- Devon O'Neil, Writer, Action Sports
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If you believe the Internet, society has lost some of its most popular Hollywood celebrities to snowboarding accidents this winter: Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson, Christian Slater, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Avril Lavigne and, most recently, 12-year-old Jaden Smith.
All were victims of fast-moving rumors that started on a dubious website known -- now better than ever -- as Global Associated News. All were reported to have died in collisions with trees in Zermatt, Switzerland, except for Lavigne, who was alleged to have died in Whistler.
Despite the consistency in reports and their repeatedly proven fiction, each death rumor set the gossip hemisphere afire, leaving it up to millions of celebrity-obsessed fans to investigate each tragedy and break the news of its illegitimacy -- which they did, often with exclamation points.
Simply reading the tiny print at the bottom of each story would deliver a similar result. Though the stories unfold like actual news items, including witness accounts, information on the victims' being airlifted to hospitals and the fact that each "novice" was wearing a helmet, they're followed by a disclaimer: "This story was dynamically generated using a generic 'template' and is not factual. Any reference to specific individuals has been 100% fabricated by web site visitors who have created fake stories by entering a name into a blank 'non-specific' template for the purpose of entertainment."
How twisted has web media become? Basically, with this site, Fakeawish.com, you pick a celebrity then select your choice of death causes, from falling off a cliff in Austria to going missing after a luxury yacht sinks off the coast of St. Tropez.
Nevertheless, we thought it strange that snowboarding would be the culprit in so many of these hoaxes -- instead of, say, heroin. So we consulted one of the experts on such subjects: Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and bestselling author.
"Psychologically, we associate cold, barren landscapes with snow and death," she told ESPN, adding: "People who start these rumors are likely to have participated in skiing or snowboarding themselves and have experienced the feeling of having barely escaped death during some of these runs."
She also believes that while the rumor starters may joke about their favorite movie stars dying, they practice a curious measure of damage control. "Claiming that a celebrity died in a winter sport accident doesn't tarnish their image in the way that an overdose of heroin would," Lieberman said.
The biggest winners in this year's rumor barrage? The resorts at which the celebrities supposedly perished, of course. In italicized, brochure-style text at the bottom of the stories, Zermatt is touted as "Switzerland's best resort" and alleged to "receive huge snowfalls thanks to its altitude."
"That's interesting," Edith Zweifel, media manager for Zermatt Tourism, said in a phone interview, "but we don't advertise in this way. Maybe they get the information off our website. We don't know."