You may not know who Tiffany Dover is, but a small faction of Americans are obsessed with her.
In late 2020, a rumor began circulating online that Tiffany Dover, a Tennessee nurse, had died after receiving her COVID-19 shot. But none of that was true: despite all claims to the contrary, Dover is alive and well. And Brandy Zadrozny, a journalist known for her extensive reporting on misinformation, wants to prove it to the people spreading these lies.
A senior reporter for NBC News, Zadrozny has spent years on the misinformation beat, covering everything from junk science to online extremism. In this new series, she tackles a single story of anti-vaccine misinformation about Tiffany Dover, who passed out on live TV after receiving her first COVID-19 inoculation. Since then, a story has persisted within anti-vaccine communities that the gunshot killed Dover and that the hospital and the government are trying to cover it up. Zadronzny hopes to use his series of audio forms not only to debunk the current myth, but to show the process by which vulnerable people are sucked into lies.
She sat down with fast business to talk about his new seriesTiffany Dover is deadwho debuted today. The conversation below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve been reporting misinformation for a while. Why did you want to do a podcast?
I don’t know if I wanted to do a podcast? I didn’t think “oh, I desperately want to do a podcast”, but I wanted to do this story. And because of the complexity of that story, it wouldn’t have worked as a feature film. I’m not a fact checker, so I couldn’t just do a quick story on this. Much of it is very sticky and confusing, and there are so many nuances that there really is no other way to do it. And NBC was just starting to grow – they just had southlake, which has worked so well, and they’re just starting to really create their podcasts. And the people there thought that might be a good idea, because I’ve been talking about this story with anyone who wants to listen to it for a good year.
Tell me how you decided to approach this story.
So this is a story about a single misinformation – there are thousands of misinformation floating around the internet at any given time. What we all do most of the time is play the mole. We try to defeat these lies as quickly as possible; we really put out fires. And this is an opportunity to really blast a single misinformation and look at it from all its facets. I love watching real people who are affected by misinformation. If so, how does this affect Tiffany Dover? I think this is a very important question, but the real cost of misinformation is so much higher than that.
How does this single piece of misinformation affect other misinformation spreaders? How does it affect and how has it strengthened the anti-vaccination movement? How has this affected conspiracy theorists? How did this affect the vaccine hesitant people who heard this story and believed it? These channels take a long time to understand, and I think it can be very difficult to tell the true harms of misinformation. To be able to really take several months and say, “I’m going to follow this conspiracy theory, this use of misinformation and see where it leads” — I think that’s pretty enlightening.
You make me realize that there is a question that escaped me and that I should have asked you first: Why Tiffany Dover?
It’s two things. The first is that it’s so stupid. It is a person who is alive. It’s — I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying it — really easy to check. The fact that he had such stamina, even though it’s so easily refuted, is crazy to me.
The second thing is that he has a power within certain communities that just amazes me. As a prominent anti-vaccination campaigner called it God’s gift, because that particular moment – when Tiffany passed out on camera – was happening as vaccines were rolling out for healthcare workers, when nurses rolled up their sleeves – it was very moving. They were getting emotional because they had treated COVID patients and it was the first time a lot of people had seen someone get a COVID shot. And so that moment when she passed out, and the resulting misinformation, has been etched in the minds of so many people. Finding a way to debunk that it was more than just fact checking, it was really demystify it, I thought it might actually make a difference. All the people who use this story to spread more misinformation or to build their brands as anti-vaccine influencers or whatever – I feel like they never have to answer for spreading this misinformation. For all the people who originally posted this and are still posting it, I feel like I want them to have to say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”
You did a fellowship at the Shorestein Center at Harvard. Did your work there influence this project?
I am still doing the scholarship. I am a part-time comrade. I work with really brilliant researchers. It is [Shorenstein research director] Joan Donovan’s shop at the Technology and Social Change project. I wanted to do something that went beyond my usual pace and seek out pivotal moments in the making of social media, where fundamental mistakes may have been made and alternative paths may exist. I talk with people about how we could have done things differently and what the future holds. It definitely made me feel a bit more positive, and that’s just great because that’s not what my job is generally known for.
Do you think it is possible to really convince people who have already been misled by misinformation? Why does this format have a better opportunity to do than your other reports?
People who are really good at disinformation, and I have a similar tactic, and it’s good stories with good characters, told in a memorable way so they stick with someone. So hopefully when you listen to the podcast and hear all of this story, those stories stay with you. There’s research that says when people realize they’ve made a mistake and they’ve been guilty of spreading that information, they’ll think twice before doing it again. They express genuine regret and try not to make the same mistake again. I think this is an opportunity to not only hold some powerful and bad actors to account, but also to lightly nudge people who might have been involved in spreading this or something to do better.
It also seems to give you the opportunity to dedicate the same amount of time to this story as someone like a YouTuber might.
One hundred percent. The power of creators online – and especially in the conspiracy theory community – is that they have all the place in the world, right? And I have between 1,000 and 10,000 words on the best day. And it’s just not as powerful as a really well-produced video. I’m super excited about the ability to have that level of storytelling.
I had a conversation with Joan Donovan once, and she said one of the hardest things about misinformation is exactly what we’re talking about: you have these people who just have time to create the content and to spread it. You don’t have the same resources to get to the truth that way.
One hundred percent. This is one of the first times I could feel like I had a chance to really fight something that is just viral misinformation. I feel like I have them. It has a chance to break through because humans are story-loving creatures, and we like them told. News organizations, we don’t usually work that way in terms of countering misinformation. It certainly does that; if we have to use a bit of true crime to get you there, that’s fine with me.