Now That Cher is Dead


Alison Shanahan

When Margaret Thatcher was checked into a hospital this past Monday, the world watched with bated breath. Long suffering from dementia [1], Baroness Thatcher was 87. Her odds for survival were not good.

Unsurprisingly, when her death was announced, social media was ready. The website, started in June of 2010, changed from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ before taking to Twitter. Among the first wave of celebrators, they asked: “How are you celebrating? Let us know using the #nowthatchersdead hashtag on Twitter, or get to one of the parties near you on Facebook” [2].

According to NPR, it took about four minutes for someone to misread the hashtag: “So sad to hear that Cher is dead. #nowthatcherisdead.” Others joined in, lamenting the supposed death of Cher [3].

The situation is comedic, and observers suggest using capitalization in hashtags to avoid future confusion [4]. However, there is a different way to interpret the laughable mix up: a lot of Twitter users (probably Americans) did not know or care that ex-prime minister Thatcher was dead.

Of course, there are already underlying differences in the American and British responses to Thatcher’s death. While Buzzfeed is known more for entertainment than political coverage, their image comparing the British and American tweets after Thatcher’s death shows signs of the national difference. While Americans tended to react sympathetically to the news, several British users rejoiced at her death [5]. Although this is an overgeneralization of the reactions to Thatcher’s complex legacy [6], it illustrates a divide in reactions.

However, it seems likely that the Twitter users who thought Cher was dead had little opinion on Thatcher’s politics. A 2009 survey on international affairs found that the U.S. performed the worst, scoring several percentage points lower than the sampled European countries. NYU sociologist Dalton Conley points out that the U.S. has one of the highest levels of income inequality, and poor citizens without access to education or recent immigrants who barely speak English skew the results of surveys like this. Comparing native, educated adults, the results are similar [6]. Still, the uneducated population cannot be ignored when it comes to civic matters. Civic ignorance reins in the United States. Consider a 2011 Newsweek poll that found 73% of Americans did not know why the U.S. fought the Cold War and 29% could not name the vice president.

Results like these are part of a long trend of ignorance, but are quite important now. As Stanford professor James Fishkin points out, while Americans have strong value judgments about topics such as government spending, they tend to agree on policy adjustments when they learn the specific budget constraints [6].

If knowledge can decrease the partisan divide, it should be in our national interest to educate and stay educated. We live in a world where we can spread false word about a celebrity’s death within minutes. We don’t lack in technology, but we may lack in willpower to stay updated. Whether you believe in life after love, a free market economy, or a combination of the two, it is well worth your time to follow current affairs.

[Image credit]