Why it seems like every celebrity death is now a conspiracy theory
- It's becoming increasingly common for far-right users to spin celebrity deaths into conspiracies.
- Conspiracies surrounded the deaths of the Queen, Anne Heche, Bob Saget, and most recently Coolio.
Immediately after Coolio died in late September, far-right circles lit up with baseless conspiracy theories about his death. Some falsely claimed the 59-year-old rapper was killed because he had secret intellgence about the inner-workings of the music industry and was going to expose elites for human trafficking. Others spread anti-vaccine misinformation that the COVID-19 vaccine killed him.
Only a minute after announcing Coolio's death on his podcast TimCast, commentator Tim Pool began referencing recent heart disease-related deaths.
"You're not allowed to ask any questions about that," Richie McGinniss, a Daily Caller video editor who was a guest on the show, told Pool. "This program was brought to you by Pfizer," he added, sarcastically referencing the pharmaceutical corporation.
Coolio death theories are the latest in a string of conspiracies surrounding celebrity deaths that has appeared to escalate with each famous person's passing. The deaths of everyone from actors Bob Saget and Anne Heche to rapper DMX and Queen Elizabeth II have been folded into the lore of conspiracy movements.
Although the deaths of celebrities, who are some of the most visible people in society, have always been fuel for conspiracies — myths surrounding Elvis and Princess Diana's deaths that still persist — it now seems that anyone with any degree of fame is no longer allowed to die a natural death. Instead, dead celebrities are increasingly being co-opted by far-right internet users, including QAnon communities and anti-vaccine groups, to rally people to their cause.
"Conspiracy theories used to be limited in scope and time," Dr. Yotam Ophir, a professor of communications at the University of Buffalo, told Insider, "the new style of conspiracism that we see these days is often all-encompassing, trying to explain pretty much everything that's wrong with this world with one simple explanation."
The impulse to use celebrity deaths as fodder for bigger conspiracy theories has gone into hyperdrive, accelerated by the pandemic and social media.
"If you believe that there's a cabal of nefarious people who are responsible for all that is wrong and bad in the world," Ophir said, "Why not believe that they are behind the deaths of your favorite celebrity."
QAnon adherents spin celebrity deaths into their wider ecosystem of conspiracy theories
Far-right QAnon communities have frequently used celebrity deaths as a way to push their own narratives, such as their fantastical claim that Donald Trump is secretly a savior fighting against an elite group of pedophiles who control the world.
When Queen Elizabeth II died last month at 96, QAnon forums exploded with wild theories. Some QAnon influencers claimed without evidence that the Queen was already dead and that authorities only just now decided to make it public; others said Trump's social media postings suggested he somehow knew of her death before it happened.
QAnon reacted with similar fervor in August after the actress Anne Heche died in a car crash at 53. The movement's adherents proffered a flurry of conspiracy theories, claiming her death was an assassination to cover up Hollywood and Jeffrey Epstein's sex crimes. A tweet that was shared thousands of times and reposted across Facebook falsely claimed that she was working on a movie about Epstein.
After Coolio's death, some QAnon influencers and fringe forum users were quick to suggest he was assassinated as part of a larger plot to keep him from exposing sex traffickers.
Claiming recently deceased figures were "trying to expose the truth" is a "frequent and recurring theme within these movements," according to Aoife Gallagher, a disinformation researcher and author of a book on conspiracy theories.
QAnon followers may attach themselves to celebrity deaths either because claiming a famous person as part of the movement is good for exposure, Gallagher said, or because a conspiratorial mindset leads them to immediately dismiss mainstream news reports as fake.
The anti-vaccine crowd has also latched on to celebrity deaths
Celebrity deaths have consistently been folded into other conspiracy movements in addition to QAnon, including the disproven claim that COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are not safe. Connecting anti-vaccine beliefs with famous deaths is rampant on largely unregulated platforms such as the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Far-right Telegram pages spread rumors that Bob Saget died from the COVID-19 vaccine, after internet users had already spread the same hoax about Betty White. The death of Earl Simmons, best known as the rapper DMX, sparked similar anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. They also proliferated online after Queen Elizabeth II and Coolio's deaths. Each falsehood discounted reams of evidence and basic common sense, but confirmed previous biases and conspiracies for believers.
Gallagher, who works as an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said anti-vaccine rhetoric and celebrity death conspiracy theories have blended over the last few years because anti-vaxxers often claim that the COVID-19 shot is part of a nefarious depopulation plan to intentionally kill mass amounts of people.
"People who believe in this will then see news of sudden celebrity deaths and immediately link it to the vaccine," Gallagher told Insider. "We can expect this to go on for years to be honest, as many of the influencers claim that the vaccines are made to kill people over the space of 5-10 years."
After any reasonably well-known celebrity dies — especially if the cause of death is related to heart issues — it's common to see Twitter posts and Telegram messages asking whether the person took the "jab," appearing to imply the COVID-19 shot likely killed them.
The impulse to spread baseless conspiracy theories has accelerated in recent years
Conspiracy theories about celebrity deaths have existed for decades. Feverish conspiracy thinking — from lighthearted beliefs to obsessive fixations — surrounded the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Paul McCartney, Elvis, Princess Diana, and numerous others.
But in the last several years, following the growth of QAnon and a web of other conspiracy movements — COVID-19 denialism, election fraud claims — these celebrity death conspiracy theories have accelerated.
Both Ophir and Gallagher pointed to the technological environment and social media algorithms as a prime driver behind the increased speed with which these baseless theories spread. More people are creating and spreading conspiracy theories in siloed chambers like Telegram, while the engagement-driven format of online posting on social media like Twitter means that disinformation can become a hashtag and spread at scale before the platform has time to remove it.
"A beloved celebrity attracts attention anyway, and if one comes up with the most outrageous, surprising, and emotional story to explain the death, the algorithm will prioritize this information over the 'boring' truth," Ophir said. "That people die because we all simply do eventually."
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