A fake tweet spurred an anti-vaccine harassment campaign against a doctor
When Dr. Natalia Solenkova woke up Monday morning, she was greeted with a flood of Twitter notifications on her phone. The Miami critical care physician had hundreds of new followers, and they, along with thousands of others on Twitter, were angry with her.
In tweets, comments and direct messages across Twitter and other social platforms, strangers demanded to know why she had deleted a tweet that read: “I will never regret the vaccine. Even if it turns out I injected actual poison and have only days to live. My heart and is was in the right place. I got vaccinated out of love, while antivaxxers did everything out of hate. If I have to die because of my love for the world, then so be it. But I will never regret or apologize for it.”
Solenkova hadn’t deleted the tweet. In fact, she hadn’t written it at all. It was what misinformation researchers call a “cheap fake,” a term for a piece of fake media such as an image or video that takes little effort to produce. Someone had clumsily altered one of Solenkova’s posts to portray a blind, even deadly, zealotry for Covid vaccines and a vilification of anti-vaccine activists.
Over the next few days, despite Solenkova’s protestations and pleas to Twitter to stop the spread of the image, the fake tweet would go viral across the right-wing internet and serve as fodder for a popular and increasingly rabid anti-vaccination movement. The tweet would even make it to the popular podcast of Joe Rogan, who would later apologize for discussing it.
Solenkova knew what was coming next — a wave of harassment. She didn’t pay much mind to the comments and messages saying she was a terrible doctor, that she shouldn’t be practicing, that she was murdering people. She ignored the hateful direct messages in her private, personal accounts.
“I purposefully didn’t spend a lot of time reading them, because I just wanted to find the original tweet and get it removed,” she said. “This time I didn’t come across death threats, but I’m not looking. I’ve probably blocked a thousand accounts.”
Solenkova, like many other medical professionals, had become a minor public figure during the pandemic. Before the fake tweet, Solenkova had built a following of 30,000 on Twitter by reporting her observations from working in underserved areas during the pandemic and used her account to debunk misinformation about Covid, vaccines and unproven cures.
“I started tweeting because people were dying and hospitals were unprepared,” she said. “And then disinformation became rampant.”
Despite the overwhelming success of the covid vaccines — which have prevented millions of severe infections and deaths — an aggressive and politicized anti-vaccine community has persevered.
Online harassment has become increasingly common for doctors during the pandemic, according to Dr. Ali Neitzel, a physician researcher who studies misinformation.
“The targeting of individual physicians is a well-worn tactic,” Neitzel said. “But this cheaply done fake — trying to frame a doctor who is doing unpaid advocacy work — that’s a new low.”
Neitzel said that she sees the use of fake tweets like the one that targeted Solenkova as a sign of desperation among anti-vaccination activists who have struggled to advance a false narrative about vaccines being unsafe.
“And demonizing an outspoken doctor gives them the enemy they’re looking for,” she said.
There were obvious tells that the tweet attributed to Solenkova was a fake, likely fabricated with what’s known as a tweet generator. The absurdity of the message notwithstanding, the font was off, and it was 53 characters over Twitter’s 280-character limit.
One of the first tweets of the doctored image was posted on Sunday evening by Paul Ramsey, an Oklahoma vlogger and frequent speaker at white supremacist conferences who goes by Ramzpaul. Ramsey added to his tweet, “COVID really was a cult.”
In an email sent Friday in response to an NBC News inquiry, Ramsey said he first came across the fake tweet on another website. “I respond to tweets I see on various message boards and newsgroups. If I learn that the tweet is not legitimate, or it is satire, I delete it,” he wrote. The tweet was deleted seconds later.
By Wednesday, the false tweet had gone viral, shared by many popular accounts that garnered millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.
Ian Miles Cheong, a rightwing Twitter commentator to whom Twitter's owner, Elon Musk, frequently replies, tweeted it, adding “She deleted the tweet. I wonder why.” Cheong has since deleted his tweet.
Jenna Ellis, a right-wing political commentator and former lawyer for President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, tweeted it, with the comment, “Delusional justification.”
In response to harassing messages, Solenkova did what she could to stop the pile-on and changed her Twitter account to private. But some took that not as evidence that their swarm was causing harm, but as proof that the tweet was authentic.
“At first, I thought it had to be a parody account,” tweeted Canadian lawyer and YouTuber David Freiheit. “Then I went to check out her profile, and her tweets were protected, indicating it was not parody. And now I am blocked, confirming it was not parody!”
Solenkova said she repeatedly reported the tweets to Twitter and asked her 30,000 followers to do the same. Replies from Twitter shared with NBC News said the company determined the tweets did not violate the company’s policies. “In order for an account to be in violation of the policy, it must portray another person or business in a misleading or deceptive manner,” the message said.
Amid a takeover by Musk in November, critics have questioned the company’s ability to stem misinformation, hate and impersonation on the platform. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on Solenkova’s experience. Ella Irwin, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
By Wednesday, the fake tweet had made its way to the Spotify podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which aired an 11-minute segment dissecting the tweet, displaying it during the discussion.
“It’s a fascinating perspective,” Rogan said to his guest, Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor at Washington’s Evergreen State College who has promoted unproven Covid cures including ivermectin.
“This woman’s take on this is this perfect encapsulation of this ideological capture that you see on social media,” Rogan said.
On Thursday, Rogan temporarily took down the episode, explaining on Twitter that he had been duped. “My sincere apologies to everyone, especially the person who got hoaxed,” he tweeted.
I was informed last night that this tweet is fake. The show was already out, so we initially decided to post a notice saying we got tricked, then later thought it best to just delete it from the episode.
My sincere apologies to everyone, especially the person who got hoaxed. https://t.co/GOeVjGMH7x
— Joe Rogan (@joerogan) January 5, 2023
The episode was later republished without the discussion of the fake tweet.
Weinstein tweeted that the takedown was the only way to “protect the person who was being impersonated.” Still, videos of the segment remain online, circulated by accounts not associated with Rogan. One video on Twitter has been viewed more than 5 million times.
Rogan’s publicist did not return a request for comment. Weinstein did not return a request for comment.
“You spend 11 minutes butchering my name, showing my picture, and then people Google me,” Solenkova said, adding that she feared for the lasting impact the fakery and its amplification might have on her career as a traveling physician.
“I’m doing my best,” she said. “I just know that I didn’t write this. But will it pop up in a complaint to a medical board? In my Google results? I’m trying to stay calm and think, ‘they made idiots of themselves and twitter lost credibility,’ but people need to know that this can happen to any of us.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com