Amid last night’s Michael Jackson news festival, a rumour popped up on Twitter that Jeff Goldblum had also died.  Upon getting home I thought it a good idea to follow this up, and clicked on the link.  Now, because of the 140 character limit in twitter messages URL redirectors have become quite widespread, and perhaps this helped the rumour spread faster than it may have done ordinarily… in the main, the story which people were referencing to support the idea Goldblum was dead was this one:

http://jeff.goldblum.mediafetcher.com/news/top_stories/actor_new_zealand.php

goldblum_story

A sickening feeling dawned on me as I realised what was going on: Twitter had been subjected to the “Bill Gates will personally send you a cheque if you forward this email on!!!1!1!” effect.  People who have emailed me chain letters in the past warning of devistating computer viruses, Microsoft email trials, and other popular mail hoaxes will probably tell you that at some point they get a miserable email from some git pointing out that it’s a hoax – with me typically playing the role of Chief Git.  It’s just that the thing that 12 years on the internet has taught me is “Check Your Sources“.

There’s several clues out there that this story is a fake.  Firstly, the URL – whilst disguised by some URL forwarders, there’s a fairly big clue in the URL, and if you were to alter the URL to contain something slightly different (for example, http://jason.standing.mediafetcher.com/news/top_stories/actor_new_zealand.php) you’d see an eerily familiar story.

not_goldblum

People who read to the end of articles might further be rewarded with the following fairly obvious disclaimer:

not_goldblum2

Furthermore, were you to do some googling for the phrase “died while filming a movie in New Zealand early this morning” you’d probably find a reference to the “Tom Hanks is dead” rumour of 2006.

It’s like a wildfire effect caused by what I’d describe as “prairie dogging” (based on this definition, not this one):

  • Person 1: I read that Jeff Goldblum died – anyone know if it’s true?
  • Person 2: OMFG Person 1 says Jeff Goldblum’s dead!
  • Persons 3-7: Has anyone heard that Jeff Goldblum’s dead? Person 2 says that Person 1 said so.
  • Persons 8-15: Apparently Jeff Goldlbum’s dead.
  • etc.

One can only assume that the whole thing’s driven by a pressing urge to be the first to tell people something – news services operate largely on the basis that if they are the first to market with a breaking story then it attracts eyeballs and they accumulate revenue as a result: unfortunately with the rapidity of internet communication and peoples’ slackness in checking references, occasionally stories break through into proper mass media, such as the Jeff Goldblum story getting aired on Australian TV – again, it was couched in the “Reports just in that this MAY have happened” style, but a mention like that is usually enough to get the grassfire started.

The joy of the Chinese Whispers effect on Twitter is magnified by the notion of “trending topics” – the software keeps statistics on which keywords are popular at the moment and draws users’ attention to the current top 10 under the auspices of enabling people to find out what the current buzz is about.  So when people start hopping up and down panicking about Jeff’s welfare, suddenly the story gains stratospheric attention merely by being talked about a lot.

About 2 hours after the first Goldblum story I read, a second “development” in the story – allegedly actor (and all-round legend) Kevin Spacey had apparently weighed into the discussion, by way of this re-tweet:

RT @KevinSpacey: Jeff Goldblum is alive and well. I just spoke to his manager. Stop these stupid rumors.

Now, the thing about Twitter is that you can pretty much say what you like.  In reality I could type “RT @KevinSpacey” and then any arbitrary thing I liked, such as “RT @KevinSpacey When I grow up I want to get my bum cheeks tatooed with the pattern like a pineapple”, and as far as any non-fact-checking people are concerned, he genuinely said that.  Furthermore, it’s very hard to verify that the Twitter user called @KevinSpacey is in fact the person we think it is – there’s currently a user called @KSpacey as well, and the names @Kevin_Spacey and @KevinSpacy haven’t yet been claimed.  There are, of course, other Twitter users out there who can claim to verify whether or not a celeb twitter handle is owned by the real person, however it’s equally trivial to set up your own verification account, and then verify all your own fake celeb accounts.  So what we potentially (until proven) have here is “a (sham) story (possibly) disproven because (someone who claims to be) Kevin Spacey put a post on twitter (which doesn’t require any need for authentication of fact) which has then been forwarded around by a bunch of people we also don’t know, necessarily trust, and can’t vouch for the authenticiy of”.

I guess the point is that just because someone’s talking about something, it doesn’t mean it’s true.  A bit of research & deductive reasoning, and a bit less cranking of the hype handle, and the world might be a nicer place to live, eh?

Incidentally, as everyone else is talking about Michael Jackson, I suppose it’s appropriate to cast my cynical hat into the ring: does the following headline sort of conform to the “discussing outlandish speculative rumour in order to drive public attention” idea explored above?

jacksonlondon

For what it’s worth, though I generally disapprove of opportunistic humour at a time like this (and yes, it’s already started!), can I just point out that whilst I am currently in London, I didn’t do it, I was nowhere near him, and I’ve got witnesses.