The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is everyone posting about Rue McClanahan’s death when she died four years ago?

The “Golden Girls” in 1985, clockwise from left: Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty. (AP Photo/NBC, File)

Rue McClanahan, a.k.a. Golden Girls’ Blanche Devereaux, died four years ago last Tuesday. And yet, Twitter and Facebook were mysteriously — inexplicably! — flooded today and over the weekend by variations on the theme “R.I.P. Rue.”

As many a Twitter fact-checker has helpfully pointed out, McClanahan died in 2010 at age 76 after suffering a stroke. But they haven’t answered the bigger question here: How the heck does this kind of mass delusion happen, and how do the natural checks and balances of social media  — scathing comments from Facebook friends, ironic Twitter RTs — fail to stop them?

The answers, in this case, are pretty simple. On June 3, the anniversary of McClanahan’s death, a handful of fans — like the popular Golden Girls fan account @Blanche1934 — tweeted memorials for Rue. @Blanche1934 has nearly 15,000 followers and a spot-on understanding of when McClanahan died. But on Twitter, a platform not exactly long on context, people began to truncate the original messages. “RIP Rue 6/3/2010!!!” became “R.I.P. Rue.” “R.I.P. Rue” became, predictably, “oh my God Blanche died.”

In an additional, interesting twist, many of the R.I.P. Blanche crowd also link to a CBS article about McClanahan’s death, dated to 2010. Unlike similar cases, when faulty datelines have caused celebrities to “re-die” on Twitter, this seems like a instance of simple misreading: The date’s clearly marked at the top of the page, above the headline, but people fly right over it in their haste to read of Rue.

How does that happen in 2014? Well, for starters, people tend to skim online text — you are, statistically speaking, probably skimming right now.

As far as the rumor-spreading on Twitter is concerned, multiple studies suggest that it all has to do with network structures: some users have a huge number of followers and can disseminate information to many, quickly; most users have only a few followers, and thus considerably less influence. All this means that rumors spread unevenly through the network, and can be hard to dislodge once they’re in place. If someone with 8,000 followers tweets that McClanahan has died, for instance, it doesn’t much matter if three people with 100 followers tweet back saying he or she was wrong.

Consider this a public service announcement, though: Rue McClanahan definitely didn’t die this week. And the next time you suspect she or any other celebrity did, you might want to try this before you tweet.