An intruder breaks into the home of the second-placed president and hits her 82-year-old husband with a hammer. Yet millions – including politicians, public figures and the world’s richest man – seem to believe the incident was not a political attack at all, but a drunken lovers’ quarrel.
Although the outlandish accounts of the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, have garnered widespread attention, the tactics used to spread them have generally been overlooked. A NewsGuard analysis of false stories related to the incident reveals how Paul Pelosi’s conspiracy went from fringe to mainstream in days, made possible by the limited information and unintentional misrepresentations that often accompany developing reporting, and dramatically amplified by a cast of smart actors taking advantage of the speed and reach of social media. These included right-wing figures who sought to deflect the narrative from the idea that the attack was an act of political violence fueled by right-wing rhetoric.
NewsGuard identified four major false allegations that converged on the unfounded narrative that Pelosi and the attacker, David DePape, were secretly involved in an intimate relationship: that DePape was in his underwear when police arrived on the scene; that Pelosi and DePape were friends; that a third party was inside the house but did nothing to stop or report the incident; and that the pattern of the broken glass in the back door of the house could only have been produced by someone breaking it from the inside.
Tracing how some of these claims originated and spread so widely across the internet provides insight into how our current news ecosystem works, and how it can be so easily harnessed to define breaking news before stories are fully understood. — or at least to muddy the waters for people who turn to certain outlets and social media accounts for their news.
One of the main threads of misinformation about the attack emerged from an innocent mistake made by a mainstream news agency – Fox’s San Francisco-based subsidiary KTVU – which, two hours after news broke of the attack, reported that DePape was arrested in his underwear. The article was corrected about two hours later because there was no evidence that DePape was wearing anything but underwear. The claim was refuted three days later in federal charging documents, which included testimony from DePape confessing to the break-in and said DePape wore shorts with pockets. But the damage was already done.
NewsGuard has identified at least 70 Facebook posts, tweets, TikTok videos and combined articles, all of which cite KTVU, falsely claiming that DePape wore only underwear during the attack, supposedly proof that the men were involved. in an intimate relationship.
This claim received a significant boost on October 30 when Donald Trump Jr. retweeted an image of an undergarment and a hammer, with the caption “I prepared my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume”. The post received around 19,000 likes. Other right-wing figures have played a major role in spreading the lie, including commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who job four tweet mentioning that DePape wore underwear.
As a result, even five days after the KTVU article was corrected, and two days after prosecutors said DePape confessed to the political nature of the attack, the fake underwear allegation continued to thrive on social media, illustrating the lasting influence of lies when amplified by influencers. It also demonstrates the limitations of corrections, which, although intended to clarify and inform, are often completely ignored by those who seek to confuse and misinform.
The false claim that there was a third person inside the Pelosi home during the attack did not come from established news organizations. Rather, it was based on a misrepresentation of an official statement, which was seized by conspirators. This highlights one of the most common tactics used by disinformation purveyors: selectively citing authoritative sources when it supports their agenda.
The lie about a third person has its roots in an Oct. 28 press conference by San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, who said, “When the police came and knocked on the door of entrance to the residence this morning, the door was opened by someone inside.” This remark was widely misinterpreted by social media users and others to mean that there was an unidentified third person inside the house during the attack.
But when Politico and NBC News dug into the details of who was inside the house, conspiracy theorists — who often disparage the established media — were quick to cite them. An Oct. 28 Politico article that misleadingly stated that “officers arrived at the house, knocked on the front door, and were let in by a stranger,” has been cited in at least 50 articles and publications. on fake and misleading social media, NewsGuard found. (Politico quickly issued a correction to the original story, stating that “there were only two people inside the Pelosi house when the police arrived.”)
Similarly, in an Oct. 30 segment of “Meet The Press,” NBC correspondent Tom Winter falsely stated that Scott “stated there was a third person inside the house who opened the door to the police when she was called to that house”. (Although the winter thereafter corrected itself on Twitter, the segment’s clip remained uncorrected on NBC’s website as of November 3.)
Nonetheless, an Oct. 29 article by the Gateway Pundit, whose NewsGuard assessment includes details of its history of publishing false information, stated that “Politico said police were let in by an unknown person. This is all over the internet. … Now people are wondering if there was a third person involved in the incident.” An Oct. 30 article by The Gateway Pundit said NBC correspondent Tom “Winter has also confirmed that a third person was at Pelosi’s home at the time of the attack.”
The Gateway Pundit is often dismissive and even outright hostile to mainstream media such as Politico. Failing to consider Politico’s correction, Gateway Pundit promoted a false narrative while showing how disinformation providers use these sources: despite their distrust of more traditional information providers, malicious actors often rely on these media when advancing their agenda.
On October 30, the bad actors also had a powerful ally on their side, when Elon Musk, who had bought the platform two days earlier, tweeted a response to a post from Hillary Clinton about DePape’s social media history of spreading conspiracy theories. Musk, who has 113 million Twitter followers, said in his tweet that there “may be more to this story than meets the eye”, and linked to an article from the Santa Monica Observer.
Neither Musk nor Twitter warned users of the platform that the Santa Monica Observer had previously failed basic criteria for journalistic practice. NewsGuard has for several years red-marked this site as untrustworthy and warned readers to proceed with caution. NewsGuard’s nutrition label for this site noted that it had previously advanced hoaxes, such as Hillary Clinton being replaced by a lookalike during a September 2016 debate with Donald Trump.
The Santa Monica Observer article, titled “The Awful Truth: Paul Pelosi Was Drunk Again, And In a Dispute With a Male Prostitute Early Friday Morning”, began by theorizing: “As gay bars in SF closed at 2 a.m., two gay men met at a bar and went home together. It happens every night in the town by the bay. Except one of these two men was married to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Beyond the unsubstantiated claim about DePape, the article cited numerous rumors circulating online at the time, including that DePape “was in his underwear.” Following intense backlash, Musk deleted the Tweet, but only after receiving around 99,000 likes. The Santa Monica Observer removed the article from the website on November 1.
The spread of wild conspiracies after dramatic current events is not a new phenomenon. However, the social media environment in which they emerge has allowed false narratives to quickly gain traction. As the false allegations about the attack on Paul Pelosi show, when news consumers expect information immediately, stories that grow, incomplete and sometimes misreported in some detail can easily be turned into enduring false narratives but lies. far-reaching, which are then intensified. in echo chambers on platforms such as Twitter. By November 3, the hashtag #Pelosigaylover had been posted at least 40,000 times on Twitter.
To be clear, the spread of the conspiracies was not the result of a single tweet from the owner of Twitter, an inaccurate report from local media, or a growing lack of trust in authority. Each of these factors converged into a baseless narrative that quickly reached every corner of the internet. By the time the US Department of Justice released its criminal complaint against DePape on October 31, which directly refuted many of the lies, an alternate reality had already sunk into the public consciousness, at least in one camp of the electorate. highly polarized.
For many, no evidence contradicting the claim that Paul Pelosi somehow knew the attacker – including DePape’s own testimony – will change the perceptions created before many facts were known. . As social media continues to allow malicious actors to fabricate unchecked narratives and empower people to seek out only the information they want, rooted false narratives will become more common and undermine the truth. .
Lorenzo Arvanitis and McKenzie Sadeghi are analysts at NewsGuard, a news agency that rates and reviews news and information websites and monitors and reports misinformation.