‘Fake news’ on social media that brought a week I won’t forget

 IN these difficult times no-one needs any additional burden to add to the load. But for the past week a regular correspondent to Inverness news and views, in his late 60s, has been dealing with a situation which flared up inexplicably and traumatically. Here he describes an ordeal in his small Highland town in which, to quote Mark Twain: “The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.”

A phone call to my home from a family friend set in motion a train of events which were far beyond any past experiences, went completely out of control and were excruciatingly difficult to deal with.

When I answered, before the caller said anything I heard a sharp intake of breath, and then: “Is that you?”

An unusual beginning to a phone call. I replied that yes, it was indeed me.

The caller then blurted out: “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d answer. I thought a member of the family would have answered.”

At this point, confused, I sought clarification.

The caller, now obviously in some distress and trying to gather thoughts, said after a pause: “Please don’t get upset by what I’m about to say. It’s a bit difficult. In fact it’s worse than that.”

At this point I’m becoming something like emotional myself, anticipating that news of some family or local tragedy involving people I know well is going to unfold. But no…it was worse than that.

 The caller explained to me in halting and breathless fashion that she was calling the house because she heard I’d died, and wanted to speak to a relative she’d assumed would be there.

What do you say to that? Obviously it came as a shock  – to put it very mildly.  

The confused and distraught caller apologised profusely. The call ended quite quickly. Looking back, oddly enough I didn’t ask where the information had come from. Both of us were, awkwardly, in a bit of a daze.

As you might imagine I was shaken, and that evening went to bed with a distinctly unsettled mind. 

The next morning, however, I was able to smile wryly to myself about the previous evening’s “death call’. It was a one-of Twilight Zone experience. Or so I thought.

But as I was having my first coffee of the day the phone rang. I answered only to be met with another gasp of disbelief. An old school friend had also heard of my untimely demise. He’d received several calls from different people we both had known over the years, and was intending to contact family members to see if he could assist in any way. Very obviously the last person he expected to answer the phone was the dear friend he’d been told was dead.

He was stunned but relieved he could lay to rest in his mind the rumours of my passing. We even managed to joke about it. But it didn’t feel like any joke. News of my departure appeared to be spreading – but where on earth had this rather stunning and acutely personal piece of “fake news” come from?

When a false rumour spreads on social media there’s no way of stopping it.

That morning I very purposely went out and pottered about in the front garden so at least the neighbours up and down the street – in case they heard the same thing – would see that I was still very much alive. Not a reason I’d ever have thought would cause me to do a bit of gardening.

I later ventured into my Highland town centre to visit a couple of shops. Just as I got out of my car a tradesman’s van slowed, the window came down and the driver shouted out: “Hey laddie…you’re in good shape for a dead man.”

Obviously some folk were less stricken by the “bad news” than others.

 A few minutes later another trades van slowed down, and the lad behind the wheel called out: “So the stuff about you being dead isnae true.”

Does an innate sense of black humour come to your rescue in a situation like this? Anymore of it, I thought, and I’d need to place a personal advert in a births, deaths and marriages column under the new heading “actually still living”.

What started out as something which could probably be shrugged off seemed to be gathering momentum and was beginning to have a detrimental affect on me. 

And it didn’t stop there either. I’m reasonably well-known in my town and news of my passing had spread. The startled looks and “back from the dead” comments I just had to deal with. Then go home and have a drink.   

Obviously in an effort to discover where all this had originated I started asking around and discovered that it appeared to have come from a group of folk who meet using the Whatsapp service. 

Somehow – I don’t suppose I’ll ever know exactly how – one of those involved in it had heard something, totally misconstrued it, and passed on the news of my departure to the others. And in today’s frantic social media world, that’s all it takes for word to spread around like wildfire.

And then it moves from the vicarious online world and gets much more credence by people passing on the news in conversations in the street.

I think with due resilience I’ve handled it fairly well. At no point have I felt like bawling like a bull “I’m alive, I’m alive” as I walk along a street.

There may be more of this to come. Once a false rumour like that is out and about, how do you put it back in its box, or maybe its coffin. But – for want of a better pun – I rather fervently hope it’s now dying down.

Is it too much to hope that people on social media might try and check before they pass on a very seriously wrong bit of bad news. Probably these days, it is.

All I can say in conclusion is it’s been a difficult past week. Among life’s many challenges I didn’t really expect to have to deal with news of my own death. Yes, a very difficult and strange week, and one I’ll very definitely remember, that is…for as long as I live.

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