In the early morning hours of October 28 2022, a hammer-wielding intruder entered the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, encountering and attacking her husband Paul.
Paul Pelosi sustained head injuries, severe enough to warrant emergency surgery. Later that day, Speaker Pelosi’s office issued a statement indicating the surgery was successful and complete:
“Earlier this morning [October 28 2022], Paul Pelosi was attacked at home by an assailant who acted with force, and threatened his life while demanding to see the Speaker.
“Mr. Pelosi was admitted to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital where he underwent successful surgery to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands. His doctors expect a full recovery.
“The Speaker and her family are thankful for the outpouring of support and prayers from friends, constituents and people around the country. The Pelosi family is immensely grateful to Mr. Pelosi’s entire medical team and the law enforcement officers who responded to the assault. The family appreciates respect for their privacy during this time.”
Coverage of and discourse about the incident quickly took on a life of their own, creating a tangle of speculation and disinformation exacerbated by aspects such as proximity to the November 8 2022 midterm elections. We will attempt to address balkanized elements of news and social media discussions here.
In the News
As we indicated in our page about the incident, most major American news outlets covered it in a “liveblog” format, eschewing individual articles for a single, frequently updated landing page.
With respect to editorials, on October 29 2022, British economist Umair Haque published “This Is Why American Democracy Is on the Brink.” Haque examined and critiqued, among other things, the careless coverage which seemed to either miss or downplay the political implications of the attack.
Haque started by pointing out that two very prominent news sources — the New York Times and the Washington Post — placed the story “below the fold,” i.e., not visible when a newspaper is folded, or not a “top story.” Emphasis below is Haque’s:
[News coverage] was even more shocking and disturbing, in a way, than what happened the night before. Yesterday [October 28 2022], there was an assassination attempt on the Speaker of the House. Her husband was attacked by a far-right extremist wielding a hammer, and underwent brain surgery. And today [October 29 2022]? American media failed to cover it properly.
If you opened the Washington Post or New York Times, the stories were below the fold. If you were just scanning the top stories, you wouldn’t even know that there’d been an assassination attempt on a major political figure, on the eve of a crucial election.
I put that in italics because even given America’s abject state, that is a gross, scandalous failure. It beggars belief that media wouldn’t cover a story like this properly, because of course, it should be the biggest one. So. Let’s note the deafening silence here first, and then discuss it a little bit, the meaning and implications of such a failure.
I’m going to put the central question very simply.
Why wasn’t the top headline in every newspaper and media outlet in America “Assassination attempt on Speaker of the House?” How could it really be anything else? And why is it that even when the story was covered, in the meagre ways it was, that wasn’t the headline at all — but stuff like “Pelosi’s Husband Attacked” was?
Immediately thereafter, Haque explained why the placement of news about the attempt on Pelosi’s life was troubling:
That isn’t the truth. The truth isn’t that Pelosi’s husband was “attacked.” This wasn’t a random mugging, or a street fight, or someone’s dog nipping at his heels. It was a) a politically motivated fanatic b) radicalized by the GOP c) its Big Lies in particular, from the election was stolen to Covid is a hoax and all the rest of them d) looking for the Speaker of the House, not her husband e) likely in order to kill her.
That is an assassination attempt. Not an “attack.” The way this story is being covered is dismal — and it tells us, too, why America still struggles with fascism even at this juncture, its democracy under threat.
After all, if the media won’t write the headline, “Assassination attempt on Speaker of the House” — and won’t put it at the top of the coverage, either — then, really, how can democracy survive? If violence of this kind — political, extreme, fanatical, targeted — is minimized, how can democracy survive?
This failure isn’t just about “the media,” which takes a lot of flak these days. It’s about the consequences, really. It’s about a general atmosphere of complacency. It can’t happen here. How does that attitude come to be?
On October 31 2022, the New York Times published a letter to the editor addressing the decision to place its coverage “below the fold”:
To the Editor:
I don’t understand why an article detailing an apparent planned attack on the speaker of the House was below the fold in the print edition on Saturday. Are we that desensitized to violent physical and political attacks?
Nancy Pelosi is second in line for the presidency. This attacker who severely injured her husband with a hammer after screaming “Where is Nancy?” is reportedly steeped in the same election lies and QAnon conspiracy theories espoused daily and viciously at rallies by former President Donald Trump and his followers, like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has voiced support for executing the speaker. It’s a sad commentary on our society how numb to violence we’ve become.
I hope the speaker stays safe from this MAGA contingent led by the former president and his ilk.
The news organization did not appear to offer an answer.
Haque and the letter writer were not the only people to object in this regard; an editorial from LawfareBlog.com made a similar observation, first drawing parallels between the incident and the Capitol insurrection:
Of all the recordings of the violence on Jan. 6 , some of the most disturbing video documents insurrectionists searching for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “Oh Nancy—where are you, Nancy?” one rioter calls out as he saunters through the building. It was a small moment, but watching as the House impeachment managers presented the clip during Donald Trump’s Senate trial, something about it made my skin crawl. As columnist Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post, the insurrectionist’s singsong tone—and the familiarity of referring to the speaker of the House just as Nancy—evokes a very particular kind of cruelty by men against women: “the sort of affectation a bad man might pick up after too many viewings of ‘The Shining.'”
That November 1 2022 analysis continued, raising a complaint similar to Haque’s (emphasis ours). It also mentioned one of the initial pieces of disinformation to have been circulated immediately after the attack:
Luckily, the attack was not fatal—the speaker’s office says that Paul Pelosi “is making steady progress on what will be a long recovery process”—and Nancy Pelosi herself was not there. But the incident represents an exceedingly close call. And yet, coverage of the incident seems to have downplayed the significance of a kidnapping attempt and possibly even an assassination attempt against the speaker of the House, the woman [second] in line to the presidency. The New York Times placed the story below the fold on the next day’s paper. On Twitter — which remains, for now, an influential hub for political journalists — debate over the implications of Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform well outpaced discussion of the Pelosi attack, at least until Musk tweeted and then deleted a link to a far-right conspiracy theory about the assault.
Early Conspiracies About the Pelosi Attack, Featuring Elon Musk
While news coverage downplaying the incident was not widely expected, the presence of intentionally seeded disinformation was anticipated and predictable.
One of the first claims to circulate was that Paul Pelosi’s attacker was a sex worker, and his presence at the Pelosi residence amounted to a tryst gone wrong:
Rather than grappling with the possibility that Pelosi’s husband was attacked because a man was radicalized by right-wing conspiracies, the people who have promoted those theories have embraced a new, fact-free narrative that a gay lover Pelosi was having an affair with attacked him, based on an incorrect initial report that the attacker was in his underwear when police arrived.
Vice.com linked to an example of the popular rumor as it appeared on Twitter:
That tweet featured a screenshot of a tweet from Rep. Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana). Above a photograph of Nancy Pelosi, Higgins wrote:
That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser.
Several news organizations attributed the conspiracy theory’s origins to an erroneous early report that the attacker (David DePape) was “in his underwear” when police responded. An October 28 2022 KTVU report included the following editor’s note at the bottom:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated what clothing the suspect was wearing when officers found him.
A November 1 2022 Fox News article, “Attacker wanted to ‘kneecap’ Nancy: Partisan conspiracies in Paul Pelosi assault,” described the rumor as “complete fiction”:
As for Higgins’ tweet, which he hasn’t addressed, DePape does appear to have been at nudist protests, and acquaintances say he has struggled with drug abuse. But while there’s much we don’t know about the attack, the “male prostitute” part is complete fiction, yet another conspiracy theory that DePape (who brought zip ties to the couple’s San Francisco home) was actually a paramour of Paul Pelosi (before the hammer part, I guess).
“Creative” disinformation may have been par for the course, but that particular angle shot to widespread prominence when Twitter’s new owner amplified it in a tweet responding to Hillary Clinton:
Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, tweeted and deleted an unfounded anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory Sunday morning [October 30 2022] about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband from a website that has a history of publishing false information.
Musk responded to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she tweeted out a Los Angeles Times story about how David DePape, the suspect in the attack on Paul Pelosi, had spread far-right conspiracy theories.
Clinton tweeted the link to that story along with the message: “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. As citizens, we must hold them accountable for their words and the actions that follow.”
Musk wrote to Clinton at 8:15 a.m. Sunday [October 30 2022], linking to a story published on a right-wing website called the Santa Monica Observer that questioned the circumstances of the attack on Pelosi, according to an archived version of the story. “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” he wrote. (The website was no longer accessible late Sunday morning [October 30 2022].)
Musk deleted the tweet by early Sunday afternoon [October 30 2022]. As of late Sunday morning [October 30 2022], it had more than 24,000 retweets and more than 86,000 likes, and it was quickly gaining more traction.
Google Trends data showed a spike in searches for “Paul Pelosi gay?” Furthermore, hashtags like “#pelosigaylover” trended throughout the weekend of October 30 2022, and led to tweets like this:
‘Paul Pelosi Knew His Attacker’
Another thread, which was woven through the first rumor, held that Paul Pelosi knew DePape before the break-in, as demonstrated in this October 30 2022 tweet:
Purported audio of a 911 call was attached to the tweet. However, that particular disinformation narrative ignored myriad early, high-profile reports about Paul Pelosi’s call to police.
On October 28 2022, Politico.com published “Paul Pelosi told attacker he needed to use the bathroom, called 911 from there.” It, like many other initial reports, noted that Paul Pelosi managed to surreptitiously call 911 and didn’t want DePape to know:
Paul Pelosi was able to dial 911 himself after telling the intruder he had to go use the bathroom and then calling from there, where his phone had been charging, according to a person familiar with the situation.
An October 30 2022 Guardian article, “A secret bathroom 911 call: how Paul Pelosi saved his own life,” aggregated news about the 911 call and explained that Pelosi “spoke in ‘code'” to a 911 dispatcher in a move that may have “saved [his] life”:
According to Politico, Paul Pelosi told the alleged intruder – identified by authorities as David DePape – that he needed to use the restroom. Paul Pelosi’s mobile phone was charging in the bathroom at the time; the 82-year-old then made a surreptitious call to 911, and remained connected.
The emergency services dispatcher, Heather Grimes, heard an exchange between Paul Pelosi and his attacker as he spoke in “code” to alert the authorities there was a problem. “What’s going on? Why are you here? What are you going to do to me?” Pelosi reportedly said while on the call.
A suspicious Grimes then notified police for a wellness check.
“It is really thanks to Mr Pelosi having the ability to make that call, and truly the attention and the instincts of that dispatcher to realize that something was wrong in that situation and to make the police call a priority so they got there within two minutes to respond to this situation,” Brooke Jenkins, San Francisco’s district attorney, told CNN.
Goalposts Shift: DePape’s Immigration Status
By October 31 2022, a completely different claim emerged and was mixed into the toxic narrative brew — that DePape was an immigrant who had overstayed his visa:
As usual, a neatly choreographed chain of disinformation purveyors fell into line, as the usual suspects did their best to shift the discourse to their favorite disinformation topic, immigration. Blogger Benny Johnson tweeted the claim at least twice, and the rest of the anti-immigration right wing followed suit:
Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:
The fact that DePape was an immigrant was not a suppressed aspect of the story, nor did anyone try to claim otherwise. An October 28 2022 CNN.com report included the following excerpt:
Three of DePape’s relatives told CNN that DePape has been estranged from his family for years, and confirmed that the Facebook account – which was taken down by the social media company on Friday [October 28 2022] – belonged to him.
His stepfather, Gene DePape, said David DePape grew up in Powell River, British Columbia, and left Canada about 20 years ago to pursue a relationship that brought him to California.
A November 1 2022 New York Post “report” about DePape’s immigration status cited unnamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “sources” when repeating the claim that DePape overstayed his visa. However, the paper did not indicate there was any ICE involvement with the case, nor whether there were any charges filed regarding immigration-related offenses:
The 42-year-old suspect was born in Canada in 1980 and was in the US as early as 2001, sources said, citing his valid Social Security number, which can only be obtained with a job.
The Social Security number was obtained in Hawaii, sources said. It’s unclear how long DePape stayed in the country past the legal threshold.
DePape faces charges from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and other criminal counts. He was also charged federally with attempted kidnapping and assault.
As is so often the case, conspiracy theories about the attack relied of half-truths, early reports later corrected, and attempts to divert public attention and “flood the zone” with lies — all of which were encapsulated in one wide-ranging tweet:
As Politico.com reported in a conspiracy roundup on November 1 2022, initial conspiracy theories were confounded when DePape’s statements were disclosed alongside charging documents:
… an affidavit accompanying federal charges filed Monday [November 1 2022[ noted multiple times that, contrary to baseless claims spread online, Paul Pelosi did not know the intruder and had never seen him before — facts [Pelosi] relayed to the 911 dispatcher and law enforcement officers.
DePape told authorities, per the federal affidavit, that he viewed the speaker as the “leader of the pack of lies” told by the Democratic party, and that he intended to hold her hostage until she “told the truth,” or else he would break her kneecaps. Even after Paul Pelosi called 911, DePape said he stayed in the house because “much like the American founding fathers with the British, he was fighting against tyranny without the option of surrender.”
Almost immediately after Paul Pelosi was attacked, disinformation purveyors did their best to muddy the waters with wave after wave of conspiracies clearly intended to obscure the truth of the matter — which was that the attacker was, in his own words, motivated by weaponized conspiracy narratives. A first wave held that DePape was a sex worker, claims contradicted in federal charging documents. When that story fell apart, focus abruptly shifted to assertions DePape was an “illegal immigrant.” As was repeatedly observed by those with expertise in disinformation and counterdisinformation, those fabrications stood taller in a news cycle where the relatively major news story often appeared “below the fold” across mainstream publications.