News of Michael Jackson's death overloads Internet sites and sparks hoaxes

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Friday, June 26, 2009

The news of the death of Michael Jackson yesterday caused problems for web sites and caused hoax reports of other celebrity deaths to be posted. Twitter, where several celebrities immediately posted their comments on the news, saw its update frequency double as soon as the news broke. Facebook's update frequency tripled. Temporary server outages were reported for Twitter, TMZ.com (the site that originally broke the story), and the web site of the Los Angeles Times.

On Wikinews, the report of Jackson's death received 1,150 page hits in its first hour of publication, almost 9 times as much as the number of page hits received by Wikinews' second most popular story that hour. At its peak, the Wikinews story received 4,466 page hits in one hour. On Wikipedia, an edit war ensued when users repeatedly deleted references while reports of his death remained unverified. Once a credible source, the Los Angeles Times, verified the story, Wikipedia published the news.

Hoax stories sparked by news of Jackson's death included false reports of the deaths of Jeff Goldblum and Harrison Ford. These stories were rapidly revealed to be hoaxes, but some news outlets carried the stories by mistake. The entertainment report on Nine Network's Today show, for example, mistakenly carried the story of Goldblum's death. Goldblum was in fact alive and well in Los Angeles, California, according to an official statement issued by his publicist.

The hoaxes originated on a web site that generates superficially genuine but false news reports from pre-set formulae, into which the celebrity name of one's choice can be entered. One of the options available is for the report to state that the celebrity "dies in New Zealand" at Kauri Cliffs near Matauri Bay. Because of this, many people attempted to contact New Zealand police, forcing Inspector Kerry Watson of the NZ police to issue the following statement:

"Police at Kerikeri are receiving phone calls regarding a person falling from a cliff at Kauri Cliff. There is no such incident and police have no information to provide."

This is not the first time that this particular hoax has circulated. The exact same story, with the same cliffs, circulated about Tom Hanks in 2006 and about Tom Cruise in 2008. Cruise's publicist, Jeff Raymond, stated at the time that the story was "erroneous and unreliable Internet garbage".

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