Twenty days after his collapse, Hamlin attended a playoff game against the Bengals. Online detectives analyzed news coverage and online posts documenting his return to the stadium. They concluded that Hamlin’s goggles and mask were a disguise and attributed the blurry shots of him not to a blizzard, but to a more sinister cover-up.

After the game, tens of thousands of social media posts suggested Hamlin was dead or his appearance had been faked in some way, according to Zignal Labs, a company that analyzes social media, streaming, traditional media and conversation. online. Hashtags, including #WhereIsDamarHamlin, were trending on Twitter.

The notion that powerful forces control the world in part through the careful deployment of body doubles is a longstanding conspiracy theory. In recent years, these theories have targeted figures such as 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 receiving the vaccine was dead. The theory persists two years later, despite numerous fact checks and recent videos posted on 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 injury on the field presented a unique opportunity for anti-vaccine activists to reach new audiences.

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

Hamlin’s injury occurred during a rise 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-vax activists, conspiracy theorists and podcasters. Leading the charge was peters stewa right-wing podcaster and conspiracy theorist who made «He Died Suddenly,» a documentary-style video that incorrectly argues that people are dying en masse because of the vaccine, which was designed by an elite cabal to depopulate the planet.

Despite its well-documented flaws, the movie went viral. On the alternative video platform Rumble, it amassed nearly 17 million views and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, tweeted her approval of the film. The filmmakers have 261,000 followers on Twitter where they request donations.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson also amplified false theories, including the unsubstantiated 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 he is still recovering, Hamlin has tweeted a photo of himself in front of a mural painted in his honor, apparently winking at the conspiracy theory. He captioned it, «Clone.»