Just days after buying Twitter, Elon Musk is fueling a wave of misinformation on the service regarding the Pelosi attack
Hours after the attack on Paul Pelosi, conspiracy theories deflecting blame for the assault on US President Nancy Pelosi’s husband were already swirling online.
Never mind 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 each other.
It didn’t matter that the suspect, David DePape, confessed to investigators that he broke into the Pelosi home to target the speaker.
Either way, misleading claims about the assault spread quickly, and not just through trolls in obscure internet chat rooms. The claims received a major boost from some prominent Republicans and Elon Musk, now owner of Twitterone of the world’s leading online platforms.
Posts falsely suggesting a personal relationship between Pelosi and the alleged attacker skyrocketed on Twitter on Monday, a day after Musk tweeted and deleted a link to an article by suggesting one.
Musk did not explain why he linked to the article, or why he deleted his post, in response to a tweet from Hillary Clinton condemning the attack. Twitter did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press on Monday.
“It’s like he forgot for a second that he’s now the owner of the platform, and not just another user who can say whatever he wants,” said Brad Greenspan, a technology entrepreneur. and one of MySpace’s earliest investors. “Now as an owner there is a whole new set of responsibilities.”
One of many 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 that “Paul Pelosi’s friend the attacked with a hammer”.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., joked about the attack with his own, since-deleted tweet that repeated the conspiracy theory.
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, ridiculed Paul Pelosi on Twitter with false claims.
The complaint also spread to other platforms, including fringe sites like Gab and Truth Social, where posts mocked the 82-year-old victim.
San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins on Monday pleaded with other political leaders to heed their comments on the case.
“We of course don’t want distorted facts circulating, certainly not in a way that further traumatizes a family that has been traumatized enough,” she said.
The Paul Pelosi-focused posts were just a subset of a recent wave of hateful, conspiracy-laden posts that followed Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
Within 12 hours of completing the Musk buyout on Friday, references to a specific racist epithet used to demean black people rose 500%, according to an analysis conducted by the National Contagion Research Institute, a Princeton-based firm, NJ that tracks misinformation.
Extremism experts and disinformation researchers had warned that the change in ownership could upend Twitter’s efforts to tackle disinformation and hate speech, especially just days before this year’s midterm elections.
Yosef Getachew, director of Common Cause’s media and democracy program, said there is a significant risk that misinformation spreading so soon before the election could confuse or scare voters, or lead to further polarization or even to acts of violence.
“Rather than give in to conspiracy theorists and propaganda peddlers, we urge Musk to ensure that Twitter’s rules and enforcement practices reflect our values of democracy and public safety,” Getachew said.
San Francisco authorities held a press conference on Monday to discuss the latest information on the investigation into the attack. DePape told police he wanted to take Nancy Pelosi hostage and “break her kneecaps,” they said.
District Attorney Brooke Jenkins also debunked several other aspects of the conspiracy theory, saying there was no evidence DePape knew Paul Pelosi and claiming that Pelosi was home alone when DePape broke in.
Whereas belief in conspiracy theories isn’t new to American history, experts who study misinformation say it can become dangerous when persuading people view violence as an alternative to politicsor when they cause people to ignore inconvenient truths.
DePape seems to have writes racist and often rambling online posts in which he questioned the 2020 election results, defended former President Donald Trump and echoed QAnon conspiracy theories.
QAnon adherents support the belief that Trump is secretly waging a battle against a cult of blood-drinking Satanists who have controlled world events for eons. The movement was linked to an increasing number of acts of violence in the real world during the last years.
Social media has accelerated the proliferation of conspiracy theories, helped believers organize and allowed groups to weaponize misinformation for their own ends, according to Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a group that supports new regulations on platforms.
Twitter and other platforms, Haworth said, have “created a toxic atmosphere in which public officials and their families are at risk (and) now online threats are turning into real-world violence.”
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