Welcome to one of the internet’s weirdest obsessions. Back in December of 2020, a nurse named Tiffany Dover fainted on camera while she was talking to reporters after getting her first COVID shot. She got right back up and gave another interview, but it was too late. A conspiracy theory was already racing around the world: Dover had died. She’d been replaced by a body double. And an ever-expanding list of conspirators was in on the cover-up, including the drug companies, the hospital, the media, and maybe even the Pope. Tiffany Dover is alive and well, but she’s stayed silent through it all. And now her story has been hijacked by total strangers trying to make people doubt the safety of the COVID vaccine. In this first season of Truthers, a podcast project about misinformation and conspiracy theories, NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny sets out to show what’s true and what isn’t—and how one person’s life became a weapon in a global information war.
Nine months after this series ended without landing an on the record interview with its subject, host Brandy Zadrozny wakes up to a text message: “While I did not die that day, the life I knew did.” It’s signed “Tiffany Dover.” The missive sends Brandy back to Chattanooga and Higdon, where this time she’s invited in by Tiffany herself. Now, for the first time, Tiffany Dover tells her side of the story—and describes what life is like at the center of a remarkably durable antivax conspiracy theory. Finally, Brandy goes back to the truthers who promised they’d recant—or pay up—if she produced an interview with Tiffany.
Brandy heads back to Chattanooga and Higdon, Alabama, a third time. Knocking on doors has yielded some results – the most promising being word from Tiffany’s sister-in-law, Ashley, that Tiffany does want to talk and is only waiting for some sort of NDA to run out. So, in town again, Brandy leaves a note at a house she thinks belongs to Tiffany’s in-laws, and, while refueling at the local pizza place, receives a totally unexpected text: “I got your letter. I will tell a great story about everything that happened, but only to the one who pays the most. So what are you paying?” The person who sent the text turns out to be a family member she hadn’t interacted with before, a 19-year-old who tells Brandy it was her aunt Debbie, Tiffany’s mother-in-law, who told her to send it. Tracking down Debbie herself gets the best result so far, and, armed with new evidence, Brandy confronts a hard-core Tiffany truther.
A very strange – and very visual – story of a vaccine injury predates Tiffany Dover by almost 10 years. The woman at the center of it now says she was taken advantage of – by the media, by the anti-vaccination movement, including Jenny McCarthy, and by Dr. Rashid Buttar, who she called a “money hungry, ego-maniac.” This same Dr. Buttar also leapt on Tiffany’s story, using it to advance his idea that the vaccines are deadly. He was following the anti-vaccination movement’s playbook: Seize on a novel story, ride it as far as it’ll go, discard, repeat. There was a panic in the early ‘80s, another in the late ‘90s, and a peak in the mid-2000s. The current push to sow doubt in vaccines is led by people seasoned from those battles, especially Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But something new is happening this time, as those drawn in by Covid, people like tech millionaire Steve Kirsch, produce wrenching videos that don’t need mainstream media airtime to spread. People like the protestors at a January march in Washington D.C. seem more open to the possibility of a dark global plot—and joining the new resistance.
Tiffany Dover isn’t the only person who knows what it’s like to have strangers on the internet take her story, twist the facts, and turn it into a weapon. Last September Amanda Makulec’s youngest son, Zander, died unexpectedly, just shy of three months old. Someone took the tweet where Amanda told her friends and family what had happened and pasted it next to another tweet of hers from two months earlier -- where she had written about her relief at being vaccinated while pregnant. The juxtaposition turned her into an anti-vaxx meme, and her story ended up on TheCovidBlog, a website dedicated to spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation. Brandy visits Amanda and then goes to meet the site's owner, and only author: a 47-year-old Iowa man named Brian Wilkins, who’s written that Tiffany Dover is “one of the early cases that inspired the creation of this blog.” Brian's mission is to lead as many people away from vaccination as possible, relentlessly casting doubt on accepted science. But now, Brandy learns, a committed group of doctors is starting to fight back.
Brandy’s attempts to get in touch with Tiffany Dover are yielding only silence. So she heads to Chattanooga to prove that she’s alive—or at least, not dead. After stakeouts at Tiffany’s house and workplace don’t pan out, Brandy searches everywhere for records: the police department, the Office of Vital Records, grave registries. Nothing. Brandy meets with the local TV reporter who covered the vaccination event, and who got caught up in the conspiracy theory herself, and she questions a hospital official about CHI Memorial’s handling of the incident. Meanwhile, the theory is rolling right along, spreading more lies, and dragging in new victims.
The story of Tiffany Dover begins, ironically, in a moment of hope. The COVID vaccine is finally arriving in communities across America. Tiffany, the head nurse in her hospital’s COVID unit, proudly gets the shot, and then faints while taking questions about it. As she falls into the arms of the doctors standing behind her, the local news cameras turn away. By the time she returns to the podium 20 minutes later, a new conspiracy theory has been hatched: Tiffany Dover had died and been replaced by a body double. Brandy Zadrozny sets out to trace how the theory started, and to find the people who are keeping it going—those who truly believe that vaccines kill, and those who are just addicted to the game.
Tiffany Dover was one of the first Americans to get the COVID vaccine—and she got it live on camera, at the hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she works as a nurse. “I'm sorry, I'm feeling really dizzy. I'm sorry,” Dover said while taking questions afterward. Then she fainted. Twenty minutes later, Dover was back in front of the camera. “I feel fine now,” she said. And she was totally fine. But thousands of people online had already made up their minds: Tiffany Dover was dead. And they were going to prove it.