Brandy Zadrozny, NBC’s Conspiracy Theory Sleuth

Brandy Zadrozny photo
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Brandy Zadrozny, NBC's Conspiracy Theory Sleuth
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Brandy Zadrozny just made one of our favorite podcasts of the year, NBC’s Tiffany Dover is Dead, so we needed to get her on the show to talk about the ins and outs of debunking conspiracy theories with gumshoe reporting.

Brandy is a senior reporter at NBC News and a fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, everybody. This is Ethan Zuckerman. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am thrilled to have with us today, my friend, Brandy Zadrozny. Brandy is a celebrated reporter at NBC News. She’s doing some of the very best work out there, understanding internet culture as a whole and particularly mis and disinformation.

She is the creator of the recent and wonderful, Tiffany Dover is Dead podcast, formerly a librarian, affiliated with our friends over at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Really one of the smartest people out there, thinking about the world of mis and disinformation, Brandy, it’s so good to have you with us.

Brandy Zadrozny:

Well, thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of the pod. That introduction is a lot to live up to. So, we will see.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I feel very, very confident that you are all that and more. Let me jump right in. Who is Tiffany Dover and is she really dead?

Brandy Zadrozny:

Tiffany Dover is not dead. I’ll say the most important part first. Tiffany Dover is a very alive woman. She’s a nurse, a nurse manager. So, she’s in charge of nurses in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She got the vaccine on December 17th, 2020, with a lot of other first responders and doctors and nurses, who were really the first people to get the vaccine. When she got it, she passed out shortly after. Because this was being livestreamed, the whole world saw it.

The people that were watching the live streams weren’t necessarily people who were all rooting for the vaccine. So, a lot of people saw her faint on livestream. That one moment, of just her fainting, even though she got right back up and said, “I’m fine. This happens to me a lot,” she became the canary in the coal mine for a lot of people, who used her one faint to suggest that the vaccine isn’t safe or that it’s caused widespread death and injury.

Ethan Zuckerman:

In this podcast, you and your producer track down Tiffany Dover. You actually come up with pretty good clarity, that she is in fact, alive and well. You talked to family members of hers, but not Tiffany herself. Ultimately, your story is a story about just how hard it is to debunk an obvious piece of disinformation like this. Why doesn’t it really matter that Tiffany Dover is alive?

Brandy Zadrozny:

I talked to a lot of people, outside of Tiffany Dover, for this podcast. Like you said, I talked to her family members. I talked to her coworkers. I spoke with just a lot of people.

At the same time, I spoke with a lot of people who believed in this conspiracy theory that she had been killed on live television and then her death covered up by Pfizer, by the hospital, by the government, by her family members. Just really wild conspiracy theories.

The thing that I learned throughout this podcast is that, you can’t have enough evidence sometimes, to convince someone of something that goes against a belief that really serves them. In this case, the people that I spoke to, the belief that Tiffany had died, served them. They had a bad guy in their sights and it was everyone. Those people that I just named, those were the conspirators. It served this worldview, that the world is a dangerous place, that no one can be trusted. As a member of the media, especially, I was part of the cahoots, as it were.

It made me think a lot about the way that we go about debunking and the methods that we currently used, for fact checking and even reporting on these things and what we’re up against, because it’s even bigger than I had imagined. No lie. I really did think this was going to be a two-part podcast. It gets really hard because it’s not just…

It’s just really hard. There’s a lot of reasons why someone like Tiffany wouldn’t want to talk to a reporter. Generally, one, because she’s smart and knows that it won’t help. There was a lot of efforts by the hospital and by the media, to debunk this in the first place. I was not the first person to come around. By the time I got there, she’s like, leave me alone, for good reason.

There’s polarization in that area of the South, that made that difficult too. We came across some road bumps there. It’s a tough situation. I don’t know it. I have no real good answers here.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What’s so amazing about the podcast for me, is that it seems like it should be a layup. Those of us who are in the fact-based universe, can see pretty clear proof that Tiffany Dover is alive. You are an extremely well-regarded reporter, from an extremely well-regarded media outlet. You’ve done your research. You have very clear evidence that Tiffany Dover is alive and well.

The first surprise is that there are people who are bought into these conspiracy theories, who absolutely will not accept any evidence that you’re able to put together, even put together by a very sympathetic interlocutor. You are an extremely sympathetic interlocutor. You make it clear that you have wrestled with questions of mis and disinformation around vaccines and your own children. You have a background in the south. You are about as friendly an interlocutor as some of these people could have.

But then the second surprise is the one that was so challenging for me, which was that Tiffany… and I think you end up feeling correctly, did not see an advantage in coming on NBC News and asserting her own existence. Walk us through that. As far as you can tell, why does Tiffany Dover conclude that there is no advantage for her in taking advantage of NBC’s platform, to demonstrate her own existence?

Brandy Zadrozny:

There are for this exercise, two kinds of people in my world. It’s people like Amanda in the third episode, who… Amanda was a woman who tragically lost a two month old child, for no good reason. Her baby died unexpectedly.

What had happened was that people on the internet, anti-vaxxers, what they do is when they see a story of loss, they will often work backwards in that person’s social media history, to find some example of how, when a baby dies of SIDS, that the vaccines cause SIDS.

Another picture of the mother saying, “I vaccinated my baby today,” or, “Had our shots.” They put those two things together, meme them into a narrative that means A caused B, vaccines cause death. This is what happened with Amanda. She had posted months earlier, that she had been vaccinated as a pregnant woman, and she was really happy about that decision. It was a good decision. She works with data. So, she’s just very data driven and smart and public health focus. So she had all this evidence, as they saw it.

Brandy Zadrozny:

They memed into existence, the conspiracy theory that her baby was somehow killed by her getting the vaccination.

This was Amanda Makulec from DC. I talked to her in episode three. She said, “This is my story. I won’t have my story taken from us. I won’t have the memory of my child taken from us and bastardized in this way, by conspiracy theorists on the internet, who want to promote a narrative that vaccines are dangerous,” because it’s very important to her that people have correct information. The facts are important to her.

To be sure, being on the podcast invited more scrutiny. She got harassed more, for being on the podcast. But for her, the scales tipped in the direction of, this is important to me. This lines up with my value system. Taking back that power made her feel better. It was part of her grief, all of these things together.

I have not talked to Tiffany. I can only assume from talking with her family members, that she put talking to me on a scale, the same scale that we all make decisions and said, “One, I don’t think that this will matter. I don’t think me appearing on a podcast or me having a video with Brandy or appearing on TV, I don’t think that will matter to the people who are actually harassing my family.” And the idea that it might make it worse, tips any scales in the direction of, I want my family and myself to be secure in my life.

Tiffany is not a person like Amanda, who is constantly tweeting about public health. That’s number one on her list of priorities. We know public health is clearly a priority, as she’s a COVID nurse during COVID. We’re not saying she doesn’t care about people or care about public health. She does, but it’s her story. She wants her story to be hers and not ours.

There’s literally nothing I can do about that. Although it makes me feel crazy because, and I’m not just saying this, I feel like I do have a track record with people. That when the former QAnon guy, who’s found himself at the Capitol steps or Amanda or the woman who lost her baby to free birthing communities’ rabbit holes, when I can talk to these people and tell their stories, I feel like there’s such power in that.

Not only as a narrative for truth and for understanding the way these platforms work, but also, I do, I see it with my own eyes, the power that someone can get from telling their story in a public arena and taking that back from the people who are talking for them. I’m just bummed that I couldn’t do that with this case.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I found myself listening to the series. I’ve listened to it twice. It’s brilliant. It’s wonderful. People should spend their time with it. It’s really an excellent, excellent piece of work. I found myself while listening to it, thinking about Lenny Pozner. Pozner’s son, Noah, was one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook.

Pozner and his family found themselves, really in the crossfire of some of these very brutal conspiracy theories from Alex Jones and the Infowars community. Pozner is one of those individuals who, like the friend you were just telling us about, decided to fight back. Pozner has sued Jones. He has gone on an incredibly aggressive campaign, to use copyright law to pull down many of these disinfo videos, by asserting copyright over his son’s image and his image that get used within these.

What I found myself thinking, was how incredibly rare that is. There are, at this point in the US, so many parents of children who have been killed in school shootings. It’s hard to think of others, like Pozner, who’ve sort of become activists around this.

I think similarly, if you put it in that context, it makes perfect sense that Tiffany Dover would look at this and essentially say, if the choices are, I can either dedicate the rest of my life to overturning this piece of disinfo, or I can functionally disappear from the internet, disappearing seems to be the best bet.

Is there a third path, Brandy? Are there cases where people find themselves the victims of these conspiracy theories, is there an answer, either than transforming your life to fighting it or disappearing entirely?

Brandy Zadrozny:

Well, I think that there are other Sandy Hook parents too, who are joining the legal fight. But Lenny is definitely the most outspoken, the most who actually engaged with conspiracy theorists, as they were theorizing about his child. So I think an important distinction is also that, a child died in Lenny Pozner’s example. Tiffany is alive. She is fine. She’s living her life with her family, in a lovely, lovely little town in Alabama, delightful, honestly.

So for that, that makes sense to me, please leave me alone. Thank you. This is my life. There is IRL and there’s online, and I’m going to live IRL. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially with the most recent shooting in Texas, because all of the conspiracy theories are starting up right now. What’s the right thing to do?

I don’t know the decisions people make. I’ve thought about it. If something happened to my child… I have three children, I don’t know how you don’t go into a hole and despair. I just don’t know. But I mean, I’ve heard parents in Texas right now, are sort of becoming activists, talking to the media about gun control right now. Even stuff like that, there’s something, I guess inside some people, that are activated to do something with that grief. I find that so inspiring.

I think there is a middle ground. I think that most people, even in Tiffany’s case, it is a small sub-community of people, who are really, really crazy about this thing. Again, maybe I’m biased, but I do think that there is a way, because I undertook this project, to come out and say, this isn’t going to… I’m not going to be doing this forever.

The hospital made a bad decision. They did a really ham-fisted, strange proof of life video, that probably caused more trouble than it solved problems. So, I’m going to do this thing, and I’m going to be here. This is the last you’re going to hear from me. Leave me alone. I think that there’s got to be a way to wade into it without making it your whole life. I’m trying to think, if I’ve seen…

Anna Merlan had this great example of Seth Rich’s family, who tried to use the media at first. He was the DNC staffer who was likely murdered in a botched robbery, but the conspiracy theorist claimed was some sort of… he was a leaker to WikiLeaks, and he was killed for leaking that information, as part of a DNC plot. His family tried to speak out and use the media to say, “Please, you’re harassing us. This makes it worse.” But every time they spoke out, they spoke to media, it just reignited the harassment. So, then they just had to close off entirely.

I don’t know. Those are very extreme cases. I think that there are other cases where the internet has a shorter memory and people do sort of move on, so addressing it pretty quickly…

Sorry, I’m babbling now. But there was a woman in England, who was part of one of the first vaccine trials at the University of Oxford. She got the vaccine and really quickly… No one saw her pass out. So, we didn’t have that viral, yummy thing to create content off of, but they had said that she died. It went pretty viral, pretty quickly. So she quickly made a video. She’s like, “I’m fine. I’m having a cup of tea. I’m not dead,” and then that was the end of it. It literally just disappeared.

So, I don’t know. I don’t know. Address, but not make it your whole life, maybe?

Ethan Zuckerman:

It feels to me like having put years of your life into understanding this dynamic of mis and disinformation, you are starting to come up with a set of maybe small insights, about what works and what doesn’t work.

One seems to be that approaching people who believe conspiracy theories, being very, very careful not to show contempt, being very careful to show solidarity and common ground, helping them find a way to tell their own stories and amplify them, that seems to be a method that’s working for you.

You just described another method, which is thinking about proof of life very carefully. Doing proof of life fast, doing it unambiguously and sort of nipping some of this in the bud. It’s a drag that there’s no big solution to this problem. But maybe the answer is that, there’s a lot of small solutions to this problem.

Do you think there’s a larger, systemic approach to mis and disinformation? Is there something the platform should be doing? Is there something big broadcast networks like NBC should be doing, to do a better job with responding to situations like this one?

Brandy Zadrozny:

So, two parts. The first is that, I think we’re learning that… we think of it as main character syndrome, that none of us are safe from being thrust into the middle of a wide-reaching conspiracy theory that affects our real lives, immediately. I think it’s wild that there are so many places, news organizations included, that haven’t thought about this yet and are still thinking of safety and security in an offline way only.

The hospital, for example, there’s security all over. There are barriers to get in. There are access. But the social media strategy relies on a couple of PR folks, when it has a lot of influence on a real person’s life and the hospital’s life. They just unprivated their Twitter account, a hospital. They can’t use Instagram, a hospital. That’s wild and probably hurts the mission of the hospital.

I think what we’re learning is that, from police precincts to hospitals to news organizations to daycares to public schools to colleges, which are a little bit ahead of the game, for good reason, but they need to be prepared for what happens when a conspiracy theory comes for one of your own. Have a system in place, that they know what to do or the set of steps to begin to take.

That’s just incredibly important and would solve, I think a lot of issues, if you had somebody who understands the internet at some of these places and understood digital security. Just lock down private accounts. Come up with a way to react, that has been well thought out. Do an AMA. I don’t know, but figure out a way of the internet, to respond to a problem on the internet and not grab the usual suspects of the local news and do weird videos to respond.

The second thing is, not only do individual organizations need to have ways to react, but I think a really helpful thing is smaller groups, people getting together, to decide how to support each other and their communities. The good one that I looked at was around doctors and nurses who were starting to protect themselves with these organizations, like Shots Heard Around the World. I think I got that right. It’s a community of doctors and nurses who are also responding to misinformation and disinformation in real time, because they’re a very trusted, trustworthy source of information. So, they’re doing the internet.

They’re going online and making reaction videos to misinformation. They’re going on and saying, “Okay, this new study came out. Here’s what it says.” Instead of waiting for a bad actor to misinterpret a study, they’re doing it for their community, themselves.

I draw a lot of lessons from that. I’ve just been thinking about that recently, because a key tenet of mis and disinformation is one that Steve Bannon so eloquently put, which is-

Ethan Zuckerman:

Flood the zone.

Brandy Zadrozny:

Right, flooding the zone with shit. Kate Starbird uses an analogy of throwing spaghetti at the wall. It’s this idea that the narratives don’t actually matter. You just put as much into the place as possible. And then eventually, there will be this feeling of mistrust, this idea that, I just can’t trust this institution, whatever it is.

The reverse of that is true, too. The doctors and nurses that I spoke to, that are creating these videos, they’re not trying to convince anyone of anything. They’re truly not. They’re like, we’re just putting reliable, quick, true information out. Eventually, maybe people will wander into these communities. Maybe this will become their community.

They’re literally flooding the zone with good stuff and building communities, not in a specifically targeted way, but in a way that might drown out the zone of shit. I get a lot of hope and inspiration from that too, because it feels like it makes sense to me.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There’s two amazing ideas in there. I think the second one, which I’m going to call flooding the zone with positivity, this is something that is really hard, for instance, for academics to do. We are, by very nature of our work, slow. We encounter something, we really like to bat it around a little bit. Our processes are such, that it can take anywhere from six months to two years to get something out. Of course, what we’re realizing is that, in many cases, we probably want to be out there in a couple of minutes or a couple of hours, saying, “I’ve read this. This is what I think about this.”

That’s an enormous shift. Public health is perhaps on the leading edge of this. They also want to take their time and be careful. One of the things that COVID has really told us, was that you just can’t take that much time. You have to find some way to be closer about it.

The second idea that you put out there is really profound, I think. Which is that, we think about the security of our physical spaces. We think about the security of the people in our lives, and we tend to think of it in physical terms. Increasingly, that security is digital as well. And in the same way that a best practice is probably that you want to ask someone what they’re doing in your building, you really can’t be a public entity these days and not be actively, consciously, thoughtfully engaged within social media. You may not like it, but you probably also don’t like the fact that you have to lock your doors, at some point. It is an essential aspect of these things.

Last question for you, Brandy. You work so hard on topics that are often so toxic, so frustrating. For people who have the privilege of listening to this podcast, you can hear both your enthusiasm and positivity, but also the ways in which it gets challenged by heading down to Alabama again and again, and not getting to meet with Tiffany Dover. What is it that allows you to keep working on this beat and not lose your mind?

Brandy Zadrozny:

Who’s to say I haven’t? I mean, I play the ukulele. I just started. It’s really fun. I love my children so much. They’re so delightful. I’m married to someone who’s completely offline, which I highly recommend it. So, he just does not care and doesn’t understand the stuff that fills my day, which is great.

So, compartmentalizing is really great for my mental health. But I think what you hear, the podcast is a really, really good… until the end, it’s a really, really good look into the way that I report. That is the way that I report a story, from soup to nuts.

I hope what comes across, is the idea that I do think that there is a way to reach people, whether they be conspiracy theorists on the internet or the people impacted by those conspiracy theories or misinformation or disinformation or whatever.

I think that there’s a way to reach people like that. I’ve experienced it in my own life, with my family members who live in the south and are very Republican and conservative and love Facebook. So, I feel that on my own. I feel that with each person that I meet. I can make some kind of connection. I see the result of my work, which often is people saying, “I never thought that when I shared something like that on the internet, it could impact someone. I feel really badly about that. I’m not going to do that anymore.”

People are people. I think we can reach them with that sort of thing, more than we can with wagging our finger about misinformation on the internet. I don’t know how much good that does. I feel a lot of hope for people in this beat, and I love the internet. It’s amazing. So yeah, it’s easy to be on this beat.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, an absolute must-read reporter on issues of mis and disinformation, internet culture. Creator of the Tiffany Dover is Dead podcast, which you really have to go out and listen all the way through. Brandy, what a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Brandy Zadrozny:

Thank you. This has been a hoot.