews. (Try it: Google any celebrity’s name and “dead,” and a Media Mass page will pop up.)

The most pernicious hoaxes, however, are those that share your data with spammers or prompt you to download something. These abound on Facebook, where a post may appear to come from a legitimate news source — but then when you click, you’re asked to take a “quiz,” download a file, or log-in to some unknown service through Facebook. These hoaxes, beloved by malware spammers, are harvesting you and your friend’s data for Viagra e-mails and other such gems.

So this is a great question: Why, after seeing so many hoaxes, do people continue to fall for them? At some point, don’t we wise up to the trickery — in other words, “get it right”?

But it seems like we may have gotten it right this time, in some respects at least. Even as social media echoed the Wayne Knight rumors and half-truths, it questioned where they came from. Many users immediately asked for more sources or details. And while this kind of crowdsourced fact-checking can certainly popularize a rumor, it also exemplifies the kind of dispersed, large-scale information-sharing that the Web does best.

Ultimately, the whole thing flared out almost as quickly as it started up. If only that were true of other death hoaxes — Will Smith comes to mind — that have inexplicably circled Facebook for months on end.

Hoaxes do, in fact, make great teachable moments, which might explain why we seem to react with just a bit more skepticism each time they crop up. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you spot one:

  1. What’s the source? Is it a Web site you’ve heard of? If yes, is it the correct URL for that Web site?
  2. Is there a byline on the story? Breaking news stories will usually include the reporter’s name; hoaxes, mysteriously, go un-bylined.
  3. Does the story use proper grammar and punctuation? The first line to this Wayne Knight story should’ve been a tip-off: it’s a run-on that refers to Wayne Knight, weirdly, as “better known to most for playing one of the most indelible roles on NBC’s Seinfeld.”
  4. Does the story name sources? In the case of a death or accident, information should come from a local hospital, police department or medical examiner’s office. “A spokesperson for the first responders” is too vague.
  5. Does it mention the possibility of the news being a hoax? This is a dead giveaway.
  6. When you Google the images in the post, does something else come up? Right-click any picture and select “search Google for this image.” A picture that purportedly showed Wayne Knight’s totaled car actually came from a 2009 story about slick roads in Washington County, Oregon.
  7. When you Google for more information, what comes up? This is the real test. If a major actor really died outside of Buffalo, N.Y., local media — not to mention wire services, like the Associated Press — would be on it long before US Magazine.

Welp, this is kind of morbid — but history shows that dying (or, well, appearing to die) certainly help raise a celebrity’s social media profile. Just look at Knight’s Twitter mentions over the past three months.

Twitter mentions of @iwayneknight over the past three months. The spike, in green, shows when the death rumors began. (Topsy)
Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (



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