Gordon Lightfoot’s death hoax: a post-game wrap-up, with an apology to Twitter


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Gordon Lightfoot is not dead. And his ‘death,’ such as it was, was not Twitter’s fault.

I feel I need to make both of those things clear in the wake of the Ministry’s ‘Gordon Lightfoot: This is your death on Twitter’ post Thursday.


[Updated at 7:08 p.m.: To be even more clear, for readers who didn’t see the Thursday post and didn’t click on the link above: Neither this blog nor reported at any time that Lightfoot had died. The only thing reported was that there had been a hoax, and that he was safe and sound./cdz]

So please forgive the lack of glittery celebrities in what follows as I revisit how the celebrity death hoax happened, and clarify how it didn’t happen.

That MoG post, by me, was intended to a) report to anyone who might think otherwise that Lightfoot had not died and b) show non-Twitter types examples of the interesting and amusing comments that get tweeted in the wake of this kind of fiasco. (I love that aspect of Twitter -- the wit you can stumble across.) I wrote the headline not to imply Twitter was the root of the hoax, but to say, literally, this is what you are seeing now ‘on Twitter.’ That said, commenter Steve Faguy, who’s a blogger and freelance journalist out of Montreal, took issue -- rightly so, in my opinion -- with the details I’d presented to set up the links to the aftermath:

‘There wasn’t ‘also an offline component’ - the Hoax was exactly as [Robbie] Hawkins described it - a phone prank. The original Twitter report came from a Canwest News Service alert and spread from there.’

Faguy pointed the Ministry to the blog of David Akin, the Canwest national correspondent who was identified by TV station CP 24 as the source of ‘a well-circulated post on Twitter that the singer had died.’ (I’d like to point out that Faguy didn’t self-promote and point us to his own thorough post about the hoax, which he easily could have.)

Here’s an excerpt from a Thursday blog post by Akin in which he explains the events leading up to this decision:

‘I have about 2,500 people that ‘follow’ me on Twitter. Many are journalists in other newsrooms. I follow journalists myself from other organizations and we all often ‘tweet’ new facts, stories, etc. that we’re reporting on and we figure our followers are interested in reading about. ‘So when the ALERT about Gordon Lightfoot’s death crossed our wire, I figured my followers would be interested in this and so I sent out a tweet that looked like this: Gordon Lightfoot has died, sources close to the singer say. ‘I did this because I have and continue to have absolute confidence in the 3,000 or so journalists who are my Canwest colleagues that they get stuff like this right.’

Click through to his post for details of what happened on his end, and his assessments of what he could have done differently.

So that’s a big part of how the hoax made its way onto the lightning-fast medium that is Twitter. (There was a Twitter red herring as well -- but we’ll get to the ‘Ottawa Twitter user @Fleminksi’ later. You may be surprised.)

For those who’d blame Twitter, journalist Pete Kafka has this observation in a MediaMemo at All Things Digital:

‘Twitter still didn’t force Canwest, the big Canadian media conglomerate, to publish a wire report that said the singer was dead. As best I can tell, it was that story, which was picked up by various Canwest newspaper sites, that convinced people Lightfoot had croaked.’

What Canwest had picked up was a fake death report that originated offline, starting with a phone call that was made to singer Robbie Hawkins’ management company.

So, now, back to me (sorry, couldn’t resist that link) -- here’s where I tried to qualify the information I had at the time, in an attempt to avoid jumping to a conclusion I couldn’t verify.

The story I needed to track down but couldn’t was over at the Toronto Sun, which had contacted Hawkins:

Reached at his rural-Ontario home, Hawkstone Manor, he called the whole affair “some kind of a sick joke” and graciously accepted the offer from this reporter of Lightfoot’s home phone number, which he’d misplaced, to ring up his old pal and apologize. Hawkins said he’d received a call from his management office in Minneapolis earlier in the day telling him Lightfoot’s grandson had phoned in to say that the man responsible for such indelible folk tunes as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Early Morning Rain” had passed away the night before. “I don’t know Gordon’s grandson. I didn’t even know if Gordon has a grandson,” he said, audibly flustered. “I called my wife in Florida and told her and I guess she faxed some of her friends and now, all of a sudden, it’s all over the world. It’s terrible. I can’t even get ahold of Gordon. Holy smoke, it’s unbelievable.’

There it was. But without finding that specific article -- and with Lightfoot’s manager Bernie Fiedler telling the Vancouver Sun that the hoax did start on Twitter -- I qualified the Hawkins information with a transition that included the phrase Faguy called me on:

‘Now, before we all pile on poor, misunderstood Twitter, know that there was also an offline component to the hoax.’

My gut assessment was that the ‘component’ was close to 100% of what happened, but, in addition to the Fiedler quote, a report of one Twitter post kept me from going with that conclusion: That would be the tweet from ‘Ottawa Twitter user @Fleminksi,’ which was screen grabbed in the MediaStyle post I’d linked. Turns out that at the time, MediaStyle’s Ian Capstick -- who also went back today to further piece together what happened -- wasn’t completely accurate either. However, he was the source I picked to show readers that first Lightfoot-related tweet, and his post said:

‘I tracked down the tweet in question. And, it wasn’t David Akin or Canwest. But, it was repeated very quickly by them.’

Fact is, Fleminski’s tweet had its roots in the ripples from that same prank telephone call -- ripples that expanded after Hawkins’ wife, Wanda, disseminated the death information via fax, Facebook and, in Fleminski’s case, telephone. An assessment ‘RIP Gordon Lightfoot’ tweet from the Canadian blog ThreeSeven, written by Shannon McKarney:

‘Simple. Not link-mongering. Not starting a false rumour. Just paying respect to an artist who deserves it. ‘This tweet wasn’t re-tweeted. The first three responses to it (including one from myself) consisted of people going, huh? I haven’t heard anything.’

When contacted by Canwest reporter and asked for how she’d heart the possible news, Fleminski said she’d heard it from Hawkins’ wife, and directed the reporter to contact Ronnie Hawkins. So the ‘confirmation’ that led to the alert actually came not from any irresponsible retweet (and there are many of those) but from the first victims of the hoax.

The ‘Fleminski’ Twitter account is shut down (understandable -- would you want go about your business using a suddenly newsworthy account?) and though the tweep’s real name is known, if you simply have to know it you can go find it for yourself, like I did. The Guardian newspaper, in a story that attributed Hawkins’ quotes from the Toronto Sun interview to the Globe and Mail, was continuing to pin blame on her, and on Twitter, in a report dated Friday. I’d rather not pile on with them. ThreeSeven’s McKarney brings her point home:

‘By saying it started with ‘one Twitter user in Ottawa’, the media is truly being disingenuous. That twitter user named her source. CanWest contacted her source who verified their story. Then Global ran with it. By hanging it on Fleminski, they’re trying to deflect the eyes off themselves for running an incorrect story. Hey Media: you are the media. Twitter isn’t. It’s just a tool. So put the blame where blame is due: On the telephone the hoaxter used to call Ronnie Hawkins. Or, if you think blaming the mode of communication is ridiculous (and you’re right) then don’t blame Twitter. ‘Blame the prankster. Not the pranked.’

Finally, Regret the Error reminds us all: ‘[T]he next time you hear somebody talk about the Internet killing off celebrities, be sure to remind them that newspapers, wire services, magazines, and radio and TV have been doing it for a whole lot longer. And they’re still the champs.’

Hopefully this is of some value to any readers whose understanding of the story was muddied by my presentation Thursday. Now, I’m not totally beating myself up, either; the fundamental points of the story -- Lightfoot’s not dead, and people said funny stuff about the hoax afterward on Twitter -- were and are solid. The point of clarification is that the hoax originated in the real world -- not the virtual one.

So along with this glimpse of how the sausage is made, I offer my apologies. The goal at this blog is to get the facts straight and connect readers to the best information on topics of a celebrity nature, and I aim for clarity, not further muddying of sometimes unclear waters.

And sorry to you too, my dear friend Twitter. You know I never meant to hurt you.

-- Christie D’Zurilla

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