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Damar Hamlin’s recovery fuels anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was seized on by people pushing unfounded claims about the dangers of Covid vaccines. His recovery has pushed them to even stranger theories.
Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin in Foxborough, Mass.
The Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin in Foxborough, Mass., on Dec. 1. Greg M. Cooper / AP file

Anti-vaccine activists who believe without evidence that a Covid vaccine caused Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest this month have pivoted to a new conspiracy theory to explain his swift recovery: that the Buffalo Bills safety has been replaced by a body double. 

Though outlandish, the theory has gained enough attention to draw a response from Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who responded on a podcast this week. 

“That’s stupid,” he said. 

This most recent conspiracy theory about Hamlin underscores the lengths to which anti-vaccine activists will go to further the false narrative that Covid vaccines cause widespread injury and death, and highlights a widening audience susceptible to even the most absurd misinformation that powers the anti-vaccine movement. 

Hamlin’s cardiac arrest Jan. 2 following a collision during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals immediately sparked unfounded speculation that the Covid vaccine was to blame, adding to a growing narrative among anti-vaccine voices that many vaccinated people were dying unexpectedly.

Medical personal attend to Damar Hamlin after he collapsed during the NFL football game
Medical personal attend to Damar Hamlin after he collapsed during the game in Cincinnati on Jan. 2.Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file

Twenty days after his collapse, Hamlin attended a playoff game against the Bengals. Online sleuths picked apart the news coverage and online posts documenting his return to the stadium. They concluded that Hamlin’s glasses and face covering were a disguise and attributed the blurry shots of him not to a raging snowstorm, but to a more sinister coverup. 

Following the game, tens of thousands of posts across social media suggested that Hamlin was dead or that his appearance had been somehow faked, according to Zignal Labs, a company that analyzes social media, broadcast, traditional media and online conversations. Hashtags, including #WhereIsDamarHamlin, were trending on Twitter. 

The notion that powerful forces control the world in part with the careful deployment of body doubles is a long-standing conspiracy theory. In recent years, such theories have been aimed at figures including President Joe Biden, former first lady Melania Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and pop star Avril Lavigne. 

Attributing any high-profile death or injury to a vaccine is a common anti-vaccine tactic. In December 2020, conspiracy theorists incorrectly concluded that a Tennessee nurse who fainted after her vaccine was dead. The theory persists two years later, despite numerous fact checks and recent videos posted to social media. Similar campaigns have targeted people who died from causes unrelated to the vaccine. These included the recent deaths of journalist Grant Wahl and ABC News producer Dax Tejera

But Hamlin’s on-field injury posed a unique opportunity for anti-vaccine activists to reach new audiences. 

About 23 million people were watching the football game during which he collapsed. As a medical team worked on him, anti-vaccine activists flooded social media sites with unfounded claims that a vaccine was somehow to blame. 

Hamlin’s injury came during a surge in anti-vaccine misinformation that attributes any recent death, without evidence, to vaccines. 

Much of the misinformation came from a handful of serial misinformers, including longtime anti-vaccine activists, conspiracy theorists and podcasters. Leading the charge was Stew Peters, a right-wing podcaster and conspiracy theorist who made “Died Suddenly,” a documentary-style video that incorrectly argues that people are dying in droves due to the vaccine, which was engineered by an elite cabal to depopulate the planet. 

Despite its well-chronicled flaws, the film went viral. On the alternative video platform Rumble, it racked up nearly 17 million views and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has tweeted approvingly of the film. The filmmakers have 261,000 followers on Twitter where they solicit donations. 

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has also amplified the false theories, including the unsupported claim that vaccine-related cardiac arrests have increased among athletes. Dallas cardiologist and anti-vaccine podcaster Peter McCullough claimed on Carlson’s show that “vaccine-induced myocarditis” may have caused Hamlin’s injury. 

Neither Hamlin nor the Buffalo Bills responded to requests for comment. While still recovering, Hamlin has tweeted a photo of himself in front of a mural painted in his honor., seemingly winking at the conspiracy theory. He captioned it, “Clone.”