Why conspiracy theories about Paul Pelosi's assault keep circulating
It didn't take long for the news of the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul, to get wrapped up in conspiracy theories.
Once the police identified the suspect in custody as David DePape, journalists quickly identified blog posts that appeared to be written by him. The writer of those posts embraced far-right views, including antisemitic tropes, false claims about the 2020 election and conspiracies about COVID vaccines. DePape's daughter told The Los Angeles Times that her father wrote the posts.
But as details of the story emerged, many high-profile outlets and personalities on the right quickly moved to cast doubt that the attack was tied to someone who shared some of their beliefs.
The Gateway Pundit, a website well-known for publishing false stories, called the attack "another liberal lie." Conservative activist Dinesh D'Souza tweeted "nothing about the public account so far makes any sense."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz shared a tweet calling the attacker "a hippie nudist from Berkeley" and dismissed the idea that the attack was motivated by right-wing ideology as "absurd." The new owner of Twitter, billionaire Elon Musk, retweeted a story with lurid suggestions from a website that's notorious for publishing falsehoods. Donald Trump Jr. also shared a meme amplifying that same theme. All three have since deleted their posts.
Even as those posts were deleted and new facts emerged disproving various false claims about the attack, conservative media figures continued to repeat the conspiracy theories. Nancy Pelosi, who's been the leader of House Democrats since 2003 and is the only woman to have served as speaker, has long been vilified by Republicans.
The speed at which mainstream figures picked up conspiracies was striking to Jared Holt, an extremism and disinformation researcher at the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Earlier this year, Holt reported about how a baseless story about biolabs in Ukraine could be traced back to one QAnon influencer on Twitter. This time, the conspiracy theories seemed to emerge spontaneously with no single originator. "After the attack on Paul Pelosi, it seemed to kind of all churn at the same time. There wasn't the same kind of, you know, origin point."
As is often the case, many aspects of false narratives aren't new. One that ISD identified surrounding the attack was that the attack was a so-called false flag operation, where the apparent perpetrator is affiliated with the perpetrator's opponents.
"Alex Jones on Infowars has been talking about false flag attacks for over a decade and this is something that in reality happens with such incredible rarity," says Erin Kearns, assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Jones infamously said that the Sandy Hook school shootings were staged by gun-control advocates to create a pretext to restrict gun ownership. He was recently ordered to pay more than $1 billion in damages stemming from those false claims. Fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact have debunked similar false flag claims in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Buffalo shooting, and El Paso and Dayton shootings in 2019 and have flagged it as a recurring theme.
False flag conspiracies as a reaction to far-right violence became more entrenched after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Holt says. Supporters of former President Donald Trump alleged that the attack was actually engineered by the FBI and other elements of the so-called "deep state" to discredit Trump and prevent him from serving another term.
Many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the assault of Paul Pelosi seem to be a reflex on the right to cast doubt on attackers' motivations or ideological influence, Holt says. It can come in various degrees of intensity.
"There's, you know, the deep end that says the CIA set this up to attack conservatives. And then there is the more sanitized version of, you know, just asking questions and just wondering what's going on here, when really the evidence is there."
The conspiracy theories also cloud the fact that the attack on Pelosi is an incident of far-right domestic terrorism, says Erin Miller, who manages the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland. She is concerned that the conspiracies can be a path to radicalization, especially as the country heads into another polarized election.
"It's just part of a broader effort to ... demonize others and to cast others in a negative light," Miller says.