A man was targeted with hundreds of abusive messages after being featured in a year-end BBC News report. The source? Anti-vaccine activists who falsely believed he was a so-called “crisis actor” pretending to be sick with Covid-19.
Henry Dyne casually checked his phone while ordering a couple of drinks at a bar a few days after Christmas. He was greeted by over 600 notifications as he unlocked it.
He began to despair – something he’d experienced before – but this time was “a hundred times worse,” according to the 29-year-old from Surrey.
The messages were scathing, abusive, and even threatening..
“Next time you’re in a hospital bed,” one read, “it won’t be with Corona.”
Unlucky and in hospital
Dyne’s misfortune began when he became infected with the virus in the summer of 2021. He hadn’t been vaccinated, he explained, believing that his youth would make any infection relatively mild.
However, the IT consultant, who enjoys posting jokes on his Instagram account, was unlucky.
“I’m not sleeping every time I try to sleep. I’m all over the place right now. And then one day, around six o’clock in the morning, I just woke up and said, “I’m calling an ambulance.” “he claims. “The most terrifying part was the fever and hallucinations.”
In July, he ended up in the hospital, hooked up to an oxygen tank, and spoke to BBC journalists who were there to report on an increase in Covid cases in young people for the News at Six.
“I just thought it would be a good idea to go on record and say ‘this is my experience, it’s a lot worse than I thought, so get the vaccine,'” he says.
He had no idea he’d soon become the target of a group of anti-vaccine activists. It was the beginning of allegations that he was a “crisis actor.”
What is a ‘crisis actor’?
The idea of “crisis actors” – people who pretend or are hired to act out some particular tragedy or disaster – is part of many contemporary conspiracy theories.
The concept was notoriously used to allege that parents of dead children in the Sandy Hook shooting were somehow faking their personal tragedies. The idea allows motivated activists to explain away real suffering by pretending it was somehow staged.
Of course, BBC News does not employ “crisis actors” or pay interviewees. Dyne was not compensated for his efforts.
But that didn’t stop dedicated anti-vaccine activists from fabricating false information and going on the offensive.
One message asked, “How much did the BBC pay you to pretend you had Covid-19?” Another person stated: “You’re a jerk, mate. My friend, Karma is real.”
There were far worse comments as well, many of which were far too explicit to share here.
As activists combed through his online accounts, wild theories grew even more out of control. Some people discovered his LinkedIn profile, which listed one of his former employers, a company that had secured government contracts to supply laptop computers to schools during the pandemic.
The information was correct, but he was no longer employed by the company, so the link was both tenuous and coincidental.
After the initial wave of abuse subsided and Dyne was on his way to full recovery, he tried to make light of it on his Instagram bio, jokingly describing himself as a “1x Academy Award Winning Crisis Actor.”
“Humour is my coping mechanism; all you can do is laugh,” he explains. “Little did I know this joke would land me in so much trouble.”
Round two followed a BBC News Special titled Review 2021: The Coronavirus Pandemic, which aired on December 27. It featured a clip from Dyne’s original interview.
Someone shared a video of themselves watching the special, then googling Henry Dyne’s name, finding his Instagram bio, and reading the phrase “crisis actor.”
The original video’s creator is unknown, but it was quickly reposted in anti-vaccine circles on YouTube and Facebook before taking off on Twitter.
Richard Taylor, an aspiring Welsh politician, was one of the main drivers of the Twitter storm. He shared the video on Facebook and received thousands of reactions via Twitter.
Taylor received 20% of the vote in Blaenau Gwent standing for the Brexit Party in the 2019 General Election. He recently set up a crowdfunding campaign that raised £61,000 for a Swansea cinema closed after breaching Covid regulations.
Taylor’s posts read “We see you” along with the video, but when contacted said via email: “In my original post, I was not implying anything… It us up to my social media followers to draw a conclusion from what they see or read.
“It is unfortunate that Mr Dyne chose to refer to himself sarcastically in his social media accounts,” Taylor wrote. “I have lived believing that when someone tells you who or what they are, believe them, so I would have taken Mr Dyne at face value when he referred to himself as a crisis actor.”
He also condemned the verbal and physical abuse, as well as the threats.
“Having spent a large part of my vocation life helping and serving others,” he wrote, “I would never intentionally contribute to abusing or threatening another individual.”
However, the viral video resulted in hundreds more abusive and threatening messages, which Dyne estimates were three times as many as in the initial wave in July, including several death threats and fake accounts set up in his name.
Fact-checkers deemed Taylor’s Facebook post to be false. A video on YouTube is still available, as are several viral tweets featuring the video on Twitter.
Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, has since removed the bogus accounts.
“We sincerely apologise to Henry for any distress this may have caused,” a Meta statement said.
“Accounts impersonating others are not permitted on Instagram, and we have removed the accounts reported to us.”
“We continue to take enforcement action on content and accounts that advance demonstrably false or misleading claims about Covid-19 and that may lead to significant risk of harm,” Twitter said in a statement.
YouTube is looking into the video in question.
All three social media companies have condemned online harassment and claim to have policies and tools in place to combat it.
While lamenting the repeated rounds of abuse, Henry Dyne has continued to mock his accusers, joking that he’s willing to “fake” other disasters.
“That’s pretty much all you can do,” he says. “Something must be done about social media. It’s just so obvious that it’s gotten so out of hand.”
While he would like to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, he claims his encounter with Covid-19 was not amusing – and was all too real.