We Asked Some Celebrities What It's Like to Be the Subject of an Online Death Hoax
One person's prank is another person's trauma.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Death hoaxes are now so common they've almost become banal. Like plastic bags in the wind, most fail to take flight, but a small number catch an updraft and assume a life of their own. Last November, for instance, a great many people believed Macaulay Culkin had cashed in his chips, on the basis of no real evidence at all. Google now prompts anyone searching for "Macaulay Culkin" not with "Home Alone," but with the word "dead."
When rejecting the rumor, what Culkin had on his side was an enormous social media following, and thus the means to respond accordingly. The same cannot be said of the ex-presenter of British children's game show Get Your Own Back, Dave Benson Phillips, who in 2009 was hit with an online death hoax that all but ruined his career. At the time he had neither Facebook nor Twitter himself, and conducted most of his business over the phone. "I wasn't internet-savvy," he admits.
When I first raise the subject, Phillips's shackles rise, and with good reason. When he's discussed the death hoax in the past, with magazines like Loaded and Zoo, "They couldn't wait to take the piss." Before long, however, he's talking so openly that it's as though he organized the interview himself.
Phillips learned of the hoax when his family members contacted him, distraught at the possibility that he might have passed away. "I was on the road," he says. "It was horrible. All of a sudden I went from having work to no work, and having to spend my time proving my existence. From 2009, right up until 2012, it was not an easy ride. Everything went south."
It's difficult to believe that a plain falsehood could wreak such carnage on a man's career. But it is our propensity to blindly swallow these nuggets of supposed news that goes a long way to explaining the phenomenon. As Phillips says, "Acquaintances just read it and went, 'Oh. That's a bit of a shame. We were just about to do something with him. We'll just move on.'"
"When you hear someone has died," says Rachel Kitson, a psychologist who has written about both grief and social media, "you typically do not question it, especially if any semi-plausible details are provided. As the rumor is spread, even if someone is 12 times removed from the initial source, they will stand behind it with as much authority as the initiator."
Onto this strange carousel of death steps Barry Elliott, a.k.a. Barry Chuckle, of BBC's popular kids' show ChuckleVision, who has been the victim of various death hoaxes, the most prominent of which was in 2010. Though it didn't have the devastating effect Phillips's rumors had, "It affected a lot of our younger fans," Elliott tells me. "They were tweeting things like, 'Oh dear, how come Barry's died?'"
His daughter, too, was upset, and called her mother, uncertain of the truth.
"To stage a death hoax," says Kitson, "one must rely upon extremely fast forms of communication. People who initiate death hoaxes know that they won't need to do a whole lot of 'work' to ensure the information goes viral."
On the road and unfamiliar with the immediate communication social media could offer, in 2009 Phillips wasn't just a sitting duck, he was a duck asleep in a hammock. When he and his team appreciated the scale of the problem, they began creating Facebook and Twitter accounts to counter the pranks. They were already too late: "A lie," said Mark Twain, "can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."
Phillips tried to make a MySpace account, but was told he was a troll making life hell for the real Dave Benson Phillips. He rang Chris Moyles's Radio 1 show but was berated for impersonating a dead man.
There followed a bizarre glut of additional pranks about Phillips. "If you go online you'll probably see other rumors; some of them were very nasty," he says. His persona as a kids' presenter left him particularly vulnerable. As well as there being comparatively innocuous pranks about him presenting Babestation or being the sixth member of One Direction, Phillips tells me that one website implied that he had an ulterior motive for working in close quarters with children.
"We had an incident just earlier this year," he says, "where I wasn't allowed to take part visually in a well-known children's project simply because they were not sure of the rumors."
As a black presenter in the 1990s, Phillips was used to receiving insults and threats. Before ready access to the internet, however, these tended to demand more ingenuity: "People used to have to write down the message, or prepare their package, or whatever obscene thing they were going to send; they'd have to take it down to the post office and get it weighed; they'd then have to pay for it; and then they had to go away and hope that it was going to arrive," he explains. "So we'd be at the other end and just say, 'Who's sent us this big packet of poo?'"
I also speak to Austin Russell of History Channel's reality show Pawn Stars, who was lucky not to suffer any personal or professional scars when a fictitious story about his death caught an online updraft last year. Though the hoax was serious enough for the History Channel to check on his health, Russell harbors no ill will toward the perpetrators. "It was a good laugh," he tells me. He was able to extinguish the flames early by simply making an announcement on his Twitter account. This is a heartbreaking glimpse into how simple things could have been for Phillips had he been pranked in 2014. "It's too late for people like me," he says.
For Barry Elliott, the ability to officially disprove the rumors on Facebook—then later on Twitter—was equally crucial. "I tweeted them and said, 'This is ridiculous, you've upset a lot of people.' They think it's funny to say people have died." Though Twitter is often the dirty bed in which hoaxes are conceived, Elliott sees the network as being more of a boon than a bane.
The Chuckle Brothers are notoriously voracious Twitter users and, though they spend most of their time retweeting favors or taking selfies, Elliott tells me that he also berates people when they fabricate stories about him or use his name as their own. His brother Paul has also experienced death hoaxes, but none have taken flight.
I asked Kitson why people make up morbid lies about celebrities. "I think it traces back to having the biggest impact with the least amount of work," she says. "Being able to say, 'I did that'—it's a power thing." Due to the entitlement and fearlessness of many users of online media, a man's entire career can be razed to the ground through nothing more sophisticated than a few lines of text from an anonymous profile.
Though Phillips does an excellent job of trying to rise above his death hoax, it is the knowledge that he will never know who started the rumor—or why—that plagues him: "It's horrible, because what they've done has affected my life," he tells me. "I've always wanted to entertain children as much as I could until the day I died. And the next thing I know, it's all been taken away because somebody said I was killed in a car crash."
It seems reasonable to argue here that some of the blame must lie not just with perpetrators of the hoaxes, but those disseminate the lie, and those of us eager to believe them. Most of us would rather have a dubious story to tell our friends down the pub than no story at all.
"Death evokes high emotions, and we tend to get some enjoyment from riding those highs," says Kitson. "We probably want the death hoaxes to be true in the same way that we want to slow down our car while passing a car wreck. Even though someone's death being a hoax is relatively easy to refute, having to refute your own death could be very harrowing for the person themselves and their loved ones."
He is in the minority, but Phillips—though he continues to DJ, present, and perform—is proof that an online falsehood can rip someone's life apart. To this day he still doesn't know who started the hoax or why. "Do you know what scares me about this whole thing?" he says. "It's that there's someone out there—possibly reading your article—who will know the answer to that."
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