“The Hashtag That Cried Wolf”

Tall tales have been passed down from generation to generation. Whether these stories travel throughout time via word of mouth, childhood books or the Internet, the same messages and morals remain consistent.

For example, the urban legend, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” warns us to not give false alarms about critical events. Thus, this message carries over through the Washington Times article “RIP Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Rihanna: the celebrity death hoax fad,” warns readers about being vulnerable to false information, specifically about sudden deaths of celebrities, which has become a fad through social networking sites.

The article explains how “netizens,” or avid Internet users, began to inform the online community about false celebrity deaths. Whether these acts of utilizing social media to spread false information are intentional or accidental, it is unsettling how there is no way to filter the information on these sites. This so-called “fad” exemplifies the social and technological effects of Baym’s idea of the social shaping of technology.

In “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” Nancy Baym emphasizes that there are multiple perspectives about the development of new media and its surrounding social contexts. The current celebrity death hoax fad, however, reflects Baym’s “social shaping of technology” perspective, which “emphasizes a middle ground” to the technological determinism and social construction of technology theories (Baym, 44).  From this perspective, people, technologies and institutions are “interrelated nodes in constantly changing sociotechnical networks, which constitute the forms and uses of technology differently in different times and places for different groups” (Lievruow, 2006: 250; Baym, 45). Thus, our social context behind how we react to celebrities and their deaths has propelled technology to establish certain social networking sites as platforms to share such information. The article, however, uses the fad to raise awareness of the problems associated with accuracy and authenticity on such free-speaking platforms.

In “An Anthropological Introduction of YouTube,” Michael Wesch addresses the role authenticity of online identity plays in social networking site activity. It’s unsettling how easy it is for anyone to fake his/her identity online, which has clearly led to problems regarding accurate information being displayed. The false information spreads to the entire community the person/information interacts with, and can create a crisis. Users like to share information to feel empowered, which the video, as well as the article, touch on. This can explain the motivation behind spreading news, whether it be true or false facts.

The Washington Times article explains how these hoaxes begun one week after the sudden and tragic deaths of Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett. Since these celebrities are very well-known, netizens begun to emulate the rapid spread of such news, and in August 2009, “Twitter users started claiming other celebrities were dead too” (Falkenthal).

Thus, the online social networking community continued to spread such false information, and Twitter’s social cues (nonverbal hints to guide conversation) of hashtags and retweets helped propel such “news” even further. The social context behind these cues shows how more people are beginning to believe what they read on Twitter based on how popular the topics are, and thus feel the need to share the news themselves. Soon, the article explains how certain celebrity deaths reached the Top Ten chart of discussed topics on Twitter. Thus, the article shows how social contexts behind various social media platforms influence the way we use these sites. Considering the rise of celebrity death hoaxes circulating Twitter, does the social shaping of technology categorize Twitter as a reputable source for news?

Additionally, the Washington Times article shows how the usage of Facebook has begun to respond to social contexts, including those behind celebrity death hoaxes. Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison documented the original idea behind social networking sites like Facebook in her article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” She defines social networking sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (Boyd and Ellison, 2).

Donath, Boyd and Ellison even extend their definition of such site “to suggest that ‘public displays of connection’ serve as important identity signals that help people navigate the networked social world, in that an extended network may serve to validate identity information presented in profiles” (Donath, Boyd and Ellison,10). Yet, the transformation of social networking sites into a less exclusive networking platform has expanded this idea to create a broader community outside of your online “friend” circle and into unknown territory of the new Facebook pages. These pages “connect” people who share the same interests, regardless of whether they are friends in real life.

Therefore, the current state and usage of Facebook has morphed. In addition to exercising Boyd and Ellison’s description of social networking sites, we, as users, are also permitted to connect with countless strangers over common interest Facebook groups and pages. If you choose to “like” a Facebook page, those who also “like” the page – including strangers – are able to view your page (which is hopefully set to private). Needless to say, this new tool on Facebook unravels former privacy expectations, and strays from the original definition of social networking sites. Ultimately, the technology of social network sites has shifted, and created a platform more compatible with social contexts.

One of the Facebook groups originated in light of the latest death hoax, victimizing the beloved Bill Cosby.  The Washington Times article reports that the page is entitled, “RIP Bill Cosby,” which becomes promoted once a connected Facebook friend “likes” the page. Then, news about Cosby’s “death” begins to spread throughout the Facebook social network platform, and continues to misinform countless people. The transformation from how a social networking site used to be defined, to the current state of such sites as an open and vulnerable frontier, leaves me to wonder if we can predict the next technological advancement, based on current social contexts.

[Images viaviavia]



  1. I think you bring up a relevant point in stating that as a result of disembodiment in online space people take the liberty of creating false personas and sending false information, mostly guilt-free. However, I think it is also important to note that mediated identity does not only promote ‘fake identities’ but that this online liberation can also promote people having extremely honest conversations that they otherwise would not be comfortable having in physical space. In a recent study from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, research showed that “people are [actually] more likely to tell the truth in a text message than in a voice interview.” Via text there is less pressure of the moment, and less tension, allowing the sender to feel more inclined to tell the truth.

    As Slater discusses, mediated space releases us from the rules and laws of the day to day physical world. When online or texting we don’t feel as connected to our physical selves. We often find ourselves admitting and declaring statements that we would never have the courage to do in physical interactions. And while yes, as you discuss many people do “share information to feel empowered,” people also share information online, most obviously the truth, as a release. People share their honest emotions in chatrooms, via text, in blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses. Often we see friends post or send statements that we would never expect them to have the courage to say in real life. Do you (or anyone in the class) feel that you (he or she is) are more inclined to tell the truth via text/online rather than in person?

    Source: http://www.pcworld.com/article/255726/iphone_users_more_likely_to_tell_truth_via_text_study_says.html

  2. Also, check out this articles regarding how you are more likely to get the truth out of people over text:


    Is this a form of social shaping, in the sense that we are using texting as a medium to reveal truths over? Let me know your thoughts!

  3. I’ve never understood why these hoax’s happen, who even starts these things and what’s the motive behind it? I remember when there as a time where Twitter would inform us on the reason why something was trending. Or I believe that there are sites like: http://whatthetrend.com that tell you why something is trending. I think this would act as a filter for Twitter, although not a very stable one. I also think top tweets can sometimes be useful. During hoax celebrity deaths, I have found that most top tweets will be a claim that the rumor is false by someone that is credible. It is interesting how tools like the retweet feature, and hashtags are especially helpful for spreading news that is true, can also be used to spread false information.

    What I think is useful about Twitter is that it verifies accounts of celebrities, news organizations, authors and notable people from all over the world to identity if that person is using a real account. This relates to Don Slaters argument in “Social Relationship and Identity Online and Offline” where he states that the online world seems to detach ones identity from the physical world. Slater argues that online factors of identity are disembodied from offline factors of identity such as names, relationship to people, that are more visible in ones offline life. It is harder to trace ones set offline identity to the unstable and often anonymous online identity that people establish. This allows for people to getaway with misleading hashtags and accounts. I think that Slater would agree that these hoaxes are a form of “cyberlibertarianism” but not in the sense that it liberates oneself from their offline identity, but hides and abuses what ones online presence can be.

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