‘Death by Twitter’: Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital

  • Bjorn Nansen University of Melbourne
  • Dominic O'Donnell University of Melbourne
  • Michael Arnold University of Melbourne
  • Tamara Kohn University of Melbourne
  • Martin Gibbs University of Melbourne
Keywords: false death, Twitter, digital news, social media, cultural capital


In this paper, we analyse false death announcements of public figures on social media and public responses to them. The analysis draws from a range of public sources to collect and categorise the volume of false death announcements on Twitter and undertakes a case study analysis of representative examples. We classify false death announcements according to five overarching types: accidental; misreported; misunderstood; hacked; and hoaxed. We identify patterns of user responses, which cycle through the sharing of the news, to personal grief, to a sense of uncertainty or disbelief. But we also identify more critical and cultural responses to such death announcements in relation to misinformation and the quality of digital news, or cultures of hoax and disinformation on social media. Here we see the performance of online identity through a form that we describe, following Bourdieu as ‘platform cultural capital’.

Author Biographies

Bjorn Nansen, University of Melbourne

Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, and a member of the DeathTech Research Network. His research focuses on emerging and marginal forms of digital media use in everyday life, with current research projects explore childrens mobile media and digital play practices, the digitisation of death and memorialising, and the technological mediation of sleep spaces and practices. He is a co-author of Death and digital media (Routledge, 2018).

Dominic O'Donnell, University of Melbourne

Sessional tutor and research assistant in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His research is currently focused on social media and its effects on practices associated with death and mourning.

Michael Arnold, University of Melbourne

Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science Programme at the University of Melbourne. His on-going research activities lie at the intersection of contemporary technologies and daily life.

Tamara Kohn, University of Melbourne

Professor of Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her work critically explores issues of identity, the body and senses, communities of practice, death, and methods and ethics in anthropological research.

Martin Gibbs, University of Melbourne

Associate Professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems, the University of Melbourne. His research interests lie at the intersection of Science Technology Studies (STS) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI). His recent co-authored book, Death and digital media, was published by Routledge in 2018.

How to Cite
Nansen, B., O’Donnell, D., Arnold, M., Kohn, T., & Gibbs, M. (2019). ‘Death by Twitter’: Understanding false death announcements on social media and the performance of platform cultural capital. First Monday, 24(12). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i12.10106