As harsh as 2009 has been for celebrity deaths, it’s been an even harsher year for Internet-based fake celebrity deaths. As of June, the real-to-fake death ratio has approached one-to-two: Michael Jackson’s demise not only clogged the Internet for a day, but also sucked down Harrison Ford (missing and believed drowned) and Jeff Goldblum (plummeted off the very same New Zealand cliff that claimed Tom Hanks in 2006 and Tom Cruise in 2008). Just in the last three years, the world has briefly mourned Miley Cyrus (car crash), Matt Damon (plane crash), Paris Hilton (stabbed to death in jail), Natalie Portman (another NZ cliff casualty), and Britney Spears (general debauchery). Last month’s imaginary Kayne car crash was the lead story the morning after it didn’t happen. Although obit-bots have apparently churned out some celeb deaths on autopilot, the hoax surge has been greatly lubed by the rise of Twitter. During WW2, misinformation’s biggest target was troop movements; in the age of Afghanistan, it’s snuffed celebs.
Punk musicians make especially tasty targets for the Internet death hoax. They’re known quantities, but not too well known. Someday they really will die, and news of their deaths will disperse through these very same channels. The Internet killed off Ian Mackaye in 2007, and Bad Brains’ H.R. for one day last March. Drummer Chuck Biscuits, with his low profile and absurd resume (pit stops in Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Samhain, a long stint in D.O.A., a cornerstone of the classic Danzig lineup) made for a particularly plausible casualty. After departing from Social Distortion a decade ago, he joined Thomas Pynchon somewhere far, far off the grid. He hasn’t been heard from since.
Thursday morning brought a seemingly spontaneous rash of bloggings and tweets declaring Biscuits dead, of throat cancer, at 44. The prosaic cause of death masked the circular nature of the story itself, and for half the day everyone simply reported everyone else’s report. The New York Times itself had to resort to bothering Henry Rollins, in Saudi Arabia, for confirmation of death.
It took the afternoon for journalists and bloggers to sort out that the original obituary, posted by freelance writer James Green, Jr. had not only served as the initial source, but also the only source. DOA’s Joey Shithead debunked Biscuit’s death, and later in the day Greene updated his blog:
If the thought of Biscuits faking his own faker is a bit too complex to wrap your mind around, let’s just leave it at the fact that somebody pulled off the half year ruse, with goals as inscrutable as the best self-propagating email worm. Maybe some tween Swede hacker got bored.
Although the whole knotty tale highlights the perils of new media, this particular hoax also shares some parallels with the perils of old, old media. Letter writers have been duping each other for eons. Three centuries ago, Jonathan Swift faked the death of almanac-maker John Partridge; Partridge was plagued by mourners for the rest of his life. Wherever Biscuits is, he’s probably grateful he got off with just one day in the hereafter.