A rumor about the death of Betty White has been making the rounds today, started by a “satire” website called Empire News (think The Onion, only not at all funny). Apparently, they thought it would be hilarious to produce a post about how Betty White “dyes peacefully in her Los Angeles home,” as in colors her hair.
Granted, the internet is not a place known for empathy, but joking about death in this way, as if the subject of the hoax isn’t an actual human being, just an idea that exists solely for our amusement, is troubling and borders on sociopathic. With the recent deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, and reports of Joan Rivers fighting for her life, the idea of celebrity and death have been intertwined more than usual in recent weeks.
Williams was so beloved that the reaction to the news was raw and emotional…for the most part. While some got together to watch marathons of his movies or leave flowers at the Mrs. Doubtfire house, others took the time to bully his daughter off Twitter. Reactions to Joan Rivers’ medical situation have been just as devoid of compassion. Commenters on popular gossip website Oh No They Didn’t gleefully wished for her death (everything from “LMAO did she die? I hope she died” to “die you old bitch” to “take her satan. just do it”).
There are a few things at play here. First, words are losing their meaning, cheapened by the blather found in places like YouTube comment sections and aided by anonymity. Second, bullying has traveled from the middle school hallways of our pasts into our daily digital lives, becoming the unofficial language of the internet. And third, we no longer acknowledge the humanness of celebrities; they are larger-than-life and fair game for a death hoax. Instead of consoling the daughter of a famous comedian, we bully her on the day of his death. Instead of disagreeing with a comedian’s style of humor and moving on to something more agreeable, we wish her dead. It’s as if we’ve traded our sensitivity chips for all of the ones in our gadgets.
The internet isn’t all bad: you can take a class you maybe couldn’t afford in the real world or keep in touch with loved ones continents away. It’s a tool that can be used for good or evil, like the lamp Robin Williams’ genie lived in. Let’s stop leaving negative comments on things we didn’t even read. Let’s stop tolerating death hoaxes. Let’s be better. Oh, and let’s watch more Golden Girls. Deal?