The death of the somewhat polarising personality of the legendary and bizarre “King of Pop” Michael Jackson recently was obviously a sad, if not tragic, tale of talent, madness and suspicious sleepovers . But it didn't just mark the end of one of the "last great perfomers" (I bet they said that when Elvis/John Lennon/Kurt Cobain died) - it also sparked a great debate about the modernity and accuracy of the internet as a media source.
Before any TV news stations had even a fleeting whiff of the events in LA, the celebrity website TMZ.com had posted a news article announcing that the sometime singer, sometime plastic putty had been taken to hospital with what appeared to be a serious cardiac arrest. Indeed TMZ were not even first on the case – the story actually originally broke through a much smaller celebrity gossip site called x17online a mere 49 minutes after the 911 call was made.
When the TV stations eventually got hold of the news and began their blanket broadcasting on the subject, TMZ were already reporting his death (albeit slightly pre-emptively – he actually died six minutes after the original post was made).
If ever you needed proof of the comparative rapidity of the web, you just needed to watch the 24 hour news channels. In the UK, Sky News reported the breaking story via TMZ itself, reading its article as their only source of information before the death was eventually confirmed hours later by Jackson’s brother Jermaine. CNN were even slower in reporting the news, as indeed they were with their much criticised coverage of the recent Iranian election crisis. While users in their hundreds were already posting their condolences on the TMZ.com article, CNN reporters were still reading the American Heart Association’s page to learn what a cardiac arrest actually entailed. They belatedly announce his death to an already informed world some hours later, following their main website's only slightly quicker headline.
Rumours of Jackson’s death sparked an almighty surge on the searches and social networking sites, unsurprisingly dominating Facebook posts, Twitter trends (around 20% of all Tweets!) and Google searches almost to the point of digital standstill. Such was the surge on specific Michael Jackson keywords Google actually believed it had to be a hacker attack and searches returned a “we’re sorry...” message for around half an hour.The link to TMZ.com from a wide range of sources reached a peak of 42 clicks a second at its peak. Any large sums of money spent on buying the exclusive photos and information had no doubt paid off very quickly.
Then, in a bizarre twist, it appears a group of pranksters took note of these trends and decided to start a few, it should be noted scurrilous, rumours of their own makings. A sudden wave of celebrity deaths were being mourned across the web, as if it was suddenly seen to be a great career move to be dead (in truth, aside from the unfortunate problem of being dead, it probably generally is). Jeff Goldblum took a tragic tumble off an imaginary New Zealand cliff to fall to his unfortunate and wholly untrue death, as did Natalie Portman in a bizarrely coincedental parallel plummet, Indiana Jones actor Harrison Ford apparently died on his yacht in a storm (in a fire obviously) and even the one-time great British pop singer Rick Astley popped his apocryphal clogs in the latest of a terrible tide of famous non-deaths. Never one to be outdone, George Clooney soon followed after his light aircraft crashed in South America.
Of course, thousands were shocked by this news, not least the celebrities themselves, and once they had confirmed they weren’t doing a “Sixth Sense”, each spread the news of their continued existence - except for Michael Jackson if you were wondering. Still, even without any foundations on truth, these rumours all stimulated a large number of searches and Twitter posts in the short time they circulated – Rick Astley even became one of the top trending topics – holding proof of the rapidity of the internet as a potential news and media source.
There are of course two sides to this coin though. These rumblings and mumblings might prove the internet’s dominance and speed, but also lay testament to its susceptibility to rumour and Chinese whispers – especially in the case of Twitter (though I'm sure the makers don't mind too much). In that sense, the new age media is just another facet for our gossip and rumour, a global outlet for people’s water-cooler chatter; people still hold the major news sources, whether they be major news websites, 24 hour news channels, or even print media, in the highest of regard and these are the places we go to confirm strange rumours. The internet is hardly an entirely trustworthy entity, after all...