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Jesse Miller


Why We Follow the Dead on Twitter

Posted: 11/13/2012 5:30 pm

When a person passes away, their social media presence lives on. We see this every day with each passing, especially when the nature of death is interesting enough for media to seek the Facebook profile or Twitter account to source photos or posts for the corresponding story.

In recent months, I have noted a number of high profile events where the social media content of the person who passed was not only sought after by media but by those who use social media to keep up with the story as it progresses.

During the summer of 2012, we saw the Colorado movie theatre shootings where one prominent social media user lost her life leaving behind a Twitter account that quickly increased in followers as her story spread. The purpose of social media is to engage and to interact with others online; this behaviour of following the dead is compelling, especially considering how simple it is to convey sympathy through a hashtag like #RIP.

I thought about this in reflection of real life as we lose friends and loved ones. I wondered, do we "like" obituary pages in the newspaper or do we respect them?

When we see hate shared on a memorial page online, does this behaviour exist because the troll wants to prompt anger and attention knowing that they are sharing openly but anonymously and would that person make the effort to violate the sanctity of a family in mourning at a funeral?

The shootings in Aurora, Colorado left a number of answers for investigators on social media, especially from those who survived. We all became front line spectators looking at Tweets as movie goers arrived in suspense for the movie event and subsequently viewed pictures and posts as they were shared from those in the theatre.

@JessicaRedfield who perished in Aurora had 2,328 followers on Twitter when she entered the theatre and after the shooting and announcement of her death, that number slowly grew to 7,198 within 11 hours of her last tweet. Within 13 hours that number grew to 10,100 followers, 14,400 within 17 hours, 20,700 within 23 hours and 22,800 within a day of death.

Many Twitter users prefer quantity of followers compared to quality and in my work, I try to educate youth about the value of positive connections online compared to the inflated value of acquaintance. Facebook friendship has always been a conversation piece in my work where I encourage users to engage their friendship list with real-life valuations. Would you pay a dollar for every friendship request online? Would you cull your friendship lists if you knew how a person is actually using your shared content, especially when we see how online users abuse the content left behind by the dead on social media websites?

One test I encourage is the "Write it Down" reflection -- take a pen and paper and write your Facebook friends down on paper from memory. See who you forget, why do they have access to personalized content online if you cannot remember who they are?

The death of Amanda Todd in Vancouver shook students, parents, schools and police. Dialogue occurred within communities about addressing bullying, social media safety all while content that this child left behind online was horribly used by users around the world, surfacing after being altered in Photoshop. People changed her photos with content that they thought appropriate for a laugh because they would never have to look her family in the eye. I became curious about those who shared her name, what social media effect did the other women named Amanda Todd see?

Here are a few sample Tweets from women who shared a name with a child who committed suicide. These women posted compassion, comparison photos in defence of their identity, links and accepted new followers all throughout the online hysteria that accompanied the news of this prominent suicide.

"I'm a different Amanda Todd, so please stop asking if I'm dead or fake. I'm neither. I'm totally different"
"Like the WORST way to get followers :/"
"QUESTION!" Why would someone want to follow a girl that just passed away. Lol it's not like she's going to be posting things...."
"this is not me. i am not the Amanda Todd that committed suicide. leave me alone"

Parents, we worry about our children online, but have we factored in the constant contact that the outside world has with those in your home, especially when your child shares a name with a person who has recently passed away?

Consider opening dialogue with your child if there is an event noteworthy enough to connect your family name to a story and ask yourself how you will deal with the death of your child and the people who will use social media to attach themselves to the story. Whether it is using the photos that your child leaves behind to create something to add further hurt to an imaginable situation, fake accounts that will surface in your name or the name of your child and how you will address the new followers your child has online because of the social media accounts they had while living?

The family of Jessica Redfield Ghawi kept her Twitter account active in the hope that the online memorial would provide awareness to the nature of her untimely death. Some 30,000 people followed within a week of her death. Currently, Jessica's Twitter account has 26,800 followers but the Twitter account that is set up for the scholarship in her name @JRGFoundation has just over 3,000 -- take some time and see if we can continue to help beyond a follow.

Those who are reading this and have a value for followers ( #TEAMFOLLOWBACK I'm talking to you). Have we considered how our families will cope with the people who want to add to the drama of death by increasing pain from behind the veil of the Internet? What happens to online social media accounts when we do not leave behind passwords, login info or access for parents who are dealing with the loss of a child?

In my work today, I ask youth why they hesitate to give parents access to their online accounts, many reply because it is rooted in a fear of getting in trouble for the content. Parents learn what has been posted in various routes, whether it's gossip, school administration, police, but when the child isn't there anymore to block access and the password access would maybe hinder the flow of information that may be abused online, for many parents, the online issues just add to the torture of losing a child.

We most likely will not have success in changing why the followers appear or how the trolls and bullies behave but we can change how we share the content that we will most inevitably leave behind. I encourage parents to build password trust, especially as your kids grow in a connected world where you may not get to provide input on Rest In Peace Facebook pages, YouTube tribute videos, and hate content built on the foundation of photos left behind by children who depart entirely too early.

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  • Hilary Duff

    Hilary Duff is the most recent celebrity victim of the Internet. The former Disney star and "Gossip Girl" guest star, was rumored to have fallen off the Kauri Cliffs while staying at a luxury golf resort in New Zealand.

  • Justin Bieber

    It seems like the Internet's favorite rumor is claiming that Justin Bieber has died considering it has happened more than once. In 2009 there were rumors the teen heartthrob committed suicide, in January 2010 that rumor hit web again, and in February it was reported that Bieber had been shot in a nightclub. Then in June 2010, a fake news article went viral claiming the pop star had died of a drug overdose. In January 2011, "RIP Justin Bieber" started trending on Twitter prompting rumors that the Canadian singer had again died. At least Bieber can take the rumors with stride, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/11/justin-biebers-alter-ego-derek-bieber_n_924463.html" target="_hplink">he recently joked with a paparazzo </a>that the lastest rumor he heard about himself was that he died and was on his way to his own funeral.

  • Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake

    In June 2001 a Texas radio station reported that Britney Spears had died in a car crash, and then boyfriend Justin Timberlake who was driving was seriously injured. In 2009, Britney reportedly died again. Twitter users freaked out after someone hacked into Britney's Twitter account and posted: "Britney has passed today. It is a sad day for everyone. More news to come." In 2010, the rumor that she was dead, again, made the rounds when an email -- from yet another hoax in 2007 -- claimed that Britney had been in an asylum, carved the letters 666 into her forehead and then hanged herself with a sheet.

  • Lindsay Lohan

    Rumors of Lindsay Lohan's death at times have been quite believable. But in July 2011, Lohan's Wikipedia page was edited to state that the actress had died at age 24, as allegedly reported by <em>E! News</em> and no cause of death was yet indicated. The rumor was fueled by tweets from a fake Kim Kardashian Twitter account who kept tweeting about rumors of Lohan's death. While her career maybe dead, Lindsay is not.

  • Will Ferrell

    In 2006, Will Ferrel was rumored to have died after a fake press release said he was in a freak paragliding accident in Southern California.

  • Christian Slater

    In January 2010, actor Christian Slater was falsely reported dead after having a snowboarding accident in Switzerland. Snowboarding in Switzerland seems to be quite the celebrity killer; Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy were both falsely reported dead from similar accidents the month earlier.

  • Will Smith

    Will Smith must have nine lives, because he's been rumored to be dead a whole bunch of times. May 2011 proved to be a tough month for Smith, first rumors that he was either in a car accident or died of a drug overdose began to circulate, then he saw the same fate as Hilary Duff by falling of a cliff in New Zealand. Rumors of Smith dying via car crash have circulated online since 2007.

  • Jackie Chan

    Rumors of Jackie Chan's death started trending on Twitter in March 2011. A fake news report claimed the actor had suffered a heart attack.

  • Russell Crowe

    In June 2010, Russell Crowe responded to rumors of his death via Twitter: "Unable to answer tweets fell off a mountain in Austria, all over red rover. Don't know how I got there, but the media are never wrong.G'Bye."

  • Jeff Goldblum

    In 2009, Global Associated News -- the origin of the majority of celeb death hoxes-- reported that actor Jeff Goldblum died while filming a movie in New Zealand. Those Kauri Cliffs must be extremely dangerous, as Goldblum was said to have fallen more than 60 feet to his death while filming a movie. Falling off the Kauri Cliffs is a favorite rumor when it comes to celebrity deaths. Countless celebs have died this way including George Clooney, Will Smith, Dwayne Johnson, Natalie Portman, Tome Cruise, Harrison Ford and most recently Hilary Duff. It's safe to say that if you read about a celebrity falling off a cliff in New Zealand it's fake.

  • Eminem

    In 2009 a fake <em>Yahoo News </em>story claiming that Eminem died in a car crash went viral. The details included blaming the cause of the crash on Eminem, claiming the rapper was distracted by a cell phone conversation, which caused him to swerve into an oncoming truck.

  • Bill Cosby

    In August 2010, the Internet killed Bill Cosby ... again. The actor and comedian was not impressed. Cosby tweeted, "To the people behind the foolishness, I'm not sure you see how upsetting this is." This was the fourth death hoax that Cosby has lived through, and he told Larry King that the rumors even made his daughter call to check to see if he was OK.

  • Charlie Sheen

    While his character on "Two and a Half Men" has been killed off by CBS, Charlie Sheen is still very much alive despite what you might have heard. Rumors of Sheen's death spread quickly online in June 2011 and vaguely implied that he had died in his house from cardiac arrest. But there was a twist to the hoax; when users clicked on links to the story, they were taken to a cloned YouTube page that infected their computer with malware. And in 2010, Sheen was rumored to have died in a snowboarding accident. But fear not, if you find it overwhelming to keep up with Sheen being alive or dead, there's a <a href="http://ischarliesheendead.com/" target="_hplink">website to help you keep track</a> of Sheen's status.

  • Aretha Franklin

    In December 2010, singer Aretha Franklin was rumored to have died. The rumor came soon after Franklin revealed she had been battling pancreatic cancer and at the time was recovering from surgery. Franklin was one of the many celebrities falsely reported dead during this time.

  • Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift has also died a few times. She's been in a fatal car crash in 2009 and later that year another rumor that she died from an allergic reaction to sleeping pills was all over YouTube and Facebook. Swift recently <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/07/taylor-swift-selena-gome_n_921477.html" target="_hplink">took home six Teen Choice Awards</a>, including the Ultimate Choice award, so she's definitely not dead.

  • Kanye West

    Someone on Twitter told the world that Kanye West had died in a car crash back in 2009. "RIP Kanye West" instantly became a trending topic and West's then-girlfriend Amber Rose quickly turned to her own Twitter account to stop the rumors. She tweeted: "This RIPKanyeWest topic is not funny and it's NOT TRUE! He has people like myself and his family that love him very much."

  • Nick Jonas

    Actor and pop singer, Nick Jonas had the honor of having quite the creative death hoax. In December 2009, reports that Jonas had died after he went into cardiac arrest as a result of his diabetes made its way around the Internet. Some reports even said that Jonas died after receiving a lap dance at a popular strip club in Dallas.

  • Paul McCartney

    Paul McCartney is so famous he didn't even need the Internet to fuel rumors of his death. In 1969 the rumor that McCartney had died and was replaced by a body double was so strong that <em>Life</em> magazine even ran a cover story titled "Paul Is Still With US," to help quash the rumor.

  • Morgan Freeman

    In 2010 rumors of Morgan Freeman's death went viral. How the rumor was started was unclear and some accused <em>CNN </em> of tweeting and reporting the claim. <em>CNN</em> actually issued an official release responding to the rumors: "CNN did not report Morgan Freeman death. Rumor is false. CNN will aggressively investigate this hoax." As it turned out the rumor was started by a Twitter user named @originalcjizzle. He later tweeted, "I had no intention of things turning out this way," and has since deleted his account.

  • Paris Hilton

    In June 2007 reports of Paris Hilton's death exploded online. The reality TV star was serving time in jail for drunk driving, and was rumored to have been stabbed to death by a fellow inmate. The hoax came from a fake news story, set on a website made to look like it came from <em>CNN. </em>

  • Miley Cyrus

    Teen popstar Miley Cyrus has also suffered multiple deaths. The former star of "Hannah Montana" was rumored to have died once in 2007, and then said to have been hit by a drunk driver in 2008. Then in 2009, another rumor of Cyrus' death was fuel by socialite Peaches Geldolf who tweeted that a "friend in the industry" texted her that Miley had died. The rumors were put to rest when numerous fans tweeted that they'd just seen Miley perform in London and she was very much alive.

  • Zach Braff

    In 2009, former "Scrubs" star Zach Braff was rumored dead when a fake CNN.com page displayed the headline, "Beloved Scrubs actor found dead in his home." The source behind the cruel rumor,New Jersey resident Chris Laganella, actually posted an apology to Braff on his personal website: "I'm sorry if I scared everyone. Zach, sorry if you got offended by me posting a fake suicide about you on the Internet. Your 32,000 square foot house would be pretty empty without you. Thanks for (apparently) taking it lightly, since I haven't gotten a letter about a lawsuit yet. Just so you know, I'm a huge fan; that's the only reason I made this page, believe it or not. Also, sorry for upsetting your mother."

  • Taylor Lautner

    In 2010, "Twilight Star," Taylor Lautner was reported dead from a cocaine overdose. Twilight fans eager to see him shirtless in the new "Breaking Dawn" movie will tell you that is so not true.


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