A great man dies. Two years pass. Then he dies again.
This is not a modern koan. This is real life. This morning, tweets and status updates mourning the passing of Chinua Achebe, the legendary Nigerian writer and author of Things Fall Apart, were scattered across Twitter and Facebook. But what’s odd about this particular instance of collective grieving on social media is a sobering fact: Achebe died in 2013.
How did this happen? Here’s what I’ve been able to glean so far: A link to Achebe’s New York Times obituary (dated: March 22, 2013) appears to have been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter this morning, usually appended with some variation of “RIP Chinua Achebe.” It isn’t hard to imagine how this happened: Someone reposted the article on Achebe’s two-year death anniversary, likely on Facebook. (I couldn’t pinpoint the exact source. If you know something, drop me a line below.) Then, someone else who didn’t know that the author had passed two years ago came across the article, felt a tug on their heartstrings, and was compelled to reshare the article with their network without checking the publish date.
At some point this morning, the post appeared on Hacker News bearing the obituary’s original headline; many of the status updates shared on social media do the same. This was then repeatedly amplified until, eventually, it crossed the path of White House national security adviser Susan Rice, who seemingly wasn’t aware that Achebe had been laid to rest two years ago.
She deleted her posts about an hour later. A similar instance of re-grieving occurred just in February, when users tweeted their condolences about the passing of the artist Tony Hart. Hart died in 2009.
Awkward? A little. Clearly something was lost in translation. You might be able to forgive someone who wasn’t plugged into the literary world for not knowing. For example, when Achebe died in 2013, it was a Thursday. The news reports circulated on a Friday before appearing in the Times print edition on Saturday morning. It’s understandable that folks who unplug from Twitter and Facebook for the weekend wouldn’t have been aware of his death. And with the news cycle as condensed as it is, the mourning period might have petered out by Sunday. Moreover, there were a lot of big events happening around the world on March 21-22, 2013: violence in Gaza, an Al Qaeda insurgency, a Syrian civil war, a helicopter crash in Berlin, a Chinese tornado, Pakistani drone attacks, heavy snow in the UK, tourists kidnapped in Egypt, a shooting at a Marine base in Virginia. And on and on. Things fall apart, indeed.
Today’s re-grievance is, in many ways, a spread of misinformation–a game of telephone that has been slow to self-correct. And it looks very likely that this particular game of telephone originated on Facebook–we’ve reached out to the social network to pinpoint the post that ignited this latest round of post-mortem passion. We’ll update this post as soon as we hear back.
Meanwhile, the basic message stands, and the impulse to reshare is a testament to the author’s legacy as much as it is a weakness of social media’s ability to police itself for veracity. So, RIP Chinua Achebe. You are missed. Still.