Yesterday actor Zach Braff, famous for his role in the TV comedy Scrubs, died. Well at least he did if you believed everything you read on the internet.

Reports of his death were quickly identified as fakes. One report claimed the actor was found dead in his home after an alleged suicide. The fake CNN website displaying the news was a joke between friends, which the creator neglected to remove from the web. How was he supposed to know that it would become one of the largest trending topics on Twitter or that Braff himself would respond on Facebook?

Another report claimed Braff fell to his death from the Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand while filming a movie. It too is a fake.

Braff is not the only celebrity to have been the subject of death rumours in recent times. He is also not the only one who has supposedly fallen to their death from the Kauri Cliffs. In all the latest celebrity death hoaxes, Twitter seems to be a common thread. Emily Miller from Politics Daily coined the term “TwitterDead” to describe celebrities who have died via a tweet.

So what’s going on here? Where are all these hoaxes coming from? And why New Zealand?

Crikey did a little digging and pulled together a list of the New Zealand TwitterDead. We also worked out where the stories came from.

November 2006 — Tom Hanks: On November 16, Hanks was reported to have fallen from the Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand while filming a new movie. Too bad Hanks wasn’t in New Zealand at the time, but was instead in California working on Charlie Wilson’s War.

October 2008 — Tom Cruise: Cruise was the next celebrity to have apparently died at, you guessed it, Kauri Cliffs. As we know from endless gossip magazine pages devoted to him and his wife, Cruise is still alive and, well, kicking. At the time, his agent branded the rumour “erroneous and unreliable internet garbage”.

June 2009 — Jeff Goldblum: Goldblum fell victim to the Kauri Cliffs death hoax this year. Starting on Twitter, this rumour quickly entered the mainstream news cycle, with our very own Richard Wilkins broadcasting the news. He received a Wankley for his efforts. Check out the eulogy Goldblum performed about himself on The Colbert Report.

June 2009 — Natalie Portman: Just a week after the Goldblum rumour, Portman allegedly died in the same way at the same place. This one wasn’t true either.

So where are all these stories coming from?

The answer is FakeAWish.com. It is a website that generates “fake” news reports about celebrity deaths. But you get to customise who you want to die, and where you want them to die. One of the most popular templates from the site is the “Dies in New Zealand” one.

The website creates a generic news report from “Global Associated News” with a vague news story with only sketchy details. A disclaimer appears at the bottom of the page which says the content is “100% fabricated”.

It looks something like this:

Who is behind this website?

His name is Rich Hoover and he lives in Atlanta. “Global Associated News” is just one of his many websites.

According to The New York Times, Hoover is quite proud of his record in creating death hoaxes. He has reportedly said that he gets a “twisted sense of satisfaction or accomplishment” from the publicity generated by the rumours. The recent popularity of his website has been attributed to an increasing number of Twitter feeds.

Buy why New Zealand?

“I’m an avid golfer, and I saw a segment on New Zealand when I was watching the PGA Tour — it looked beautiful,” Hoover told The New York Times.

View our Crikey Clarifier archive.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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