Within hours of the attack on Paul Pelosi, conspiracy theories deflecting blame for the assault on the husband of U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi were already swirling online.
It didn’t matter that authorities said Paul Pelosi was alone when the suspect broke into the couple’s San Francisco home. Or that investigators said they didn’t believe the two men knew one another.
It didn’t even matter that the suspect, David DePape, confessed to investigators that he broke into the Pelosi home to target the speaker.
Misleading claims about the assault spread rapidly anyway, and not just thanks to trolls in obscure internet chatrooms. The claims received a major boost from some prominent Republicans and Elon Musk, now the owner of Twitter, one of the world’s leading online platforms.
On Monday, posts falsely suggesting a personal relationship between Pelosi and the alleged assailant, soared on Twitter, a day after Musk tweeted and deleted a link to an article suggesting one from the Santa Monica Observer.
Musk hasn’t said why he linked to the article, or why he deleted his post, which came in response to a tweet from Hillary Clinton that condemned the attack.
One of several Republicans to amplify the baseless conspiracy theory, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., defended Musk on Monday with a tweet that repeated the misleading claim about “Paul Pelosi’s friend attacking him with a hammer.”
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., joked about the attack with his own tweet, since deleted, that repeated the conspiracy theory.
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, ridiculed Paul Pelosi on Twitter with false assertions.
The claim also spread to other platforms, including fringe sites like Gab and Truth Social, where posts mocked the victim.
San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins on Monday begged other political leaders to be mindful of their comments about the case.
“We of course do not want distorted facts floating around, certainly not in a manner that is further traumatizing a family that has been traumatized enough,” she said.
The posts focusing on Paul Pelosi were just a subset of a recent wave of hateful and conspiracy theory-laden posts that followed Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
Within just 12 hours of Musk’s purchase being finalized Friday, references to a specific racist epithet used to demean Black people shot up by 500%, according to an analysis conducted by the National Contagion Research Institute, a Princeton, N.J.-based firm that tracks disinformation.
Extremism experts and disinformation researchers had warned that the change in ownership could upend Twitter’s efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech, especially with this year’s midterm elections just days away.
Yosef Getachew, director of the media and democracy program at Common Cause, said there’s a significant risk that misinformation spreading so soon before the election could confuse or frighten voters, or lead to more polarization or even acts of violence.
“Rather than cave in to conspiracy theorists and propaganda peddlers, we urge Musk to ensure Twitter’s rules and enforcement practices reflect our values of democracy and public safety,” Getachew said.
While belief in conspiracy theories is nothing new to American history, experts who study disinformation say they can become dangerous when they persuade people to consider violence as an alternative to politics, or when they cause people to ignore inconvenient truths.
Twitter and other platforms have “created a toxic atmosphere where public officials and their families are at risk (and) now online threats are spilling over into real-world violence,” said Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a group that supports new regulations on platforms.