Covid misinformation spikes in wake of Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
A painting that shows the number of Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin is illuminated by candles during a prayer vigil outside University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Cincinnati.

The baseless tweets began to circulate within minutes of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s stunning collapse on the field during “Monday Night Football.”

Anti-vaxxers and right-wing provocateurs sought to link the injury that left Hamlin in critical condition and the coronavirus vaccine, without any evidence. Their claims built on years of coronavirus vaccine misinformation that has been seeded across social media.

“This is a tragic and all too familiar sight right now: Athletes dropping suddenly,” tweeted the pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk, who leads the youth group Turning Point USA. His tweet was viewed nearly 10 million times as of Tuesday.

“Everybody knows what happened to Damar Hamlin because it’s happened to too many athletes around the world since COVID vaccination was required in sports,” said former Newsmax correspondent Emerald Robinson, in a tweet that was viewed more than 2 million times and visible under the #DamarHamlin hashtag trending in the United States.

Yet as of Tuesday evening, little information was known about the cause of Hamlin’s collapse. Nor was it known if Hamlin had been vaccinated against covid, though the NFL previously has said nearly 95 percent of players are vaccinated. The Bills announced Tuesday that Hamlin had suffered a cardiac arrest, and two cardiologists told The Washington Post that a blow to Hamlin’s chest may have thrown his heart out off rhythm, disrupting blood flow to the brain. The doctors said they could only speculate after watching video footage of the play.

The tweets’ broad and rapid reach, however, underscores how baseless claims related to the coronavirus can ricochet across Twitter with little friction since new owner Elon Musk rolled back the company’s policy against covid misinformation in November. The company has also restored the accounts of many previously suspended individuals, including multiple high-profile anti-vaxxers. The moves are indicative of Musk’s broader efforts to undo years of work to prevent the spread of falsehoods on Twitter in favor of a “free speech” agenda.

Public health experts and social media researchers warned that the tweets risk creating more fears about coronavirus vaccinations at a time when cases continue to spread in the United States, nearly three years after the pandemic began.

Naomi Smith, a sociologist at Federation University Australia who has researched covid misinformation, said such tweets risk planting “seeds of doubt” at a time when medical professionals are urging the public to obtain booster shots.

Covid misinformation “does actually kill people who take it seriously,” she said in an interview. “It is a problem that has a ripple effect in society.”

The viral tweets were sent as millions of Americans were looking for answers about Hamlin’s condition with news broadcasters and sports commentators having little immediate information about the player’s condition. The information vacuum created a perfect storm for anti-vaxxers, who had already been priming people to believe sudden deaths or sudden collapses could be linked to vaccinations, social media experts say.

Just before Twitter rolled back its covid misinformation policy in November, a more than hour-long video was released on the video service Rumble that promotes a debunked claim that the coronavirus vaccine is causing people to die. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense promoted the film this winter, but its creators generated newfound attention by seizing on the viral footage of Hamlin collapsing.

“It just really fits in with the narrative that was already circulating that any collapse of a person may be vaccine related, no matter lack of evidence,” said John Gregory, health editor of NewsGuard, a company that analyzes misinformation.

The film’s Twitter account quickly tweeted to its more than 200,000 followers, linking Hamlin’s collapse to the vaccine.

“Prior to 2021, Athletes collapsing on the field was NOT a normal event,” the film’s account tweeted, along with footage of Hamlin hitting the field. “This is becoming an undeniable (and an extremely concerning) pattern.” The tweet also included a series of syringe emoji.

Brian Castrucci, head of the de Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health, said he watched in horror at the speed at which Hamlin’s devastating injury was weaponized by that account and other anti-vaccine hashtags.

“This is the modern day equivalent of a snake oil salesman,” Castrucci said of the film’s promoters and others. “The problem is the snake oil salesman had to go town to town. They couldn’t reach millions of people with one tweet.”

Under Twitter’s previous leadership, the tweet with the syringes probably would have been labeled with additional context, said a former company employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss content moderation at the company. But on Tuesday, the tweet appeared unlabeled and garnered more than a million views.

Twitter’s enforcement of its covid misinformation policies was imperfect and widely criticized – by Democrats, who said the company hadn’t done enough to rein in falsehoods, and conservatives, who warned the company had gone too far. The former Twitter employee said speculative tweets would have been “tricky” for Twitter’s Trust and Safety team to handle because they’re often vague and not making claims that definitively could be said to be false.

But researchers say under Musk, it’s now much easier to find covid misinformation than it was before, and there are fewer barriers to its spread.

“It’s right at the top of the pile,” said Smith, the sociologist, referring to people’s timelines. “Previously, before Musk rolled back misinformation policies, these things would have been algorithmically de-platformed or made harder to find.”

Twitter’s decision to roll back its policies could have implications for other social networks as well. Smith warned that the false tweets would probably not remain confined to Twitter, as people would be likely to screenshot and then share them in more private channels – including messages and Facebook groups.

“It becomes invisible to you,” she said. “These things have a life beyond their platform.”