Part of the reason the phenomenon is so pervasive, wrote CNN's John D. Sutter in a 2009 story on online celebrity death hoaxes, is that the Internet has so greatly accelerated the speed of information flow, making it “difficult to verify what’s true and what may be so shockingly false.”
That explains how these rumors spread, but not why people create celebrity death hoaxes in the first place. After all, celebrity death hoaxes predate the Internet. They go back at least to 1897, when, confronted with the news that he had passed away, Mark Twain famously remarked "The report of my death was an exaggeration."
So what do people seek when they construct scenarios in which celebrities die?
In a 2004 article for Psychology Today, Carlin Flora wrote about an encounter with Britney Spears that turned her into a drooling couch potato who fumbled with her words. “It wasn’t that I saw Britney,” she concluded, “it was that Britney saw me.”
It's possible that everybody longs for this kind of attention from a star. And when celebrities are forced to affirm their well-being to the public, as Chan may do in the coming days, it's also possible that the authors of the death hoaxes feel "seen" themselves.