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Monday, April 22, 2024

Death By Social Media: Why The Expensive Hoax Must Stop – By Matthew Ma



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“In today’s age of social media, it is essential to be mindful of the ethical implications of sharing information, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as death announcements. It is considered highly inappropriate and insensitive to share the obituaries of any individual on social media without the consent of the family or authorized personnel. This is not only a matter of personal privacy but also has the potential to cause unnecessary distress and confusion among the wider community.”

In today’s digital age, social media has revolutionized the way in which news and information is shared. With just a few clicks, individuals can reach out to a vast audience, creating awareness and fostering connections. However, an alarming trend has emerged in the form of unverified death announcements on social media. What makes this even more concerning is that these announcements are often filled with inaccuracies or omissions. For instance, in certain Nigerian states, social media users have shared news of traditional rulers’ deaths before their families or the traditional council officially confirmed it, causing confusion, anxiety, and distress for their loved ones. In most cases, these unauthorized announcements have had damaging effects on the reputation and credibility of individuals or organizations falsely accused of spreading such information. It is vital to remember that even if the intention behind sharing such news is good, it can have serious consequences for those affected. It is alarming to see how frequently individuals are announcing someone’s death without any authorization or confirmation via social media. This is a matter of grave concern and can cause a lot of emotional harm to the people involved. Notifying the family members about the sudden death of their loved ones is a highly stressful experience for anyone. Breaking the bad news to the bereaved family needs a particular skill. Unfortunately, there is little guidance on the approach to this compassionate matter. In those days, people depended on their own experience to announce the death of someone rather than any training received in school. Today, a well-trained doctor in this field is in a better position to handle the daunting task of breaking the bad news. Regardless of the diagnosis, death can take place under two circumstances. First, the more common one is the expected death, where the patient’s relatives are aware of the severe nature of the illness, and naturally, death is expected. The second situation would be sudden and unexpected death. In the first instance, the relatives will be mentally prepared for the sad news, and the doctors will find it relatively easy to pronounce such deaths as and when they occur. But, when the death occurs unexpectedly, and suddenly, the relatives find it difficult to cope with the bad news. They can hardly believe the sudden loss of their loved one. In such situations, relatives can be easily influenced and become very emotional. In this situation, any lack of compassion and kindness on the part of the healthcare team may, in fact, trigger a violent grief reaction, and anger may be directed toward the hospital staff.


One thing that is considered highly inappropriate and unethical is to share an unauthorized death announcement of any individual on social media. Not only does it lack sensitivity towards the deceased and their family, but it also has the potential to cause unnecessary distress and confusion among the wider community. In earlier times, the announcement of the passing of a traditional leader was considered a solemn and significant occasion. The task of making this proclamation was usually reserved for the esteemed members of the community’s traditional council, who held exclusive jurisdiction over this matter. This announcement was made with great reverence and formality, and it was a pivotal moment in the community’s traditional institution. The traditional council was highly respected and held in the highest esteem as the ultimate arbiter in matters pertaining to the traditional institution. Their rulings were the last word on any issue, and their decisions were considered definitive and non-negotiable. In short, the traditional council was the final authority on all matters related to the traditional institution, and their choices carried great weight and influence. In the present day, specific social media councils operate with little regard for the traditional institutions and customs that have been passed down through generations. These councils assert their authority by announcing the passing of a ruler as if they have the authority to do so. They often announce the death without fully considering the potential implications of their actions. In some cases, they even go so far as to publish images of the event on social media platforms, which can have far-reaching consequences for the people involved. This trend is concerning because it shows a lack of respect for the cultural and historical values that many communities have cherished for centuries.


In many cultures, there was a strict social norm against announcing someone’s death without the express permission of their family or close friends. In fact, this practice was often considered taboo and could result in serious social consequences, such as ostracism or public shaming. The reason behind this norm was that announcing someone’s death without permission was seen as a violation of their privacy and a breach of trust, as it is ultimately up to the family or close friends to decide how, when, and to whom the news of the death should be communicated. It was seen as a way to ensure that the family was informed and given the chance to share the news in their own way. However, in the age of digital media, it has become a common practice among people to bypass the traditional step of informing family members before sharing any news on social media platforms. Unfortunately, this has led to a situation where the news of a loved one’s passing is often shared online before the family has had a chance to come to grips with the information. This has led to immense emotional distress for the family, as they are left feeling powerless and out of control when it comes to the dissemination of personal news. One of the primary reasons behind this disturbing trend is the lack of established guidelines or repercussions for sharing such news without the family’s permission. This can often lead people to prioritize their own desire for social media attention over the consideration of the family’s grief and emotional well-being. As a result, families are left to deal with the fallout of such a situation, including unwanted attention and exposure, as well as the feeling of being robbed of their right to privacy and dignity in their time of grief. This can be attributed to the fast-paced nature of social media and the desire to be the first one to share the news. It has led to instances where the family of the deceased is caught off guard and left to hear about their loved one’s passing through social media.


People must take a moment to consider the impact of their actions before sharing any news on social media. They should always prioritize the family’s feelings and respect their right to privacy and dignity during their time of grief. In February 2015, a false report began circulating on Twitter that singer Beyonce Knowles had passed away, causing the hashtag #RIPBeyonce to trend. A quick search using Twitter’s Advanced Search function reveals that the rumor was started intentionally by a user named @MattMcGrail, who tweeted, “I’m about to get this trending, #RIPBeyonce.” The hoax quickly spread across the platform, with many users sharing the news via the hashtag, including an account for ‘anonymous high school confessions’ with a large following of 302,000 people, who tweeted an image of the supposed crash site and a fake news account under the handle @CnnNewsFacts: “Breaking news: Beyonce was involved in a horrific car crash! #RIPBeyonce.” While some users immediately recognized the tweet as a hoax and expressed their disapproval, others were unsure about its truthfulness, leading to a variety of responses ranging from grief to skepticism to cultural commentary on the phenomenon of fake death announcements online.


In 2020, Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant, said she learned about the death of her husband by seeing “RIP Kobe” notifications on her phone. Basketball star Bryant died with his daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash. Ms. Bryant is suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for negligence and invasion of privacy. She alleges that officers shared graphic photos of the crash scene, including Kobe and Gianna’s bodies. During a deposition, a county attorney asked Ms. Bryant when she first heard the news of the crash. Ms. Bryant said that she was informed by a family assistant that her husband and daughter had been in a helicopter accident but that five people had survived. She thought that they were likely among the survivors. But then messages started popping up on her phone saying RIP Kobe. Vanessa Bryant testified as part of her lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, fire department, and Los Angeles County, alleging that department employees took photos of the helicopter crash site, including pictures of bodies believed to be her husband and daughter. Ms. Bryant said the aftermath of the crash and disclosure of photos has been so traumatizing that she has maintained possession of the clothing that Kobe and Gianna Bryant were wearing at the time of their deaths. We must all work together to create a culture of empathy and sensitivity towards those who are grieving and ensure that social media platforms are used responsibly to promote positive human connections rather than causing harm and distress.

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In February 2023, families of more than 50 overdose victims filed a lawsuit against Snapchat, accusing the app of supporting drug dealers. The families say the social media platform allows drug dealers to sell fake prescription pills mixed with deadly doses of fentanyl to minors and young adults. According to the lawsuit obtained by ABC News, from 2020-2022, Snapchat was allegedly a conduit for over 75% of the fentanyl poisoning deaths of children between the ages of 13 and 18 who connected with a dealer over social media. The dealers claim they are prescription drugs but are often counterfeit and contain lethal levels of fentanyl. One of the family members whose name is Fran Humphreys, said her 20-year-old daughter Sophia was sold fake Percocet pills through Snapchat in June 2021. Two days later, she was found unresponsive in her bed. In May 2023, some family members of those killed in the 2022 Buffalo grocery store mass shooting filed an unlawful death lawsuit against a number of social media companies, alleging they facilitated the teenage killer’s white supremacist radicalization by allowing racist propaganda to fester on their platforms. The lawsuit filed in the State Supreme Court in Buffalo also names as defendants a gun dealer and body armor company, as well as the parents of Payton Gendron, the confessed killer. The lawsuit argues that Gendron was motivated to commit his heinous crime by racist, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist propaganda fed to him by the social media companies whose products he used. Amongst the defendants named in the lawsuit are Meta, the parent company of Facebook; the instant messaging app Snapchat; Discord and Reddit; Google, which owns YouTube; and Amazon, which owns Twitch, the site Gendron used to livestream the killing rampage. The dark website 4chan was also named as a defendant, as well as the Vintage Firearms company and the RMA Armament company.


Back on the home soil, some Nigerian actors and musicians have been victims of death rumors at some point in their lives. Many of them were said to have died more than twice in the last couple of years, but they are still very much alive. Nigerian reggae and R&B music artist Abbey Toyyib Elias, aka Skiibii, died on the internet in 2015. The 22-year-old ‘Sampu’ crooner allegedly collapsed in his sitting room, and before anyone could get to the scene, he reportedly gave up the ghost. The singer was all dressed up and headed for his media rounds the day he suddenly fell and was unable to be resuscitated again. Most of his fans were quick to type rest in peace on social media. Surprisingly, a few hours after the announcement of his death, it was reported that there had been some miscommunication and that Skiibii was indeed alive. As per Kcee, who was on the same record label as Skiibii at the time, the artist was found in his home unresponsive. He was promptly taken to the hospital, where he was revived. His management team also issued a statement clarifying that he had only fainted for a brief period. There were speculations that this was a publicity stunt to promote his newly released track ‘Sampu,’ which had dropped just hours before his alleged passing. Years later, Skiibii revealed during an interview that he had a medical condition that caused him to faint multiple times. He shared his experience of passing out and how he overcame it.


Renowned Nollywood actor Oluwadotun Bilewu Jacobs, popularly known as Olu Jacobs, has been the subject of two false death rumors. The first occurred in 2020 when it was falsely rumored that the talented actor had passed away. His family was quick to refute the claim, stating that it was untrue and disheartening. The second rumor surfaced in 2021, but again, Jacobs’ family promptly dismissed it, providing evidence of the actor’s presence at his wife’s 60th birthday celebration. Although he may be battling some health issues, as previously noted by his loving spouse, the actor remains strong enough to move about. Even in his weakened state, he visited his wife on set on one occasion. There were reports in 2020 that Nollywood actor Chiwetalu Agu had passed away after a long illness. However, the actor himself soon made a video stating that he was alive and well despite receiving over 500 concerned calls and messages from loved ones. Unfortunately, in 2021, Agu was arrested by DSS and became upset when another rumor about his health circulated. He called the rumor malicious and cursed those behind it, pledging that they would not outlive him. Additionally, he clarified that he does not have a Facebook account and asked fans to report any fraudulent accounts to Meta. Mr. Agu expressed gratitude to those who had checked up on him during this difficult time.


Nigerian actor and lawyer Anayo Modestus Onyekwere, aka Kanayo. O Kanayo had been a victim of rumored death more than once. The latest one was in 2022, after pictures of him surfaced on social media, and RIP was written on some of his photos. As expected, he also made a video to dispel the sad tale. The Nollywood actor noted that he does not know what people gain by spreading fake news. He cursed the peddlers of the fake news and told them that his life is never in anyone’s hands. He told his friends and followers that he was healthy and did not have a fever and warned rumor mongers to turn a new leaf. Some rumors circulated about the well-respected Nollywood actor Pete Edochie, claiming that he fell 50 feet to his death from a cliff while filming in Kitzbuhel. Concerned fans reached out to the Actors Guild of Nigeria’s president, Ibinabo Fiberesima, for confirmation of Edochie’s status. Fiberesima assured them that Edochie was alive and well in his home. Unfortunately, in 2022, this rumor resurfaced again, with a video of Edochie bearing the words “Rest in Peace.” His son Uche, however, refuted these claims his pictures on Instagram insisting that Mr. Edochie was perfectly healthy. Unlike in developed nations where spreading false information regarding the death of an individual on social media is treated as a punishable offense, in Nigeria, there is currently no law in place that prohibits such actions and deems them punishable. This lack of legislation raises concerns about the potential for misinformation to spread rapidly on social media platforms, causing harm and distress to individuals and their families. It also highlights the need for governments to consider enacting laws that address the dissemination of false information online.


Recently, the Benue State Government expressed its concern over the unauthorized proclamations of the demise of traditional rulers in the State through various social media platforms. The warning came in the wake of people using social media to prematurely announce the death of traditional rulers in the Tiv community. The Benue Traditional Council, which is responsible for making official announcements regarding such matters, has stated that people have used various social media platforms to release news of the demise of traditional rulers before the council has had a chance to confirm the news and make an official announcement. The State government said that this conduct not only violates cultural norms but also undermines the authority and dignity of our esteemed traditional institutions. The government spokesperson emphasized that traditional rulers are highly respected and revered as they play a vital role in preserving our heritage and embodying our cultural identity. They also have a significant role in promoting unity, peace, and development within our communities. He emphasized that the responsibility of formally announcing the passing of these revered leaders lies exclusively with the traditional council, which possesses the requisite cultural and customary protocols to handle such sensitive matters. Henceforth, the government strongly advises and warns against any person, group, or entity engaging in the unauthorized dissemination of information concerning the death of a traditional ruler in the State. The government issued this advisory statement to safeguard the integrity of our cultural heritage and to uphold the respect owed to our traditional institutions. The government promised to protect the rights and privileges of our traditional rulers and ensure that their authority and dignity remain intact. It encouraged us to join hands to preserve our cultural heritage and uphold the traditional values that have been passed down from generation to generation.


In today’s age of social media, it is essential to be mindful of the ethical implications of sharing information, especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as death announcements. It is considered highly inappropriate and insensitive to share the obituaries of any individual on social media without the consent of the family or authorized personnel. This is not only a matter of personal privacy but also has the potential to cause unnecessary distress and confusion among the wider community. It is always advisable to wait for the family or authorized personnel to make an official announcement before sharing such news on social media. This not only shows respect for the deceased and their family but also allows for the proper dissemination of information, which can help prevent misunderstandings and misinformation. In addition, sharing such news without formal verification can lead to the spreading of rumors and false information, which can further compound the problem. Therefore, it is essential to be considerate of the feelings and privacy of others when sharing information on social media, especially when it comes to delicate topics such as death announcements. By being mindful of these ethical considerations, we can help create a more positive and compassionate online community.

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Losing a loved one is one of the most distressing moment people face. Most people experiencing grief and bereavement have sorrow, numbness, and even guilt and anger. For some people, these feelings don’t go away quickly. Different people follow different paths through the grieving experience. The order and timing of these phases may vary from person to person. Given these risks, social media users must exercise caution before sharing any unconfirmed details of someone’s death. This includes verifying their sources and ensuring that they have accurate information before sharing it with others. By taking these steps, we can help prevent the spread of false information and protect the well-being of those affected by these unauthorized death announcements. Whether it’s a close friend, spouse, partner, parent, child, or other relative, the death of a loved one can feel overwhelming. You may go through waves of intense and challenging emotions, ranging from profound sadness, emptiness, and despair to shock, numbness, guilt, or regret. You might rage at the circumstances of your loved one’s death—your anger focused on yourself, doctors, other loved ones, or God. We may find it difficult to accept the person is gone or struggle to see how we can ever recover and move on from your loss. Grief is not limited to emotional responses, either. Grief at the death of a loved one can also trigger physical reactions, including weight and appetite changes, difficulty sleeping, aches and pains, and an impaired immune system, leading to illness and other health problems. Unauthorized announcements not only cause unnecessary panic and confusion among the populace but also show disrespect to the bereaved family and the entire community. It is imperative for all citizens to exercise restraint and responsibility when dealing with information related to our traditional rulers.


Dealing with the loss of a close friend or family member is one of the most complex challenges that many of us face. When we lose a spouse, sibling, or parent, our grief can be particularly intense. To lose someone is understood as a natural part of life, but we can still be overcome by shock and confusion, leading to prolonged periods of sadness or depression. The sadness diminishes in intensity as time passes, but grieving is an essential process in order to overcome these feelings and continue to embrace the time we had with our loved ones. Everyone reacts differently to death. Research shows that most people can recover from loss on their own with time if they have social support. It may take months or years to come to terms with a loss. If your relationship with the deceased is complex, this will also add another dimension to the grieving process. It may take some time and thought before you are able to look back on the relationship and adjust to the loss. Human beings are naturally resilient, considering most of us can endure loss and then continue with our own lives. However, some families may struggle with grief for extended periods and feel unable to carry out daily activities. We appeal to social media influencers to give hope to grieving families rather than torment them.


As a community, it is of utmost importance that we come together and collaborate to uphold and maintain the dignity of our traditional institutions. This includes not only community leaders and social media influencers but also the general public. Our customs and traditions are an integral part of our identity, and it is essential that we respect and preserve them for future generations. We urge everyone to be mindful of established norms and values and to work towards promoting cultural heritage and fostering unity. The Government must also be committed to ensuring the overall well-being of our citizens. This includes protecting and preserving the values that make Benue State a unique and harmonious society. We understand the significance of maintaining our cultural heritage and traditional institutions. Therefore, we call upon all members of our community to join hands with us in this endeavor. Let us work together towards preserving and protecting the values that define our identity and make Benue State a special place to live. It is only by recognizing the importance of our cultural heritage and traditional institutions that we can ensure their continuity. Let us work together to uphold the values that have defined our society and made it a unique and harmonious place to live.


Sharing the story of a loved one is an innate human tendency that helps us cope with loss and remember the cherished moments spent with them. It’s a way to celebrate their life and keep their memory alive for generations to come. Whether it’s through sharing anecdotes, photographs or simply talking about their personality and accomplishments, the act of sharing helps us honor those who have touched our lives in profound ways. However, when it comes to the death of a traditional ruler, an elder, parent, sibling, or close friend, it’s essential to exercise caution in what we share and how we share it. Our words and actions can have profound consequences, not just for the immediate family and friends of the deceased but also for the wider community. In light of this, we strongly advise against any individual, group, or entity engaging in the unauthorized dissemination of information regarding the death of a traditional ruler in Nigeria. This is especially important in order to preserve the integrity of our cultural heritage and maintain respect for our traditional institutions. The death of a traditional ruler is not just a personal loss but also a loss to the entire community that they serve. Therefore, we urge everyone to be mindful of the impact their words and actions may have during this sensitive time. It’s important to remember that the passing of a traditional ruler may require specific cultural protocols and procedures that need to be observed. As such, it’s crucial only to share information with proper authorization or permission, as this could cause confusion, disrespect, or even harm. Let’s honor the memory of our loved ones in a way that is respectful, appropriate, and in line with the cultural traditions and values that we hold dear. By doing so, we can ensure that our cultural heritage is preserved and that our traditional institutions continue to thrive for generations to come.


The words we say and the actions we take can have a profound impact not just on our own lives but on the lives of those around us. They can shape our relationships, influence our emotions, and even determine the course of our lives. Every word we speak and every action we take creates a ripple effect that can extend far beyond our immediate surroundings, influencing people we may never meet or even know exist. This is why it is so important to recognize the impact of our words and actions. By taking a moment to consider how our words and actions affect those around us, we can make a conscious effort to act with intention and consideration toward others. We can choose to use language that is kind and compassionate, and we can make choices that promote positivity and well-being. When we act with intention and consideration, we not only create a positive and fulfilling life for ourselves, but we also positively impact those around us. We can inspire others to do the same, creating a ripple effect of kindness and positivity that can spread far and wide. So, let us all strive to be mindful of our words and actions and to use them to create a better world for ourselves and those around us.



Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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