When Dr. Natalia Solenkova woke up Monday morning, she was flooded with Twitter notifications on her phone. The Miami intensive care doctor had hundreds of new followers and they, along with thousands more on Twitter, were mad at her.
In tweets, comments and direct messages on Twitter and other social platforms, strangers demanded to know why he had deleted a tweet that read: “I will never regret the vaccine. Even if it turns out that I injected myself with real poison and I only have days to live. My heart and it’s in the right place. I got vaccinated out of love, while the anti-vaxxers did it all out of hate. If I have to die for my love of the world, so be it. But I will never regret or apologize for it.»
Solenkova had not deleted the tweet. In fact, she hadn’t written it at all. It was what the disinformation researchers call a «cheap fake», a term for a piece of fake media, such as an image or video, that requires little effort to produce. Someone had clumsily altered one of Solenkova’s posts to portray a blind, even deadly, fanaticism for covid vaccines and a smear of anti-vaccine activists.
In the days that followed, despite Solenkova’s protests and pleas to Twitter to stop the spread of the image, the fake tweet would go viral on the right-wing internet and serve as fodder for a popular and increasingly rabid anti-vaccine movement. The tweet would even make its way to Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, who would later apologize for commenting on it.
Solenkova knew what would come next: a wave of harassment. She didn’t pay much attention to the comments and messages that said she was a terrible doctor, that she shouldn’t be practicing, that she was murdering people. She ignored hateful direct messages from her on her personal and private accounts.
“By the way, I didn’t spend a lot of time reading them, because I just wanted to find the original tweet and delete it,” he said. “This time I did not come across death threats, but I do not search. 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 amassed 30,000 followers on Twitter. when reporting his observations of working in underserved areas during the pandemic and used his account to debunk misinformation about Covid, vaccines and unproven cures.
“I started tweeting because people were dying and the hospitals weren’t ready,” he said. “And then misinformation became rampant.”
Despite the overwhelming success of covid vaccines, which they impeded millions of serious 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 research physician who studies disinformation.
«Targeting individual doctors is a well-used tactic,» Neitzel said. “But this cheaply done forgery, trying to frame a doctor who is doing unpaid defense work, is a new low point.”
Neitzel said he sees the use of fake tweets like the one directed at Solenka as a sign of desperation among anti-vaccination activists who have fought to promote a false narrative about vaccine unsafety.
«And demonizing an outspoken doctor gives them the enemy they’re looking for,» he said.
There were obvious indications that the tweet attributed to Solenkova was fake, likely fabricated with what’s known as a tweet generator. Despite the absurdity of the message, the font was wrong and was 53 characters over Twitter’s 280 character limit.
One of the first tweets of the doctored image was posted Sunday night by Paul Ramsey, an Oklahoma vlogger and frequent speaker on white supremacist conferences which goes through Ramzpaul. Ramsey added to his tweet: «COVID really was a cult.»
In an email sent Friday in response to a query from NBC News, Ramsey said he first came across the fake tweet on another website. “I reply to tweets I see on various message boards and newsgroups. If I find out that the tweet is not legitimate or satire, I delete it,” she wrote. The tweet was deleted seconds later.
By Wednesday, the fake tweet had gone viral, shared by many popular accounts garnering millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.
Ian Miles Cheong, a right-wing Twitter commentator to whom Twitter owner Elon Musk frequently responds, tweeted it out, adding: “She deleted the tweet. I wonder why.» Cheong has since deleted his tweet.
Jenna Ellis, right-wing political commentator and former lawyer for President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, he tweeted itwith the comment, “delusional justification.”
In response to the harassing messages, Solenkova did what she could to stop the buildup and changed her Twitter account to private. But some took it not as evidence that her swarm was causing damage, 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 see his profile and his tweets were protected, which indicates that it was not a parody. And now I’m blocked, confirming that it was not a parody!
Solenkova said she repeatedly reported the tweets to Twitter and asked her 30,000 followers to do the same. Twitter responses shared with NBC News said the company determined the tweets did not violate company policies. “For an account to violate the policy, it must misrepresent another person or company in a misleading or deceptive manner,” the message read.
In the midst of a November takeover by Musk, critics have questioned the company’s ability to rein in disinformationhate and interpretation 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 Spotify’s «The Joe Rogan Experience» podcast, which aired an 11-minute segment analyzing the tweet and showing it during the discussion.
«It’s a fascinating prospect,» Rogan told his guest, Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington who has promoted unproven cures for covid. including ivermectin.
“This woman’s take on this is the perfect encapsulation of this ideological capture seen on social media,” Rogan said.
On Thursday, Rogan temporarily removed the episode, explaining on twitter that he had been deceived. «My sincere apologies to everyone, especially the person who was misled,» he tweeted.
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.. A video on Twitter has been viewed more than 5 million times.
Rogan’s publicist did not respond to a request for comment. Weinstein did not respond to a request for comment.
“You spend 11 minutes butchering my name, showing my photo, and then people Google me,” Solenkova said, adding that she feared the lasting impact that forgery and its amplification could have on her career as a traveling medic.
«I’m doing my best,» he said. “I just know that I didn’t write this. But will she appear in a complaint before a medical board? In my Google results? I’m trying to stay calm and think, ‘they behaved like idiots and Twitter lost credibility,’ but people need to know that this can happen to any of us.»