How Twitter Killed Morgan Freeman: The Anatomy of a Rumour

On Thursday December 16th at approximately 5 p.m. eastern time, Morgan Freeman died - at least according to twitter. 24 hours later, Morgan Freeman is (thankfully) still alive, CNN is denying responsibility for the rumour, and the tweet has been removed. A breakdown of the incident reveals that, especially in the social media era, you can't believe everything you read.

On Thursday December 16th at approximately 5 p.m. Eastern Time, Morgan Freeman died – at least according to twitter. 24 hours later, Morgan Freeman is (thankfully) still alive, CNN is denying responsibility for the rumour, and the tweet has been removed. A breakdown of the incident reveals that, especially in the social media era, you can’t believe everything you read.

  • December 16th at at 5pm (ET) a tweeter who goes by the name @originalcjizzle posts: “RT @CNN: Breaking News: actor Morgan Freeman has passed away in his Burbank home<< wow legendary actor #RIPmorganfreeman.”
  • Between 5pm and 8pm, the rumour begins circulating online, picking up momentum, and becomes a twitter trending topic.
  • At approximately 8pm, CNN retweets: “CNN did not report Morgan Freeman death. Rumour is false. CNN will aggressively investigate this hoax.”
  • After initially mocking CNN’s retweet, @originalcjizzle clears things up with a series of tweets: “It was an inside joke between friends. I had no intention of things turning out this way. I make cruel and vulgar jokes & I won’t apologize for my sense of humour, but I do apologize for crossing the line. I’m a huge fan of Morgan Freeman and I wish him the best in all future endeavours.”
  • Saturday December 17th, Morgan Freeman’s publicist Stan Rosenfield reports that the actor is “still very much alive” and several media outlets pick up the story.

As twitter users know, there’s no restrictions placed on putting “RT” in front of a tweet; this means that anyone can create a post that appears to respond to a tweet that, in fact, doesn’t exist. This make Twitter a particularly effective medium to circulate rumours, but while the technology is more advanced, the celebrity death hoax itself, is by no means a new phenomena. From Frank Sinatra, to Paul McCartney, to Britney Spears, celebrity death hoaxes have been around for the better part of 50 years, and in the age of social media, more and more celebrities are “killed off” each year.

Rooted in freedom of speech, the internet is a powerful medium of communication, and social media gives people access and freedom to communication like never before. However, the Morgan Freeman incident reminds social media users – new and experienced – that it is important, now more than ever, to check sources and approach news trending in social media with a grain of salt.