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(Dushan Milic for The Globe and Mail)
(Dushan Milic for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

I didn't kill Gordon Lightfoot Add to ...

The un-news was short-lived. On Feb. 18, the media had legendary Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot dead, then un-dead, within the span of about an hour. That was pretty easy for Mr. Lightfoot to clear up, from his car on the way to the dentist.

But my own good no-name, not so much. I, Rebecca Fleming (heard of me? Didn't think so), have been identified by several news sources as ground zero for the rumour. I, a full-time biologist with two little kids recovering from gastroenteritis, apparently have nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon in quarantine than to start celebrity death hoaxes.

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The idea is kind of appealing in principle - having the time, free headspace and lack of conscience to dream up twisted schemes like this. Not to mention having that kind of clout and credibility. Can you imagine? Move over, Perez Hilton.

But alas, my sole claim to infamy is that I, @fleminski, was the first to tweet "RIP Gordon Lightfoot." I had heard the news from a mutual friend of Ronnie Hawkins (who, incidentally, introduced my parents to each other). Someone claiming to be Gordon Lightfoot's grandson started the whole business with a prank call to Mr. Hawkins's management. But nobody seems to be interested in him. He used the telephone. And dude, that's just so 20th century.

If you want to spread things fast, Twitter is your friend. Or your enemy, as the case may be.

I was a Twitter nobody with a mere 100 followers, tweeting just for fun, a molecule in the Twitter sea. But 10 minutes after I posted that seemingly innocent tweet, I got a call from a CanWest reporter. I pretty much had the feeling of floating above my body when I realized the magnitude of what I had done. But my first thought wasn't, "What if it isn't true?" It was, "What if his family doesn't know yet?"

The reporter assured me she had heard the rumour elsewhere and needed a source, so I spilled. Then I set about protecting my tweets in a vain attempt to stop the spread of the news. Not long afterward, I got a tweet from @rootsmusicanada, who had confirmed that Gordon Lightfoot was alive and well. After a brief moment with my head between my knees, trying to maintain consciousness, I posted an apologetic retraction, which went out to, well, nobody, because my tweets were protected.

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Around the same time, I started seeing "RIP Gordon Lightfoot" everywhere. On Facebook, on Twitter and, oh my gosh, in the news. I panicked. I deleted my Twitter account outright (RIP @fleminski) and turned off my computer in the hope that it would all just go away.

It didn't.

By the time I went back online, Gordon Lightfoot was officially undead (phew!) and the witch hunt was on (uh-oh!). Media guru and sleuth Ian Capstick was hot on my trail, and even had my picture and the dreaded tweet in question on his blog. Commenters were gleefully posting personal information about me: my full name, where I lived, whom I worked for. So I did what anybody in my situation would do. I opened a bottle of wine, and began to drink.

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Meanwhile, Ronnie Hawkins, Gordon Lightfoot's production company and the media were unable to make any kind of connection between the phone-call hoax and my tweet, and nobody was quite sure which came first. Of course, @fleminski was nowhere to be found. But never mind that.

In reality, my tweet was a pop rock compared to respected CanWest journalist David Akin's atomic bomb. He innocently tweeted, to his many journalist followers, a CanWest alert: "Gordon Lightfoot has died, sources close to the singer say." Kaboom.

You can figure out the rest.

In the wake of Lightfoot's good-humoured resurrection, a huge blamestorm blew through the media and blogosphere, and few seemed to be able to get the story straight. People largely blamed Twitter and lack of journalistic integrity. And they blamed little old me.

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Hardly anybody seemed to care about the prankster who started this whole thing with a call to Mr. Hawkins's management. But I'm betting even he is surprised at the magnitude of the outcome.

I think this all boils down to the fact that we're human. It's not unusual for people to die. And we're inherently gullible, especially when we have no reason to doubt the story or the source. Ronnie Hawkins believed his management. CanWest and I believed Ronnie Hawkins. David Akin believed CanWest. The rest of the media believed David Akin. Thankfully, Gordon Lightfoot didn't believe the radio, or he wouldn't have made it to his dentist appointment.

Though I wasn't the origin of this hoax, I know that I acted as a significant and unwitting catalyst, and for that I am deeply sorry. I am glad that Gordon Lightfoot lives on to sing about the things that make us all human. Our passions, our fears and, most of all, our mistakes.

Rebecca Fleming lives in Ottawa.

 

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