In December 2020, Tiffany Dover, a nurse manager from Tennessee, was interviewed by reporters shortly after receiving her first Covid vaccination. Then, live on television, she passed out. A rumor then spread that Dover was dead and the vaccine was to blame. A few days later, she gave another TV interview announcing that she was fine, but conspiracy theorists argued the footage was fake, claiming it was recorded before her death or that she had been replaced by a look-alike. Since then, Dover has remained silent.
At the beginning of Tiffany Dover is dead, Brandy Zadrozny, an NBC misinformation reporter, sets out to find out if Dover is dead or alive. It’s obviously a useless exercise since we know she’s alive – it’s even stated in the podcast blurb. But Zadrozny is undeterred, searches for documents related to her death (she finds none) and writes to her at home and at the hospital in Chattanooga where she works (her letters go unanswered). Eventually, she gets on a plane with her producer and goes on a lookout in the Chattanooga Hospital parking lot (they don’t spot her).
Zadrozny moves on to the more interesting question of how the conspiracy theory gained traction. She reveals how footage of the Dover fainting appeared on InfoWars, the disinformation website founded by Alex Jones, and later aired on Russian state TV and Austrian and Hungarian channels. Reports online have ranged from a nurse fainting after receiving the vaccine to a nurse dying. Zadrozny explains how Dover “represents what this larger phenomenon of disinformation really is: an ordinary person whose life becomes a weapon in a global information war”. Rumors of his death, she adds, came at a time of hope, when a vaccine became available to fight Covid, but also at a time of heightened anxiety.
It’s the beginning of the series, but the approach seems strange. Zadrozny quickly gleans from colleagues at Dover that she does not want to be contacted – a hospital worker tells her how Dover and her family have been harassed online and in person. Yet here is Zadrozny, crouching outside his workplace and home, and using his name in the title of his podcast in the most flippant way possible. Here are echoes of the 2017 podcast Richard Simmons Missing, in which a documentary filmmaker goes in search of a reclusive TV personality who makes it clear he doesn’t want to be found. Dover’s story is compelling, but there are ways to tell it without encroaching on the life of a woman who clearly wants to stay out of sight.
There are other disinformation stories in the BBC Death by conspiracywhich looks at the case of Gary Matthews, who fell under the spell of pandemic-related conspiracy theories, until he tested positive for Covid-19 and died.