You may not know who Tiffany Dover is, but a small faction of Americans are obsessed with her.
In late 2020, a rumor started circulating online that Tiffany Dover, a nurse in Tennessee, had died after receiving her COVID-19 vaccination shot. But none of that was true: Despite any claims otherwise, Dover is very much alive. 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 takes on a single anti-vaccine misinformation narrative about Tiffany Dover, who fainted live on television after receiving her first inoculation against COVID-19. Since then, a story has persisted within anti-vaccine communities that the shot killed Dover, and that the hospital and government is trying to cover it up. Zadronzny hopes to to use her audio form series to not only debunk the myth at hand, but to show the process by which vulnerable people get sucked into lies.
She sat down with Fast Company to discuss her new series, Tiffany Dover is Dead*, which debuted today. The conversation below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve been reporting on 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 like, “oh, I’m desperate to do a podcast,” but I did want to do this story. And because of the complexity of this story, it wouldn’t have worked as a feature. I’m not a fact-checker so I couldn’t just do a quick story on it. A lot of it’s very sticky and confusing, and it’s just got so much nuance that there’s really no other way for it to get done. And NBC was just starting to build out—they just had Southlake, which did so well— and they’re just starting to really build their podcasts. And the folks there thought it might be a good idea, because I’ve been talking about this story with anyone who would listen for a good year.
Tell me about how you decided to approach this story.
So this is a story about a single piece of misinformation—there are thousands of pieces of misinformation swirling around the internet at any possible time. What we all do a lot of the time is play whack-a-mole. We’re trying to beat these lies down as fast as we can; we’re putting out fires really. And this is an opportunity to really blow up a single piece of misinformation and look at it from all of its facets. I like looking at the real people who are affected by misinformation. In this case, how does it affect Tiffany Dover? I think that’s a very important question, but the true cost of misinformation is so much greater than that.
How does this one single piece of misinformation affect other misinformation-spreaders? How does it affect and how has it strengthened the anti-vaccination movement? How has it affected conspiracy theorists? How has it affected people who are vaccine hesitant, who have heard this story and believed it? These strings take a lot of time to figure out, and I think it can be really hard to tell the true harms of misinformation. To really be able to take several months and say, “I’m going to follow this one conspiracy theory, this one use of misinformation and see where it leads”—I think it’s pretty illuminating.
You’re making me realize there’s a question I missed that I should have asked you first: Why Tiffany Dover?
It’s two things. The first is that it’s so stupid. This is a person who is alive. This is— I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying it—really easily verified. The fact that it’s had such staying power, even though it’s so easily refutable, that’s wild to me.
The second thing is that it has a power within certain communities that is just astonishing to me. Like one prominent anti-vaccination activist called it the gift from God, because this particular moment—when Tiffany passed out on camera—was happening as the vaccines were rolling out for healthcare professionals, when nurses were rolling up their sleeves—it was very emotional. They were getting emotional, because they had been treating COVID patients and it was the first real time that a lot of people saw anybody being vaccinated for COVID. And so that moment where she passed out, and the resulting misinformation from that, was just seared in the minds of so many people. Finding a way to debunk that that was bigger than just a fact-check, that was really debunking it, I thought could actually make a difference. All the people who use this story to spread further misinformation or to build their brands as anti-vaccine influencers or whatever else—I feel like they never have to answer for spreading that misinformation. For all of the people who initially spread this and continue to spread it, I feel like I want them to have to say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”
You did a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. Did your work there inform this project at all?
I’m still actually doing the fellowship. I’m a part-time fellow. I’m working with some truly brilliant researchers. It’s [Shorenstein research director] Joan Donovan’s shop at the Technology and Social Change Project. I wanted to do something that was beyond my normal beat and research the pivotal moments in the creation of social media, where maybe some fundamental mistakes were made and where alternate paths may exist. I’m talking with people about how we could have done things differently and what the future holds. It’s definitely made me feel a little more positive, and that has been just great because that’s not what my work is generally known for.
Do you think it’s possible to really convince people who have previously misled by misinformation? Why does this format have a better opportunity to do that your other reporting?
People who are really good at misinformation, and I have a similar tactic, and that is good stories with good characters, memorably told so that it stays with someone. So my hope is that when you listen to the podcast and you hear this entire story, that these stories stay with you. There is research that says when people realize that they’ve made a mistake and they’ve been culpable in spreading this information that they’ll think twice before they do it again. They express sincere regret and they try not to make the same mistake again. I think it’s an opportunity not only to hold some powerful, bad actors to account, but also we lightly nudge people who might have been involved in spreading this or something like it to do better.
It also seems to give you an opportunity to devote the same amount of time to this narrative that someone like a YouTuber might.
One hundred percent. The power of online creators—and especially in the conspiracy theory community—is that they have all the space 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 psyched about the ability of having that level of storytelling.
I had a conversation with Joan Donovan once and, she said that one of the most difficult things about misinformation is just what we’re talking about: You have these people who just have the time to both create the content and to spread it. You don’t have the same resources going towards the truth in that way.
One hundred percent. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever been able to feel like I have a chance of really combating something that’s just a viral piece of misinformation. I feel like I got ’em. It has a chance to break through because humans are creatures that like stories, and we like them well told. News organizations, we don’t typically work that way in terms of combating misinformation. This definitely does that; if we have to use a little bit of true crime to get you there that’s fine with me.