It has killed Jackie Chan, Britney Spears, Morgan Freeman and Justin Bieber. And now, the epidemic has selected its next victim.
“I’m sad to officially announce the death of Jack Black at the age of 46, rest in peace brother.”
This message appeared early Sunday morning on the Twitter account of Tenacious D, the band of actor Jack Black and his longtime friend Kyle Gass.
But Black is not actually dead; he’s just the latest target of a social-media death hoax — an event so common that we now recognize the tired cliche as soon as it appears. Tenacious D’s followers instantly started tweeting back at the account, saying they hoped the person who seemingly hacked it goes to jail, develops “a severe illness” or dies. The alleged hacker appeared taken aback that he or she had not starting a parade of mourning for the “School of Rock” actor, but instead sparked a small firestorm of hacking-shamers.
“Calm down guys! It’s just a prank bro,” the account tweeted. The person using it then identified as the Twitter user @ruthless. “I’m going to assume Jack is asleep right now,” @ruthless tweeted from @RealTenaciousD. “So when he wakes up, email the email that was linked to this Twitter for his account back.”
Soon enough, the account of @ruthless was suspended, the tweets were deleted and the band sent out a message similar to those of all the celebrities who’ve had to debunk their own deaths before.
WE had our Twitter account hacked. We can assure you that Jack is ALIVE and WELL and that this was a sick "prank".
— Tenacious D (@RealTenaciousD) June 5, 2016
We’ll never know exactly what inspired @ruthless to bestow an Internet kill on Black, who has been through the death-hoax machine at least twice before. But it’s a likely bet that the death of Muhammad Ali was not far from the hacker’s mind. Twitter, and every other corner of the web, showed an astounding outpouring of dedications, stories and praise after the boxer’s death was announced Saturday.
Such attention seems to be why real celebrity deaths are often followed by fake ones online. In his book “The Last Laugh: Folk Humor, Celebrity Culture, and Mass-Mediated Disasters in the Digital Age,” folklorist Trevor J. Blank argues that the Internet drives “an emotional wedge between reality and the seriousness of the content.” Celebrity deaths just don’t seem as real to us, because as soon as they happen, everyone reacts quickly — and sometimes foolishly — for others to see.
“Beyond the ‘gotcha’ impact of a celebrity death hoax, its function is actually quite similar to celebrity death humor — by trivializing death,” Blank writes.
Almost immediately after his passing, jokes about Ali’s political views and race rained on social media. So too did statements that seemed calculated only to get a reaction from commenters. (Looking at you, Piers Morgan.) For many, the hubbub quickly centered not on the person who died, but on the people responding to the death.
Death hoaxes function similarly; they’re all about getting a reaction.
Of course, fake deaths were born long before the Internet. Actor Abe Vigoda, who really did die in January, had regularly been identified as dead since 1982, when People magazine first referred to him as “the late” Abe Vigoda.
“My wife keeps getting condolence cards from people who believe I died,” he told the Toronto Star in 1988. “Many are producers. I’m sure there are many who may have thought about me for a role but said, ‘No, he’s dead.’”
Vigoda’s first death in People seemed to be an accident; other times, and for other celebrities, the deaths seemed purposefully manufactured. These fabrications were once easy to avoid outside the grocery-store aisle, but then the Internet happened.
Sites with legitimate-seeming names like “MSMBC” (not MSNBC) and “Usmagazine.us” (not UsMagazine.com) gain advertising revenue from making you click. Ever seen an article from the very reputable-sounding “Global Associated News”? That’s the source listed on stories generated by FakeAWish.com, the site that lets anyone create a celebrity death-hoax story. Eddie Murphy? Died in a snowboard accident. Woody Harrelson? Car crash. Adam Sandler? Also snowboard accident!
A 2014 analysis by Vocativ and The Washington Post showed that 16 percent of fake celebrity downfalls are caused by snowboards. Car accidents, falls from cliffs and drug overdoses were also lethal. Most of those killed off are actors, but musicians and athletes are also regularly axed. Politicians made up only 3 percent of the fake deaths.
Usually, it’s quite difficult to identify where a celebrity death story originated. The Internet’s veil of anonymity means there is widespread lack of accountability for hoaxers. In the case of Jack Black, however, the hoaxer identified themselves and appeared to have hacked into the email account used by Tenacious D. When asked if Twitter will pursue any further action against @ruthless besides suspending the account, a spokesperson said the company does not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.
But as other celebrities have pointed out, the hoaxer may have done Black a favor: The actor-singer didn’t release a movie, write a song or do an interview, and yet his name was trending for hours.