WASHINGTON - Conspiracy theorists who blamed NFL player Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest on Covid-19 vaccines have doubled down on their claims despite his speedy recovery, insisting he secretly died in an elaborate cover-up involving deepfake videos and other deceptive means.
On January 22, less than a month after the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety collapsed during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Hamlin watched the teams' rematch from a stadium suite, with fans cheering his return to the public eye.
But across the internet, anti-vaccine activists and disinformers homed in on blurry footage, distant camera angles and a mask Hamlin wore.
Their new narrative insisted Hamlin had died from his Covid-19 shots and a clone, body double or actor had replaced him to conceal "the truth."
"I still have not seen any proof Damar Hamlin is alive," far-right radio host Stew Peters wrote three days later on Telegram, demanding that Hamlin "cut a video" to prove he was alive.
When Hamlin posted a video days later, Peters and others suggested the clip was a deepfake created with artificial intelligence.
They argued Hamlin's ears looked awry, tattoos appeared missing and movements seemed jittery.
Their refusal to accept Hamlin's apparent recovery demonstrates how those steeped in conspiracy theories often move the goalposts when confronted with information debunking their claims.
"One of the things about conspiracies that makes them so resilient is that the supposed 'evidence' that supports them is constantly changing," Gordon Pennycook, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina in Canada, told AFP.
"The beliefs are often not actually rooted in evidence, but instead are formed by dodging evidence," he added.
– Fits a pattern –
The far-fetched claims borrow from the playbook of other deep-set conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, which has gone global since the first posts by a fringe forum user known as "Q" in 2017.
That movement has thrived despite its biggest predictions -- chief among them the imminent arrest of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- never coming true, with QAnon promoters recasting each disappointment as part of "the plan."
Far-right influencers have made similar adjustments around recent US events, such as the attack on then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband in late October.
After demanding footage of the break-in to prove it happened as police described, they distorted what the video showed to continue claiming Paul Pelosi was caught in a lovers' quarrel.
"People in these communities will spend hours examining photos and videos, pointing out what they believe are inconsistencies or signs of deception," said Caroline Orr Bueno, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland.
- Flooding the space -
Hamlin's collapse on live television offered a supercharged opportunity for conspiracy theories to spread in the United States, as millions were tuned in.
"The demand for information was instant," Orr Bueno said. "During that time, anti-vaccine activists and disinformation actors flooded that space."
People who encountered the claims might have been more inclined to believe them absent any competing but credible information -- and because the allegations matched tropes they had seen online, including in Peters's widely discredited film "Died Suddenly."
Since the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, people have blamed the shots for unrelated heart problems afflicting athletes including Danish footballer Christian Eriksen, as well as the deaths of US actress Betty White and journalist Grant Wahl.
Body-double conspiracy theories have long targeted celebrities such as musicians Paul McCartney and Avril Lavigne.
Asked about the theories encircling Hamlin, his marketing representative Jordon Rooney told AFP: "I think these people are not very smart."
Hamlin, meanwhile, appeared to poke fun at the claims.
On TikTok, he replied to a video asking "where is Damar Hamlin?" by jumping into the frame and saying, "Boo."
On Twitter, he captioned a photo of himself beside a mural: "'Clone.'"
But the myth lives on.
"Any new evidence will simply be folded into the conspiracy theory," Orr Bueno said.