With less than a kernel to go on, entertainment reporters began chasing a piece of foreboding bait dangled by Carson Daly Friday afternoon: "Praying the bad news I'm starting to hear about is a rumor....stand by," the former MTV VJ tweeted.
News outlets and Twitter junkies soon discovered that Daly was referring to the devastating death of Beastie Boys member Adam "MCA" Yauch, following his battle with cancer. #RIPMCA became a trending Twitter topic almost immediately and every plugged-in punk patriot strengthened the hashtag with their well-wishes to the Beastie Boys family or six-degrees stories ("I once met him ...").
Twitter has become "the new media of celebrity deaths," Rolling Stone writer Patrick Flanary concludes.
Forget press releases or formal statements, the media have their eyes glued to auto-refreshed TweetDecks, like hunter-gatherers waiting to pounce, while still keeping tabs on the competition to see who's brave enough to pull the trigger first. The official Beastie Boys website did not release confirmation of Yauch's death until hours after Daly's tweet and initial reports were published. By then, all 10 trending topics on Twitter were Beastie Boys–themed.
The response to Whitney Houston's shocking death followed a similar course.
"In February of this year, on the day before the Grammy Awards, the media found itself chasing the little guy once again when another ordinary Twitter user broke big news an hour before the wires could confirm it: Whitney Houston was dead," Flanary writes.
Houston's death churned up the biggest digital wake of any celebrity event since 2009. That's when the Internet was brought to its knees by the news of Michael Jackson's passing. Twitter itself crashed after Jackson-related updates reached 100,000 per hour, according to BBC News.
Still, users relying on Twitter to get information that traditional news outlets are too slow to report should remain cautious about believing every 140-character message they read. Celebrities from Justin Timberlake to Denzel Washington have been erroneously pronounced dead, making the Twitter death hoax something of a rite of passage among A-listers.
If only today's hint had proved to be just another viral rumor.
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