as dr Natalia Solenkova woke up on Monday morning to a barrage of Twitter notifications on her phone. The Miami intensive care doctor had hundreds of new followers, and they, along with thousands of others, were furious with her on Twitter.
Tweeting, commenting, and direct messaging on Twitter and other social platforms, strangers wanted to know why she deleted a tweet that read, “I will never regret the vaccine. Even if it turns out that I did in fact inject venom and only have days to live “My heart and my heart was in the right place. I got vaccinated for love, while anti-vaccinators did everything out of hatred. If I did for my love has to die to the world, so be it. But I’ll never regret it, will I.” sorry for that.”
Solenkova had not 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 fake medium like 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, zeal for Covid vaccines and a slander against anti-vaccine activists.
Over the next few days, despite Solenkova’s protests and pleas for Twitter to stop spreading the image, the fake tweet would go viral on the right-wing internet and serve as fodder for a popular and increasingly rabid anti-vaccination movement. The tweet even made it onto Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, who later apologized for the discussion.
Solenkova knew what was coming next – a wave of harassment. She didn’t pay much attention to the comments and messages saying she was a terrible doctor, that she shouldn’t practice, that she murdered people. She ignored the hateful direct messages on her private, personal accounts.
“I intentionally didn’t spend a lot of time reading them because I just wanted to find and remove the original tweet,” she said. “This time I haven’t encountered any death threats, but I’m not looking. I’ve probably blocked a thousand accounts.”
Like many other medical professionals, Solenkova had become a minor public figure during the pandemic. Prior to the fake tweet, Solenkova had amassed a following of 30,000 on Twitter through 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 widespread.”
Despite the overwhelming success of the Covid vaccines – which have prevented 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 medical researcher who deals with misinformation.
“Targeting individual doctors is a tried and tested tactic,” Neitzel said. “But this cheaply made fake — trying to frame a doctor doing unpaid legal work — that’s a new low.”
Neitzel said she sees the use of fake tweets like the one targeting Solenkova as a sign of desperation among anti-vaccination activists who have been trying to spread a false narrative about unsafe vaccines.
“And demonizing an outspoken doctor gives them the enemy they seek,” she said.
There was apparent evidence that the tweet attributed to Solenkova was a fake, likely made using something called a tweet generator. Despite the absurdity of the message, the font was disabled and was 53 characters over Twitter’s 280-character limit.
One of the first tweets from the manipulated image was posted Sunday night by Paul Ramsey, an Oklahoma vlogger and frequent speaker at white supremacist conferences who calls himself 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 found the fake tweet on another website. “I reply to tweets I see on various forums and newsgroups. If I find out the tweet isn’t legitimate or satirical, I’ll delete it,” he wrote. The tweet was deleted seconds later.
By Wednesday, the fake tweet had gone viral and was 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 who Twitter owner Elon Musk frequently replies to, tweeted, adding: “She deleted the tweet. I wonder why.” Cheong has since deleted his tweet.
Jenna Ellis, a right-wing political commentator and former advocate for President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, tweeted itwith the comment “delusional justification”.
In response to harassing messages, Solenkova did what she could to stop the accumulation and made her Twitter account private. However, some did not take this as proof that their crush 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 Freedom. “Then I looked at her profile and her tweets were protected, suggesting it wasn’t a parody. And now I’m blocked, which confirms it wasn’t a parody!”
Solenkova said she repeatedly reported the tweets to Twitter and asked her 30,000 followers to do the same. Responses from Twitter, shared with NBC News, said the company had determined the tweets did not violate company policy. “For an account to be in violation of the policy, it must portray another person or entity in a misleading or deceptive manner,” the statement reads.
Amid a November acquisition by Musk, critics have questioned the company’s ability to curb misinformation, hate and impersonation on the platform. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment about Solenkova’s experience. Ella Irwin, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
On Wednesday, the fake tweet made its way to Spotify’s The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which aired an 11-minute segment dissecting the tweet and displaying it during the discussion.
“It’s a fascinating perspective,” Rogan told his guest Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington who has promoted unproven Covid cures including ivermectin.
“This woman’s perspective is this perfect embodiment of that ideological capture that you see on social media,” Rogan said.
On Thursday, Rogan temporarily took the episode off. explained on Twitter that he was cheated. “I want to sincerely apologize to everyone, especially the person who was scammed,” he tweeted.
The episode was later reposted without the discussion of the fake tweet.
Weinstein tweeted that deactivation was the only way “to protect the person being impersonated”. Nonetheless, videos from the segment remain online and are distributed by accounts unrelated to 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 picture, and then people google me,” Solenkova said, adding that she feared for the lasting impact the forgery and its amplification will have on her career as a traveling doctor could have.
“I’m doing my best,” she said. “All I know is that I didn’t write that. But will it show up in a complaint to a medical board? In my Google results? ‘ but people need to know that this can happen to any of us.”