Apparently the Wayne Knight death is a hoax. Why do people do this?— Graeme Reaper (@ReapersPlace) March 16, 2014
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.”
There are other, more capitalist motives for hoaxes, as well. Usmagazine.us runs ads on its pages that make money when an “article” blows up. Mediamass.com, 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:
- What’s the source? Is it a Web site you’ve heard of? If yes, is it the correct URL for that Web site?
- Is there a byline on the story? Breaking news stories will usually include the reporter’s name; hoaxes, mysteriously, go un-bylined.
- 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.”
- 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.
- Does it mention the possibility of the news being a hoax? This is a dead giveaway.
- 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.
- 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.
Does someone have to DIE to trend? Geez! Thanks for all the love everybody. I didn’t know you cared. Glad to be breathing!— Wayne Knight (@iWayneKnight) March 16, 2014
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.