Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, pushed a false conspiracy theory on Sunday about the life-threatening assault of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband days earlier, further amplifying the type of disinformation that can lead to political violence. Musk soon deleted his tweet without explanation or apology.
On Friday, a man broke into the Pelosis’ San Francisco home and beat 82-year-old Paul Pelosi with a hammer, resulting in a skull fracture and other severe injuries that required surgery. The attacker reportedly confronted Paul Pelosi asking, “Where is Nancy, where is Nancy?” before assaulting the politician’s husband.
San Francisco police, who arrived on the scene during the encounter, identified the suspect as 42-year-old David DePape. He was arrested on charges of attempted homicide, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse and burglary. Police told NBC News that Paul Pelosi and DePape were the only people in the home, clarifying earlier statements authorities made on Friday that indicated there was a third person in the home who opened the door.
Online posts that appear to be from DePape show evidence of right-wing radicalization, sharing conspiracy theories related to voter fraud and QAnon, as well as content about pedophilia, Jews, Black people, transgender people and Democrats.
The attack on Paul Pelosi resulted in an outcry from mostly Democratic officials, including President Joe Biden, about the normalization of dangerous, threatening rhetoric among the right that is more frequently evolving into political violence.
“The Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories. It is shocking, but not surprising, that violence is the result,” former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted on Saturday, linking to a Los Angeles Times article about DePape’s apparent far-right associations. “As citizens, we must hold them accountable for their words and the actions that follow.”
Musk initially responded to Clinton’s tweet: “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” attaching a link to an article falsely claiming that Paul Pelosi’s attacker was a lover he met at a bar in the middle of the night.
The claim is not credible by any means and further threatens the safety of not only Pelosi and her family but also those in the LGBTQ community. Police confirmed to NBC News that Paul Pelosi and the suspected attacker did not know each other prior to the attack, debunking the conspiracy elevated by Musk.
Musk’s tweet was deleted hours later.
The article in question was in the Santa Monica Observer, a right-wing outlet known for publishing disinformation and outlandish conspiracy theories. The website once went as far as to peddle an outrageous conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had died and that the Democratic nominee running for president against Donald Trump in 2016 was actually a robot.
Musk’s amplification of the far-right conspiracy about the Pelosis comes just two days after he took the helm as Twitter’s chief, a move that has worried users and officials about the future of the platform and its anticipated elevation of disinformation. The billionaire’s tweet on Sunday was further evidence of that concern.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told host Chuck Todd that she does not trust Musk to run Twitter ethically. Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing federal elections, said she endorses reducing social media companies’ Section 230 immunity, which would allow them to be sued for making money off of amplifying election disinformation and hate speech.
“I think you have to have some content moderation, because when you look at what this guy was looking at, he was looking at just horrendous things you don’t even want to talk about on your show. He was posting antisemitic tropes. He was showing memes that showed violence and all of this election-denying, pro-Trump MAGA crowd rhetoric,” the senator said of the reported online footprint of Paul Pelosi’s attacker.
“That’s what we’re dealing with here. And if Elon Musk has said now that he’s going to start a content moderation board, that was one good sign. But I continue to be concerned about that,” she continued. “I just don’t think people should be making money off of passing on this stuff that’s a bunch of lies. You couldn’t do that on your own network, Chuck. … You guys look at commercials and you decide if they are false or not. That is not a requirement of these companies and we have to change the requirements on these companies. They are making money off of us. They are making money off of this violence.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Elon Musk as CEO of Twitter. He is the new owner.