For weeks now, commenters have flooded Tennessee nurse Tiffany Dover’s Facebook wall with messages of tribute, praising her kindness and beauty and offering their condolences for her loss.
“Tiffany died a hero,” they wrote—and “RIP Angel.”
There are more than 22,000 comments on her last Facebook post, from people around the world—a collective grieving and outpouring of anger for the 30-year-old mother of two.
But Tiffany Dover is not dead.
According to all official sources, she is alive and well and working as a nurse at CHI Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga. Last week, she was pictured on the front of the local newspaper caring for a north Georgia police chief who had been in the hospital for nearly 100 days.
Dover is not the victim of some medical mishap, as her mourners allege, but of a massive global conspiracy theory that has united anti-vaxxers and COVID skeptics in a dangerous attempt to prove themselves right.
The outcry started in mid-December, when six staff members at CHI Memorial Hospital were selected to receive their first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on live TV. Dover, a nurse manager at the hospital, was one of them. Speaking with reporters that day, she called the vaccine a symbol of hope, a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
In the video, Dover can be seen getting the injection in her left arm, her deep-set blue eyes shining over the top of her surgical mask. A few minutes later, she stands to take questions from reporters, then stops and puts her hand to her head. She tells reporters she feels dizzy. Then she sinks slowly to her knees. Two other employees rush to her side to catch her before she hits the ground.
Minutes later, Dover is back on her feet, telling television cameras that she suffers from a medical condition that makes her prone to fainting. “I have a history of having an overactive vagal response, and so with that if I have pain from anything—hangnail or if I stub my toe—I can just pass out,” she said.
It was a dramatic moment with a simple explanation: a common and largely benign medical condition that affects some 20 percent of the population. But for vaccine skeptics, it was all they needed to construct a vast conspiracy—and incite a targeted harassment campaign that shows no signs of stopping.
It’s hard to pin down where, exactly, a conspiracy theory starts. It derives power from being seemingly everywhere at once, simultaneously unprovable and unimpeachable. But what we know about the Tiffany Dover conspiracy theory is this: Someone deceptively edited the video of her vaccination to make it look like she had died, leaving out the footage of her post-recovery interview. The video circulated on anti-vaxx Facebook pages and other social media accounts, accruing enough critical mass that by the time people got the facts, they weren’t interested in them at all. They were convinced a nurse had died, and they were going to get to the bottom of it.
In the days following the broadcast, commenters from around the world flooded CHI Memorial’s social media pages and even called the hospital, demanding proof that Dover was alive. Others sought out her friends and family, posting on their walls and Instagram pages demanding information. As evidence, they circulated screenshots of what they said was Dover’s death report on SearchQuarry.com—a website that will give an identical, similarly morbid result to anyone who enters their name.
By Dec. 19, the uproar was so intense that the hospital was forced to issue a tweet saying that Dover was “home and doing well” and asking for privacy for the nurse and her family. That tweet, too, was flooded with comments. “Send a picture of her with a newspaper of the day,” one wrote. “I want to see a video of her talking about it,” said another. (This according to screenshots taken at the time; the hospital's account has since been made private.)
With the conspiracy theorists only getting louder, on Dec. 21 the hospital took the extraordinary step of releasing what was essentially a proof-of-life video. The 20-second clip shows Dover standing on a staircase in the hospital, surrounded by other nurses holding signs with the day’s date and the hashtag “CHIMemorialStrong.” In a statement at the time, a hospital spokesperson said CHI was “aware of the multitude of false information circulating on social media about Tiffany Dover,” and had shot the video to “clear up many of the circulating rumors.”
Of course, it did nothing of the sort.
C-H-I Memorial says a nurse who fainted after receiving a Covid vaccine is doing well.
The hospital posted a video on Facebook today, showing members of the hospital staff surrounding Tiffany Dover. pic.twitter.com/fSf5uui8Zx
— Josh Roe NC9 (@joshroe) December 22, 2020
Six weeks and countless fact-checks and debunkings later, the Dover conspiracy continues to spread. On top of the comments on Dover’s Facebook post, there are more than 11,000 on her latest Instagram—the most recent of which were posted today. “Checking in again,” one user wrote recently. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop until we get an answer guys.” The comment has more than 200 likes.
Facebook has hidden many search results for her name, but a Daily Beast analysis found more than 400 posts about Dover currently available on the site—most of them containing false information. Hundreds more such posts are available on Twitter. At least two Facebook groups dedicated exclusively to the Dover conspiracy are still active, with thousands of members each. And comments about her pop up in others like "Fauci, Gates & Soros to prison worldwide Resistance” and "STOP The Great Reset”—a reference to another conspiracy theory about “global elites” using the pandemic to establish a totalitarian regime.
The groups serve as an echo chamber where users share vaccine misinformation, and an organizing space where they urge each other to “investigate” and spread the conspiracy further.
"It's starting to go viral, lets[sic] push it,” one user wrote recently in the “Justice for Tiffany Pontes Dover” group, which has nearly 3,000 members. “Post, tweet, share [this] link as a comment on public fb pages, mewe, youtube, news media, etc. The general public ‘just doesn't know.’”
Elisa Myzal, a spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department, told The Daily Beast the department’s social media had been flooded with comments about Dover, asking whether they were investigating her disappearance. (They are not, she confirmed, because there is nothing to investigate.) Just this week, the department received a call from a German radio host whose listeners apparently wanted more information.
The only thing Myzal could compare it to was a few years ago, when a rumor started circulating about young women getting abducted outside the local mall. At the time, the police department was able to confirm that they had received no such reports, and put out a statement to that effect. But the Dover situation left Myzal struggling for a response.
“The police department isn’t involved in this at all because there's no crime, no death, no nothing,” Myzal said. “So we don't really have a strategy or a response."
Personally, she added, “I just ignore them. You don't believe what you saw with your own eyes, so why are you going to believe me?"
Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings, also heard about Dover from a Facebook group—though not the conspiracy theory kind. Reiss is a pro-vaccine advocate, who spends her working hours writing about vaccination in the law and her leisure time fighting anti-vaxx social media posts. That was what she was doing when she stumbled upon a post about Dover.
To Reiss, the targeting of Dover and her family members crossed the line from conspiracy theory to harassment. She has previously counseled doctors and other clinicians who were hounded by anti-vaxxers, and sees it as a way to silence pro-vaccine views.
“If you are one person and you suddenly get hundreds or thousands of messages, some of them full of hate, it can be very traumatic,” she told The Daily Beast. “It can have a real deterrent effect on posting positive messages about the vaccine.”
It is hard to see the treatment of Dover and her family as anything but harassment. In the comments on her Facebook wall, people have suggested going to her house or workplace, tracking down her family members, and even searching out the parents of her children’s friends. “Why isn’t anyone that lives close to her figuring out where her kids go to school or where her husband works or where they live and waiting and trying to snap a picture of her coming or going?!?” one commenter recently asked. "Can someone living in Alabama just take a quick ride over to their place to see what’s going on?” another added. “Message me if you’re near Higdon."
When her brother-in-law shared an article debunking claims that Dover was dead, more than 260 people left angry comments. "How much money do they pay you all that you post this? She is dead and you know,” one person wrote. Under a similar post by her sister-in-law, which attracted nearly 900 comments, someone added: "your entire family is disgusting that you dont let Tiffany speak herself!"
The comments were somewhat ironic, given that the anti-vaxxers had been asking Dover's family members to comment on her wellbeing for days. But every time someone did so, the theorists upped the ante: First they needed to hear it from the hospital, then from the family, then from Dover herself. When her father-in-law posted that she was fine, and that the hospital had simply instructed them to let the lawyers handle things, the theorists turned his words against him: “Why does someone who’s healthy and safe need lawyers?" one wondered under his post.
In a comment under her own Instagram post, which included photos of Dover over the Christmas holiday, the nurse’s sister-in-law unleashed a rare display of frustration at having her every move scrutinized and flipped upside down:
“All of y’all stop acting like your entitled to know anything,” she added. “It’s none of your dang business. I’m honestly disgusted with people right now. We can’t even go on a family vacation for Christmas without being harassed. I’m sick of it. TIFFANY IS ALIVE AND FINE.”
Reiss has jumped into the comments section herself, often leaving messages in support of Dover and her family members. She has also written a blog post about the conspiracy and reached out to Dover’s family to offer her support. (She has not spoken with them directly.)
The vitriol directed at Dover and her family is nothing the law professor hasn’t seen before. She has counseled anti-vaxxer victims who were forced to hire lawyers and doctors who took on social media managers just to handle the onslaught. What has changed most during the pandemic, she said, is not anti-vaxxers’ behavior, but the number of people who are willing to listen to them.
“COVID has been a national trauma,” Reiss said. “More people are vulnerable, more people are looking for answers, more people are mistrustful of public health officials … and that makes more people vulnerable to conspiracy theories.”
She added: “Anyone can get trapped in an alternative reality conspiracy theory if they fall in the wrong moment.”
More than 8,000 miles away from Reiss, Australian Michelle Millmann also spends much of her free time on Facebook. In and out of lockdown, with no job and no one to see besides her family, she spends up to 10 hours a day managing a Facebook group titled “Where is Tiffany Dover?”
The group has more than 5,000 members and averages 30 posts a day. Recent posts include a video edited to make it look like a nurse was vaccinated with an empty syringe, and another claiming Bill Gates had a body double get the vaccine in his place. (The video is titled: “EARGATE- THE GROWING MYSTERY OF BILL GATES EAR.”) Recently, when someone shared the photo of Dover caring for the police chief in the hospital, members insisted she had a body double, too.
Millmann insists she is not an anti-vaxxer, and that both she and her child are fully vaccinated. She says she was terrified of the virus at the beginning—making her husband and son change clothes every time they entered the house—but slowly started questioning its seriousness. (A quick browse of her Facebook “likes” shows she follows Tucker Carlson, Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, and right-wing commentator Dan Bongino—all media figures who have downplayed the virus.)
That led Millmann to question pandemic-related restrictions, which led her to question the vaccine effort, which led her to Tiffany Dover. When she saw the video of the nurse fainting, she said, “it just really struck a chord with me.”
“I was terrified for her because I thought, ‘She’s got two little kids, she’s a mom, she’s gone to work one day to be a spokesperson for the Pfizer vaccine and then... nothing.’” she said. “In my heart, I believe something has happened to her.”
Millmann is convinced that she and her group members are doing a public service, and is furious that Facebook fact-checks or removes their posts. She also feels absolutely no guilt about spreading rumors that have led to harassment of Dover and her family. “Not at all,” she said when asked about it. “Why would I?”
In her interview, Reiss referenced the term “crank magnetism,” or the propensity for one conspiracy theory to make people vulnerable to others. And in a 30-minute conversation, Millmann rattled off an astounding number of them: that car accident victims were being recorded as COVID deaths, that Bill Gates gave seminars about a new world order; that the virus was created in a Wuhan lab. Her voice rose as she talked about the virus, the vaccine, the American presidential election. If America collapsed, she wanted to know, who was to stop China from invading Australia? What if this was all a plan for a global elite takeover?
She sounded, as Reiss suggested, vulnerable, distrustful, and desperate for answers.
“I'm not usually a conspiracy theorist, believe it or not,” she insisted. “But I don't know, with everything that's going on in America and around the world… you seriously have to be questioning what the hell is going on."
Asked whether these fears developed recently, since the pandemic started, she responded: "Absolutely.”
There was a belief, at the beginning of the pandemic, that the disruption and devastation caused by the virus would convince skeptics of the value of vaccines.
Instead, anti-vaxxer have made the global tragedy their veritable Super Bowl. The vaccine development process has given them a spotlight for their misinformation, and frustration over public health restrictions has created a new population of aggrieved potential converts. Meanwhile, the spread of other conspiracies like QAnon has undermined faith in institutions and loosened a swath of America’s grip on reality.
According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, anti-vaxx social media accounts gained more than 10 million followers over the last year.
“There is an identifiable counterforce trying to persuade people Covid isn’t dangerous, vaccines are dangerous, and that doctors and scientists cannot be trusted,” the group warned in its latest report. “We need to adapt or risk losing.”
Around the same time Dover got her shot, vaccine skeptics began claiming that a different, recently vaccinated nurse had been found dead in her home. Some posted messages they described as being from her family members; others identified her as Jennifer McClung, a 54-year-old nurse from Sheffield, Alabama, who had actually died of COVID-19 earlier that month. The state health department was forced to contact every hospital in the state that had administered the vaccine to refute the rumors.
The examples of this are endless. Anti-vaxxers claimed 24 people at a New York nursing home died after receiving the vaccines, neglecting to mention that a COVID outbreak had started at the home before the shots were administered. Others suggested baseball legend Hank Aaron’s death was tied to the vaccine he received earlier this month; the county medical examiner’s office confirmed he died of natural causes.
Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, has spent years studying how anti-vaxx beliefs take hold and spread. Vaccine skepticism, he believes, is less an opinion people hold and more an identity they cling to. Like a sports fan or a science fiction nerd, he said, being an anti-vaxxer is “part of who you are.”
For someone who spends 10 hours a day managing a Facebook group about a single conspiracy theory, then, there is a dangerous need to validate the time you have invested. When a narrative is presented that shakes your sense of self—say, a non-sinister explanation for a nurse fainting after the vaccine—a new story needs to be created to restore the balance.
“When opposition to vaccines becomes part of your identity, it’s difficult to dislodge these things,” he said.
For that reason, he added, it is best not to try to reason with anti-vaxxers at all.
“A lot of people who have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines are people who are persuadable,” he said. “But it’s a folly and it's wasted effort to try to persuade people who keep on moving the goalposts.”
CHI Memorial hospital learned this the hard way. After multiple social media posts, too many incoming phone calls, and that creepy proof-of-life video, a somewhat frustrated-sounding CHI spokesperson responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment by saying they would not be participating in this story. The hospital was “focus[ing] its attention on caring for COVID patients and administering the COVID-19 vaccine,” and Dover was “continu[ing] to focus on her job as a nurse manager caring for patients.”
“We are not continuing to do interviews to once again debunk a myth that has been debunked numerous times by multiple credible news sources,” the spokesperson said. The vaccine rollout would continue as planned.
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