Stephen Hawking and Celebrity Deaths: Trolls, Tears and Social Media

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For folks in the United States and much of the Western world, renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, who passed away early today, March 14, in Cambridge, is the most famous person to die thus far in 2018, and the social-media reactions vary from heartfelt tributes to bizarre takes along the lines of a Facebook item that reads, "Stop trolling. Stephen Hawking is not dead. Chairs can't die."

Such reactions are to be expected according to a recent report by University of Colorado Boulder researchers. The study documents the contrast between posts displaying abject torment and ones from self-appointed members of the so-called grief police and theorizes that these polarizing reactions stem from disputes over whether digital destinations such as comment sections on Facebook posts about star deaths are appropriate places to mourn.

"How people govern each other in public spaces is the main reason we're seeing negativity and argument," says Katie Gach, a Ph.D. student at CU's ATLAS Institute and co-author (with Casey Fiesler and Dr. Jed Brubaker) of "'Control Your Emotions, Potter': An Analysis of Grief Policing on Facebook in Response to Celebrity Death," a paper accessible below in its entirety.

She adds, "There's no agreement about what this space is for. Is this a virtual wake, or is this someone's living room, where they shouldn't be subjected to these things?"

Over the years, Gach has been fascinated by the way celebrity passings stir emotions among fans and naysayers alike.

"I noticed the responses to the deaths of people like Robin Williams and Whitney Houston — really iconic public figures," she recalls. "I thought it was so interesting that you can genuinely feel grief or a connection to someone you didn't even know — and I think it was really difficult for people to know that Robin Williams's life ended in suicide, because he was such a source of joy for them. That caused a lot of divisiveness."

After Gach began working with Brubaker, an assistant professor specializing in information science, her interest in online identity grew — and then, in January 2016, she says, "David Bowie and Alan Rickman," an actor best known for playing Snape in the Harry Potter films, "passed away within a day of each other. And the reaction made me think it was the universe telling me I should look into this."

Using Bowie, Rickman and Prince (who died that April) as subjects, Gach and company poured through more than 7,000 Facebook comments, and the results were fascinating.

"It was so different with all three of them," she recalls. "There was a lot of sadness over David Bowie, but there were also accusations about him supposedly having relationships with minors earlier in his career. The words 'pedophile' and 'predator' were thrown around, with some people saying he didn't deserve to be mourned publicly for those reasons. Some similar issues came up with Prince, too."

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