False information and conspiracy theories began to circulate online quickly in the days after the break-in and attack on Paul Pelosi at his and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) home in San Francisco on Friday, underscoring the hold such misinformation has on a part of the culture.
In this case, the conspiracy theories were also spread by some of the most powerful people in the world — Elon Musk and former President Trump.
Musk, the tech billionaire who had just finalized his purchase of Twitter, tweeted a link to an article focusing on the event from a website known for publishing false information. He later deleted it, but not before it was sent to his millions of followers.
Trump called it a “sad situation” before suggesting no one had broken into the Speaker’s house — a conclusion in conflict with what the police have said happened.
“Wow, it’s weird things going on in that household in the last couple of weeks,” Trump said during an appearance on the “Chris Stigall Show.” “The glass it seems was broken from the inside to the out, so it wasn’t a break-in, it was a break-out.”
The spreading of disinformation provoked a furious response on Monday from San Francisco Police Chief William Scott.
“There is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Pelosi knew this man, and as a matter of fact the evidence indicates the exact opposite,” Scott said during a briefing with reporters.
He said such conspiracy theories were “damaging to the people involved” and “damaging to this investigation.”
Scott also said the conspiracies are being spread by people “whether they believe it or not.”
The conspiracies have provoked angry responses from Democrats, who say it is part of an ugly pattern.
Musk’s tweet was in response to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who earlier in the day had blamed the GOP for spreading misinformation.
Clinton wrote that “the Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories,” linking GOP rhetoric to the attack at the Pelosis’ home.
“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote in response, attaching a link to the Santa Monica Observer, an obscure website that has published false information about Clinton, Trump and other public figures in recent years.
Among the baseless conspiracies floated by the Observer and others in far-right corners of the internet were suggestions that Paul Pelosi and his attacker knew one another, were in a romantic relationship or that a third person was in the home when police arrived.
Similar conspiracies were buzzed about over the weekend by a number of far-right internet influencers and online conservative personalities.
Democrats say the ugly pattern involves people with big megaphones like Trump or Musk putting out disinformation, and then seeing that disinformation become fact for millions.
Trump, most famously, has refused to acknowledge his defeat in the 2020 election, repeatedly arguing an election was stolen from him despite a lack of any evidence. Trump’s claims have found no backing from various investigations, yet they are believed by millions.
His statements questioning the election led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the building to stop Congress’s counting of the Electoral College votes.
Police say the suspect in the Pelosi case, David DePape, 42, broke into the Pelosi residence in the middle of the night, threatened to hold the couple hostage and hit Paul Pelosi with a hammer. The Speaker was not in San Francisco that day.
San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins (D) also said this week DePape “forced his way into the home through a rear glass door by breaking that glass.”
DePape is facing assault and attempted kidnapping charges in connection in the case, while more details about the circumstances of the attack remain unclear.
The incident itself has raised concerns about political polarization and disinformation leading to violence. DePape is said to have been asking “Where is Nancy?” during the break-in.
Some in conservative media, despite the statements from police, have sought to cast doubt on the official story.
“Let’s see it,” Megyn Kelly, the former cable news pundit turned conservative podcaster, said this week of the police body cam footage from the incident. “Let’s see it all. I don’t know what went on. I know enough to smell a rat. There’s something going on here that they’re not telling us. I just don’t know what it is.”
Observers of political speech on social media warn that this cycle of disinformation and violence will just have more dangerous consequences.
“It’s like everything is on an equal platform even though everything isn’t equally informed,” said Jeffrey Blevins, a professor in the department of journalism and the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Cincinnati who has extensively researched social media algorithms and user behavior.
“Especially when people are looking to these authority figures … the mere factors that ‘he says it’ right or wrong gives it this sense of legitimacy,” he added.
Disinformation experts worry that proposed changes to Twitter’s content moderation procedures such as Musk has proposed could open the floodgates for conspiracies like the one he shared on Pelosi.
“It’s a pretty radical change when literally the owner of the platform is promoting this [false] content,” said Kenneth Joseph, an assistant professor of computing science at the University of Buffalo whose area of study focuses on prejudice, bias, social media and news consumption.
“As much as we like to think of social media as a public space, we always have to remember that somebody owns these platforms. So when the public space becomes a place where those who own it are pushing this content, we have to rethink whose space is this and what is its purpose.”
Kurt Braddock, an extremism researcher at American University, compared the incident at the Pelosis’ home, and the conspiracy theories it has sparked, to those that popped up following the Jan. 6 attack.
“There were conspiracy theories that the crowd was nothing but antifa members, there were no Trump supporters that stormed the Capitol and all kinds of other disinformation,” Braddock said.
“Here it’s an individual who seems to be motivated by ideas that have been espoused by elements of the right wing. So by cultivating these conspiracy theories and using a bullhorn to amplify them on social media, what it does is distract from the actual motivations of the attacker.”