Nelson Mandela ‘death’ hoax tweets cause outrage and anxiety

World icon and former South African president Nelson Mandela joins the company of many other celebrities in the latest Twitter rage: Hoax deaths.

Over the weekend “news” that Nelson Mandela, along with popstar Justin Bieber, had died spread virally across Twitter. In fact, Justin Bieber seems to “die” on an almost daily basis on Twitter and was trending on Sunday night.

The news of Michael Jackson’s death famously first broke on Twitter — and that was no hoax. But following that tragic event, Twitter celebrity death hoaxes have become a favourite sport of a few twisted minds. Similar hoaxes on the social network have targeted singer Aretha Franklin and actors Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman (who played Nelson Mandela in Invictus).

Mandela is increasingly frail and has not appeared publicly since the closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg, so the tragic news of the icon’s death would at first seem plausible. When the news broke on Twitter, which was trending internationally with the hashtag “#RIP Nelson Mandela“, the Nelson Mandela Foundation moved quickly to quash the rumours.

“Nelson Mandela is well and on holiday,” said a spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang, said in a statement late Saturday, denying “unsubstantiated reports about Nelson Mandela’s health.”

The Rapport newspaper also reported that Mandela was alive, but went on to add that the former South African president’s health had declined rapidly.

On Sunday, Twitter users reacted with outrage and indignation to the hoax.

“Nelson Mandela didn’t die!! Who would make such a terrible lie,” one user wrote. “Twitter has been the place for too many death jokes,” another added.

failwhalequotes wrote: “RIP NELSON MANDELA” Twitter needs a lie detector and needs to block trends that are gravely untrue. This is an insult to a true living man.”

“Twitter is a very lousy serial killer! Seriously? …RIP Nelson Mandela? I just got off the phone with the man!” tweeted SirKwameNkrumah.

It is not the first time that Nelson Mandela has been reported dead, in 2003 a “Nelson Mandela is dead” online special report was mistakenly released by, before quickly being withdrawn. It’s not uncommon for media to prepare obituaries and special reports of major world figures long before their actual death — although rather uncommon to mistakenly release these in public. In 2007, US President George W Bush alluded to the former South African leader’s “death” in an embarrassing gaffe while explaining sectarian violence in Iraq.

The African National Congress (ANC) typically reacted strongly to news of the hoax, reports The Times. The ANC seemed unaware that this latest hoax was just one of many happening on Twitter to celebrities around the world on a daily basis.

“The ANC strongly condemns individuals or groupings behind such a hoax, which is meant to create an atmosphere of panic and anxiety in the country,” ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said in a statement.

He said the hoax was not only “malicious but insensitive” to the Madiba family and the South African nation.

“It also goes against the African culture and tradition to claim that a living person is dead,” Mthembu said.

He called on Twitter to investigate and find a way of stamping out the public misuse of its platform.

“Those behind this hoax are certainly people without any interest in the political and economic stability of South Africa, which we very much owe to the immense contribution by comrade Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected President,” Mthembu said.

Twitter’s reputation as a source for breaking news and information is unlikely to be tarnished by this or any other of the multitude of hoaxes that take place on the platform on a daily basis. Experts regularly urge users of the social network to first verify major breaking news events and check original sources before retweeting or reporting on a tweet.

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