Within hours of Margaret Keenan becoming the first person in the world to be injected with a COVID-19 vaccine, anti-vaxxers were spreading conspiracy theories about her: She’s dead, she was being played by a crisis actor, she’s a member of the Illuminati.
Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother from Coventry, was chosen at random to become the first person in the U.K. — and the world — to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine outside of a trial. She was given the jab at University Hospital in Coventry on Tuesday morning.
But within hours, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, who have long been preparing to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, were spreading malicious lies about Keenan across Facebook and Twitter.
The first conspiracy theory to make the rounds was a claim that the real Keenan was not, in fact, alive, and had died in 2008. This was based on some sort of online detective work that found no mention of a Margaret Keenan living in Coventry at the moment and memorials for a person with a similar name written in 2008 — even though that’s clearly a completely different person.
The person who first made the claim says they live in Coventry, a city with a population of over 325,000 people. Surprisingly, they don’t know Margaret Keenan personally.
Next, the conspiracy theorists claimed that Keenan and the nurse who injected her were played by “crisis actors,” with some online sleuths even tracking down the identity of the actor who supposedly played Keenan.
Then things began to take a turn for the weird, with Keenan being accused of being in the Illuminati, based on the shape she made with her hands as she was wheeled back to her bed after getting the injection.
But the conspiracies didn’t stop with Keenan. The second person to get the injection in the U.K. was named William Shakespeare — yes, really — and conspiracy theorists quickly decoded his name to highlight some sort of connection to Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder who many anti-vaxxers believe orchestrated the coronavirus pandemic to conduct a global experiment to control the entire world population by injecting them with microchips.
In the last two weeks, as the rollout of the vaccines approached, COVID-19 vaccine disinformation rose sharply, steadily replacing the conspiracies about election rigging and voter fraud in the U.S.
In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to fight vaccine disinformation and social media companies have pledged to tackle the problem, but as the spread of election misinformation has shown, promising to do something about a problem is not the same as effectively stopping it.
Anti-vaxx groups are already well-established online, and companies like Facebook have taken some steps to curb the spread of the misinformation, including banning one of the most notorious anti-vaxxers last week. But the scale of the anti-vaxx problem is now so large that it is virtually impossible to stop completely.
Politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. have been lining up to get vaccinated on camera in a bid to fend off the tidal wave of vaccine disinformation that’s being shared on social media. But if what happened to Margaret Keenan is anything to go by, then these efforts will have limited impact.