When the news broke Sunday that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, it was hard to believe. Not because the actor was young and had a promising future - although that's true - but because word on the Internet was he was the subject of a death hoax the day before.
So how could someone be rumored to be dead one day, proven to be alive soon after and then actually be dead the next? It could happen, but it didn't this time. The hoax surrounding Hoffman's death also was a hoax.
Huh? Don't worry, you aren't the only one who's confused.
The stories about Hoffman, along with stories about just about every celebrity you can think of, come from a website called Media Mass. It labels itself satire, but the information on the site is knowingly false.
It explains that its "People" section is a "humorous parody of Gossip magazines, all stories are obviously not true."
Now, fake posts on social media are nothing new. But this appears to be a coordinated effort to fool large numbers of people.
The site maintains a deep list of boilerplate celebrity pages, each debunking a non-existent celebrity death hoax.
So search for Justin Bieber and you'll find the exact same death hoax story that was attached to Philip Seymour Hoffman, only with certain details changed, likely for search engine optimization purposes.
And every entry starts the same way.
News of (actor/actress/singer)(insert name here)'s death spread quickly earlier this week causing concern among fans across the world. However the February 2014 report has now been confirmed as a complete hoax and just the latest in a string of fake celebrity death reports. Thankfully, the (actor/actress/singer) best known for (insert something here) is alive and well.
Each page references a Facebook page that is said to have attracted nearly one million likes. Each fake Facebook page is called R.I.P. followed by the name of the celebrity, and contains an entry tailored for each person. An actual Facebook search turns up no such pages.
So sticking with Justin Bieber, this information is reportedly in the about section of the non-existent R.I.P. Justin Bieber Facebook page:
“At about 11 a.m. ET on Saturday (February 01, 2014), our beloved singer Justin Bieber passed away. Justin Bieber was born on March 1, 1994 in Stratford. He will be missed but not forgotten. Please show your sympathy and condolences by commenting on and liking this page.”
You'll find entries like that all over the site. That means "Philip Seymour Hoffman dead 2014: Actor killed by internet death hoax," a headline shared wildly this weekend on social media, was a part of the Media Mass website long before this weekend's events. And, the date on each story is updated daily so it always appear current. Now, Hoffman's page has been updated to confirm his death.
Entries even contain a fake denial from non-existent celebrity representatives. Hoffman's read the same as others: “He joins the long list of celebrities who have been victimized by this hoax. He's still alive and well, stop believing what you see on the Internet.”
You can see it in action for yourself by editing the website address with the name of a random celebrity, which in most cases will generate a new story and a fake magazine front page.
And there you have it: A hoax wrapped within a hoax. When people come across this information and share it via social media, it quickly goes viral. As in the case of Hoffman, when a death actually occurs, word of the hoax that supposedly spread the day before spreads with the actual story, leading to confusion. This was evident on Sunday.
The same thing happened when Paul Walker died, as well as James Gandolfini.
Media Mass explains the concept is "to select the most typical, representative and recurrent articles across Gossip magazines and to make them available for all the celebrities in our database."
For example, every celebrity has a dog recovering from surgery. The dog is always an "adored labrador retriever," and its name is always "Spinee." Spinee the dog undergoes a risky surgery and is always "beginning the slow process of recovery." Similarly, every celebrity is the highest paid and many have naked photos that not only aren't of them, but don't even show any nudity.
And what about after a celebrity is actually dead, such as in the case of Hoffman? There's still a hoax, but it switches to rumors that the person may actually be alive. Voila! Instant conspiracy theory.
Media Mass, which is based in China, responded to an email seeking clarification of its practices. A spokesperson named Olive questioned why anyone would believe what's on the website, even if they don't read the warnings and information on the about us page, which explains the site is intended to be satirical.
"I'm not a journalist, Mediamass is not a news media (nor pretend to be) and the articles are published as fake," he wrote.
So before you share a rumor you read on social media, remember that you may be falling for a trick that's fooled many.