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How a Fake Doctor Tricked Pundits by Fueling Covid Outrage on Twitter

Written by Matthew KupferPublished Jan. 13, 2023 • 5:00am
Photo Illustration of the Twitter account of "Dr. Robert Honeyman,” who was actually a Scottish football fan | Camille Cohen/The Standard

English

As Americans celebrated Christmas, it was Easter for Dr. Robert Honeyman: They had been resurrected.

“Have a great Christmas and wear a mask!” they declared defiantly, after their Twitter account was reinstated.

It sounded like a normal holiday greeting from a Covid-cautious doctor. But there was one problem: Honeyman did not exist.

Earlier that month, Twitter users had discovered that Dr. Robert Honeyman used a stock photo as its profile image; no academic with that name existed. Reporting by The Standard revealed that Honeyman was part of a network of fake doctors, all progressive and LGBTQ+-friendly, who pushed lockdowns, mask mandates and extreme caution about the pandemic.

But one question remained: Why? Was the person behind Honeyman—supposedly a transgender “Doctor of Sociology and Feminist studies” who used they/them pronouns—really a progressive with extreme anxiety about Covid? Or were they a caricature of a liberal intended to bait right-wing users?

The story lit the conservative media on fire, with pundits like Ann Coulter and Mike Cernovich sharing it on Twitter as others cited it as evidence that Covid mitigation measures were inherently fraudulent. But the phony doctor’s reappearance allowed The Standard to take another look. 

A deeper dive into the account’s history suggested that, during the pandemic, the user underwent a transformation from Scottish soccer fan and political moderate to aggressive opponent of Covid restrictions in the year before they assumed the guise of Honeyman. That wouldn’t be surprising.

“From what we’ve seen with extremists, it’s isolation and uncertainty” that transforms people, said Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It’s individuals who suddenly feel as though their status quo has been disturbed.”

But when The Standard reached out to Honeyman by direct message, there was another surprise: They claimed to be an employee of a troll farm in southern Africa, and then vanished soon after being contacted.

So who actually was Dr. Honeyman?

Aberdeen

The first clear signs that the progressive doc wasn’t who they claimed to be came in early December, when they announced that their husband had contracted Covid and fallen into a coma. A month earlier, Honeyman had tweeted that their sister had just died of the disease.

Twitter users began to think the doctor was laying it on a bit thick. They soon discovered Honeyman didn’t exist at all. They, their husband and two other fake docs were soon suspended from the social network.

But long before reinventing themself as Honeyman, the account used the handle @bob94754463 and tweeted pugnaciously about Scottish soccer, particularly the team Aberdeen FC.

With Covid lockdowns in Scotland came a change in tone from the account—and growing signs of distress. 

“Awww I’m gonna go bankrupt😩 sorry but you’ve lost me and my family’s vote now,” they replied to news of enhanced Covid restrictions in February 2021.

When another user expressed sympathy, @bob94754463 said they had renounced their center-left political leanings: “Yup I was a independence voter and campaigner too but that’s gonna change now unfortunately.”

Football grievances during the pandemic appeared to weigh on the user most of all.

In July, they tweeted at Aberdeen FC that their “non-tech savvy father” hadn’t managed to get a ticket for an upcoming Sunday’s League opening match with Dundee United, despite having a season ticket “and waiting 1.5 years and not taking a refund on his last years season ticket.”

In September, when the team announced it would be doing vaccine certificate spot checks at an upcoming match, @bob94754463 was not happy.

“Not willing to show my medical details to ur idiot bouncer staff,” they wrote. 

As time went on, they appeared to grow more desperate.

As Scotland imposed restrictions on public gatherings for three weeks starting on Dec. 26, 2021, Aberdeen FC tweeted that it was “digesting the wide-ranging implications and challenges” of the decision. 

“Open the stadium please don’t comply it’s fucking our mental health,” @bob94754463 replied.

After a loss to Ukraine in the World Cup qualifiers on June 1, 2022, the Scotland National Team tweeted: “We were opponents for 90 minutes on the pitch tonight, but continue to stand in solidarity with you now.”

And @bob94754463 responded: “F**** off pandering c***s won’t be back.”

The Metamorphosis

Shortly thereafter, the transformation began. 

The user @bob94754463 rebranded themself as “LOCKDOWNCHAT,” then as Dr. Robert Honeyman (bio: “#boostedbecauseicare #trans so piss off bigots #lockdownenthusiast”) and eventually the final, academically credentialed version of Honeyman. 

On July 18, they added a stock photo profile image described on DepositPhotos, a royalty-free image site, as “Smiling happy, handsome latino man outside—headshot portrait.” They also scrubbed their old tweets—but not their replies.

It wasn’t an entirely smooth transition. The account’s first pro-Covid mitigation tweet was a mixture of pandemic-era progressive zingers like #WearADamnMask and #COVIDisAirborne and niche Scottish soccer hashtags.

Soon, however, the account fell into a new rhythm of tweets calibrated to provoke right-wingers by invoking mask mandates, queer identities and force of the state.

After President Joe Biden contracted Covid in July 2022, Honeyman tweeted at him urging stricter lockdowns.

“Dr. Robert Honeyman” responds to a tweet by President Joe Biden. | Screenshot

Honeyman’s Covid precautions gradually grew more extreme: In response to a tweet by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Honeyman tweeted that they’d “been wearing [a mask] even when at home alone.”

“You never know when Covid particles may creep in through the window,” Honeyman wrote. 

And Honeyman was especially eager to share they were trans—a gender identity that often provokes reactionary anger in America. They frequently invoked “transcovidsafety” papers, chronicles and meetings in their tweets.

“Dr. Robert Honeyman” interacts with a Twitter user. | Screenshot

Asked over Twitter direct message about the discrepancy between their current views and their anti-lockdown, soccer fan roots, Honeyman was succinct: “Thank you for your enquiry. This account is now used by Robert Honeyman.”

But when The Standard told Honeyman that their story did not make sense, they divulged a different tale.

Honeyman claimed that the account had been taken from a website of “potential Covid positive accounts” that included usernames and passwords. It was run from a small house in southern Africa.

“The accounts have been paid to promote Covid from a Covid influencer and small American YouTuber/website host,” they wrote. “Since payment has stopped I will be deactivating the account.

“Many people in my community get paid to do this for many other agendas,” they added.

Were they telling the truth? Like many things in the Honeyman saga, that remains a mystery.

Odd Story, Familiar Process

One individual’s transformation from soccer fan to prolific pandemic fraud is odd—even in the era of so-called “fake news.” But it’s far from unheard of, experts say.

“I’m not surprised by that path, although explaining it is really difficult,” said Robert Futrell, who, unlike Honeyman, is a real sociologist and professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas. He has spent over 20 years studying political extremism, white supremacy and radicalization.

The pandemic meant that more people were sitting at home, not working, not socializing and being exposed to messages online.

“You had a combination of the isolation, you had a combination of an energized, charged-up, mistrustful political environment and the efforts to sow chaos that were coming from the extreme right,” Futrell told The Standard. “That made for quite a stew.”

Meghan Conroy, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council and former investigator with the House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 Committee, agrees.

“Covid provided this perfect storm of conditions ripe for the spread of conspiracy theories and extremist beliefs,” she said.

But experts caution it might not be a straightforward case of radicalization.

Futrell does not exclude the possibility that the user behind Honeyman was recruited or paid to spread these messages. And Conroy notes that the user may just be seeking engagement in order to monetize their popularity on Twitter.

“Engagement is the lifeblood of social media,” she said.

As for the Honeyman, until contacted by The Standard, they weren’t letting up.

On Jan. 10, they announced they were back on Twitter after a short break and feeling “revitalized.” The next day, they tweeted that their husband had emerged from his coma and survived Covid. (His Twitter account was never resurrected.)

Honeyman’s new tweets, particularly about their husband, received likes and supportive responses. As for their detractors, who now openly call them a fraud, Honeyman was unapologetic.

“Dear bots, this account is going nowhere and will continue to shout the importance of keeping safe in pandemics,” they tweeted. “I will not retreat and will not respond to Russian bots!”  

But after responding to The Standard’s questions, they deleted their account and cast Dr. Honeyman into oblivion.

English

Matthew Kupfer can be reached at [email protected]


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