June 30, 2009 -- Fans can breathe easy,beloved pop star Britney Spears is alive and well.
These celebrities are just among a growing roster of the rich and famous who have had false death reports published about them online in the days following the passing of high-profile celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.
Internet experts say that these pranksters, who commonly remain unidentified even after their hoaxes have been exposed, are simply attention-seekers capitalizing on a climate of fear and doubt.
"Whenever you get unusual events like this weird kind of cluster of actual celebrity deaths it creates a mood of doubt and uncertainty, which is the environment that hoaxes and urban legends proliferate," said Alex Boese, the founder of the Web site Museaumofhoaxes.com.
"Because our mental defenses are slightly weakened, we're more willing to believe everything we read," said Boese, whose site chronicles the most popular hoaxes throughout history.
On Thursday, when news of Jackson's death was revealed, a blog post claiming that Goldblum had been killed on the set of a movie he was filming in New Zealand.
So many people believed the report that his spokesperson had to release a statement to the media debunking the rumor.
"Reports that Jeff Goldblum has passed away are completely untrue," read a statement issued by the actor's publicist, Lisa Kasteler. "He is fine and in Los Angeles."
Similar statements debunking claims of death were published on Twitter about Goldblum by his actor friends, including Kevin Spacey, and later on Spears' site, who had her account on the micro-blogging site hacked into over the weekend.
"Britney's Twitter was just hacked. The last message is obviously not true. She is fine and dandy spending a quiet day at home relaxing," read a posting on the star's Twitter page Monday.
"Britney has passed today," one of the fake messages said. "It is a sad day for everyone. More news to come."
In the case of the Goldblum rumor, the hoax that had the actor falling to his death in New Zealand wasn't even new. In fact, according to Boese, an almost identical scenario has been spread about actors Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks in previous years.
But even despite the repetitiveness of the hoax, the shock that people feel when they even hear mention of a well-known celebrity's death is enough to perpetuate the rumor and get it circulating on the Internet.
"What really drives content moving through the rumor mill is shock and awe," said security researcher Dan Kaminsky. "It's 'oh my god, Bruce Willis is dead,' 'oh my god Jeff Goldblum died' and 'oh my god Michael Jackson is gone.'"
"One of them is actually dead but all there have the necessary component that if it was true people would want to know, so the rumor gets magnified and talked about," said Kaminsky.
Because of the way these hoaxsters often operate – usually by inputting a celebrity's name into an online program that then produces a page that looks like it came from an authentic news organization – experts say it's hard to pinpoint exactly who is responsible.
What they do know, however, is that the people behind the rumors are often just doing it for the attention, and not for monetary gain or even much more than the personal satisfaction of knowing that you sparked a national debate on an actor's well-being.
"Random people start these hoaxes; the Internet is a participatory medium," said Kaminsky. "It's one of the first mass medium that has such a participation element for people who want to be a part of the story this is the way to do it – by making things up."
"People just want to matter," said Kaminsky. "There's no money, there's no blog promotion, it's just kids doing stupid stuff."
Boese agrees, "These people are just pranksters being obnoxious."
This is the not the first time hoaxes have spiked after a noteworthy event. Boese recalls when, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people were publishing false reports of anthrax and bomb threats.
David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes.com, Web site that is dedicated to revealing the truth behind urban legends and viral hoaxes, said that it's hard to explain why anyone would want to circulate fake reports of someone's death.
"It's kind of akin to ringing someone's doorbell and running away," said Mikkelson. "Why do people do it? It seems like you're getting away with something and you get to poke fun of someone too."