Fact check: Posts falsely claim first vaccine recipients in the UK are 'crisis actors'

The claim: The first vaccine recipients in the UK are crisis actors

This week, Margaret Keenan — a grandmother who turns 91 next week — became the first recipient of the coronavirus vaccine in the United Kingdom.

She received the shot, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, on Dec. 8 at University Hospital Coventry and said it was "the best early birthday present," per USA TODAY.

But some skeptics have taken to the internet with allegations that Keenan is not who she claims — and is actually a crisis actor.

An analysis by USA TODAY showed that in just 24 hours, over 475,000 Twitter users were potentially exposed to a single tweet that levied the allegation.

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The proof they cite ranges from photos of similar-looking women to the variant dates on news articles that feature photos of vaccine recipients like Keenan.

Joe Ward, for example, posted a photo of Keenan receiving the vaccine, a photo of another woman falling to the ground, and a screenshot of a profile on the casting website StarNow.

"Liz Scott AKA Margaret Keenan. Crisis Actor. Whoops...," he wrote on Facebook.

Mindy Robinson, meanwhile, posted screenshots of two news articles featuring photos of Keenan. The first — a story about Keenan from BBC — was dated Dec. 8. The second was a story about the coronavirus death tally, dated Oct. 22.

"Excuse me, but how is the exact same person who’s the 'first to get vaccinated' today...also in a CNN photo wearing the exact same clothes, in the exact same chair, and getting a shot back in October?" she wrote on Twitter.

Erin Marie Olszewski also posted screenshots of articles with different dates. Rather than Keenan, the articles include photos of William Shakespeare, 81, the second recipient of the shot. 

The first — a story about Shakespeare, from BBC — was dated Dec. 8. The second was the same story on CNN about the coronavirus death tally, dated Oct. 22.

"Crisis actors," she wrote on Facebook. She also posted a meme that compared photos of Shakespeare and Keenan as they received the shot, administered by the same nurse.

"Busy nurse today working in Coventry and Stratford-upon-Avon at the same time," the meme reads, along with a sarcastic emoji.

Ward and Robinson have not responded to requests from USA TODAY for comment.

Olszewski told USA TODAY that her post "didn't claim that it was for sure."

Rather, she posted it as an example of what she sees to be a pattern of media that "fakes the news" on COVID-19.

"Even if this particular one isn't true, it has happened in the past, and that cannot be disputed," Olszewski said.

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No credible evidence that vaccine recipients were crisis actors

There is no credible evidence to suggest that Keenan is a crisis actor. 

In reality, the now-retired grandmother is a former jewelry shop assistant, per a press release from the National Health Service.

She is clearly depicted in photos and videos from Reuters and the NHS England — and looks different from both of the women in the other photos posted by Ward.

Take the photo of a woman falling to the ground.

The image — snapped by Justin Tallis, a staff photographer for the AFP — came from an anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination demonstration in London on Sept. 26.

The woman in the photo hardly resembles Keenan, apart from her red hair. She appears to be much younger and less frail.

The same is true of Liz Scott, the woman in the profile on the casting website Star Now.

On her profile, Scott lists her hair and eye color as brown. In contrast, Keenan has red hair and blue eyes. Scott also lists no acting experience, including crisis acting.

Asked about the crisis-actors conspiracy theory, a journalist at The Sun told Lead Stories that Keenan is "100 percent a real person." 

"She and her family have spoken to various media outlets and there are loads of pics of her out there if you Google," he wrote in an email. "Journalists have also been to her home. The whole theory is ... crazy."

Margaret Keenan, 90, becomes the first patient in the world to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The shot was administered by nurse May Parsons, right, at University Hospital, Coventry, England, on Dec. 8, 2020.

What about the articles that feature photos of Keenan and Shakespeare, but are dated prior to Dec. 8?

The story in question, published on CNN.com on Oct. 22, covered a report on the coronavirus death tally. The article doesn't actually include any images of Keenan or Shakespeare.

But directly below the headline, the webpage displays a video reel with a recent handful of videos, including a video on the recent vaccinations that shows footage of Keenan and Shakespeare. 

Mindy Robinson herself later noted this, and tweeted: "So, benefit of the doubt they just use new stories in their banners on old articles?"

"Bill" William Shakespeare, 81, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, at University Hospital, Coventry, England, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020.

The meme about the nurse who administered the shots is also wrong.

It claims that the nurse who administered the shots was working in "Coventry and Stratford-upon-Avon at the same time." She wasn't — but she didn't have to be.

Shakespeare received the shot at University Hospital Coventry, just like Keenan. Both received the vaccine from nurse May Parsons, per the New York Times.

(It was a different William Shakespeare, the 16th-century playwright, who hailed from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon.)

Fact checkers from Reuters and Politifact have also debunked claims that Keenan is a crisis actor.

A few other claims about Keenan have appeared online, too.

Some have claimed that Keenan is actually dead based on an obituary from 2008. But the subject of the online memorial is "clearly a completely different person," according to Vice News.

Others have baselessly asserted that a gesture she made links her to the Freemasons or the Illuminati. There's no proof of a connection to either.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, the claim that the first vaccine recipients in the U.K. are crisis actors is FALSE. There is no evidence that Margaret Keenan, a grandmother who will turn 91 next week, is a crisis actor. Photos used as proof depict different-looking women. A story on CNN in October does not actually show Keenan or William Shakespeare, who also received the vaccine; it just includes a video of them in a reel above the story. And they both received their shots in Coventry.

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