Legendary Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot joins the growing list of celebrities that Twitter has reported were dead when they were in fact very much alive. But all the social network really did was spread the news, and it spread the correction just as quickly.

While driving back from a trip to the dentist on Thursday, Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot was somewhat surprised to learn that he was deceased — at least, according to the radio station he was listening to. Thousands of other people discovered his death via Twitter, which exploded with reports of his demise and was soon filled with tributes to him, touching memories of where people were when they heard his classic songs, and so on. And thus, Lightfoot joined a select (but growing) group of celebrities who have been reported dead via Twitter — a list that includes Jeff Goldblum, Maya Angelou, Patrick Swayze (who did pass away soon afterwards), Zach Braff, Johnny Depp and Kanye West.

Once it became known that Lightfoot had not in fact gone to his eternal reward, plenty of people spent the next several hours doing another thing that people love to do on Twitter: blame Twitter for spreading a fake news report. But as Peter Kafka correctly points out, Twitter didn’t kill Gordon Lightfoot — traditional media did. It appeared to start with a prank phone call (remember the telephone?) to the management company representing Lightfoot’s close friend and fellow musical legend Ronnie Hawkins, from someone pretending to be Lightfoot’s grandson.

Hawkins then started calling people to let them know, who in turn alerted Canwest News Service, which called Hawkins to confirm the news and then published a brief news item that got picked up by a number of the chain’s newspapers. That report was then spread by reporters on Twitter, including Canwest political reporter David Akin, who later wrote a blog post about the role he played in the story.

As Akin notes in his analysis of what happened, traditional news wires regularly report things that turn out to be wrong, including the deaths of famous people. Back in the PT days (pre-Twitter), only traditional journalists saw those reports, and while they occasionally made their way into print or onto a TV news show, for the most part newswires like the Associated Press and Reuters corrected them before they escaped into the real world (if you’re interested, Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive list of everyone whose death has been prematurely reported, whether on Twitter or anywhere else). With Twitter, however — and an increasing number of traditional journalists using the social network — that kind of “news” leaks out faster than ever before, and it can get re-transmitted and re-broadcast far more broadly.

Is that a bad thing? Maybe. But it is a reality. Call it the new ecosystem of news if you want to be fancy about it. And it’s worth noting that Twitter did just as good a job of being skeptical about the early reports, and of re-tweeting and re-broadcasting the corrections and verifications, as any traditional news source did — and arguably better. Disagree with me? Feel free to let me know in the comments, or on Twitter :-)

Post photo courtesy of someecards, thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Bogenfreund

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  1. Brian Robinson Friday, February 19, 2010

    It’s ridiculous to play this as a mainstream vs. new media thing. False reports have been a part of the ecosytem since caveman days. I’m sure the gossip system back then had Og being killed way before his actual time. As you hinted at, the only thing different today is the medium, not the message.

    This is madeup news.

    1. Exactly. Remember the reports of Abe Vigoda’s death?


      And people shouldn’t blame Twitter. They should blame themselves for being so quick to believe everything they read without doing a little bit of research on their own.

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  3. Gordon Lightfoot Dies, Twitter Gets Blamed – Gigaom.com | Twitter Traffic Experts Friday, February 19, 2010

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  4. Perfect headline – thanks for dropping this one on us.

    1. You’re welcome, Paul — thanks for the compliment :-)

  5. I think there’s an irony that when people tweet stuff they’ve heard that turns out to be true, Twitter gets the PR for crushing old media yet when people tweet stuff that turns out to be false, old media takes the blame. Seems to be a win-win and a lose-lose…

  6. Social Milestone » Blog Archive » Gordon Lightfoot Dies, Twitter Gets Blamed – GigaOM Friday, February 19, 2010
  7. Lightfoot hoax leaves many questions – Fagstein Saturday, February 20, 2010

    [...] Mathew Ingram and Peter Kafka also point out that Twitter wasn't the source of this [...]

  8. Not to be confused with Sammy Lightfoot, which has also been resurrected via the ActiveGS plugin for Firefox.

  9. I think this is a good reminder that sometimes it is better to go back to the source of the data to see if there has been a misrepresentation (also called fact-checking, a presumed mainstay of good journalism). Today’s Dilbert strip (http://www.dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-02-21/) has a good explanation of what can happen in the corporate environment.

  10. Zynga Gets Slammed Over Haiti Donations – GigaOM Thursday, March 4, 2010

    [...] If nothing else, Zynga’s current woes are just another example of social media’s ability to spread both information and misinformation at lightning-fast speeds. For another recent example, see our report about the “death” of folk legend Gordon Lightfoot. [...]

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