(CNN) — Prominent figures on social media, including some of the loudest voices on the political right, are pushing a salacious and false conspiracy theory about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, in an apparent attempt to shift the narrative about the assault.
The claim that big names like Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Jr., and Dinesh D’Souza have promoted to millions of their followers: Paul Pelosi and the man who attacked him were gay lovers who had gotten into a fight.
The spurious theory traces back to an incorrect early news report and a handful of pieces of evidence that its proponents have spun wildly out of context. It runs contrary to the explanation police and federal law enforcement have outlined — that the suspect in the attack, David DePape, broke into Pelosi’s house and attacked him.
“There is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Pelosi knew this man,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott told CNN in an interview. “As a matter of fact, the evidence indicates the exact opposite.”
But the explosion of social media posts discussing the theory shows how quickly conspiracies can spread, and how eagerly some political actors use falsehoods to push their agendas — even as violent threats against lawmakers have multiplied in recent years.
A conspiracy linked to Nancy Pelosi, who has long been a lightning rod for conservatives and played a starring role in GOP attack ads, was an especially appealing target for right-wing conspiracists, according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who studies polarization and extremism.
“We have a population that is unable to discern what is true and what’s not, and this spreading of misinformation from credible sources undermines that,” Miller-Idriss said. “People are willing to accept conspiracy theories when they reinforce the narrative they already hold in their head.”
According to police and an FBI affidavit included in the federal criminal complaint, DePape broke into a glass door in Pelosi’s San Francisco home early Friday morning, and then went to the bedroom to confront Pelosi, saying he wanted to talk to his wife. Pelosi managed to call 911, and officers arriving on the scene witnessed DePape hit him with a hammer.
Those pushing the “gay lover” theory have pointed to a handful of purported pieces of evidence based on falsehoods and twisted storylines. They say that DePape was in his underwear when police arrived at the scene — but the local TV station that originally reported that has since corrected its story and removed the assertion. Others have suggested that a third person opened the door to Pelosi’s house, but police have debunked that.
Many of the theorists have latched on to a recording of a 911 dispatcher saying that Pelosi referred to DePape as “a friend” and “sounded somewhat confused.”
But Pelosi seemed to be speaking in coded language on the 911 call to make clear he needed help, a law enforcement source previously told CNN. And the complaint notes that Pelosi told officers he had never seen DePape before.
The complaint also included an interview police did with DePape in which he admitted breaking into the house and said he surprised Pelosi. According to the complaint, DePape said that he wanted to hold Nancy Pelosi hostage because he viewed her as the “‘leader of the pack’ of lies told by the Democratic Party,” and claimed he was “fighting against tyranny without the option of surrender.”
Scott, the San Francisco chief, called the conspiracies surrounding the attack “pathetic” and “disturbing.”
“We’ve spent a lot of energy just pushing back, really ridiculous conspiracy theories, to make sure people stay focused on our team,” he said. “These things are harmful to society, they’re harmful to the victims involved — it’s really sad that we are here in this place, but we are.”
Baseless theory gains momentum on social media
Despite the lack of evidence, it took less than 24 hours after the attack for the “gay lover” theory to take root in right-wing social media circles.
There have been at least 19,000 tweets mentioning the words “Pelosi” and “gay” since the day of the attack, garnering a total of more than 700,000 likes, according to a CNN analysis — and that doesn’t include tweets referencing the theory without those words, or tweets that have since been deleted.
One of the first widely shared tweets endorsing the theory appears to have come at 11:36 a.m. on Friday, the day of the attack, gaining more than 2,700 retweets.
That evening, Raheem Kassam, a former Breitbart writer and co-host of Steve Bannon’s podcast, tweeted, “They’re still pretending it wasn’t Paul Pelosi’s gay lover,” earning over 1,000 retweets.
Other conservative figures like Donald Trump, Jr., Sebastian Gorka, and Dinesh D’Souza followed suit over the next few days, either explicitly endorsing the theory or referencing it approvingly. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana GOP congressman who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, tweeted a photo of Nancy Pelosi and referred to DePape as a “male prostitute,” before deleting his tweet.
Musk helped elevate the conspiracy to a much wider audience. On Sunday morning, the billionaire, who just completed his purchase of the social media network, responded to a tweet about the Pelosi attack from Hillary Clinton and wrote “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.” He linked to an article in the Santa Monica Observer, an obscure website, claiming DePape was a male prostitute and Pelosi had been in a drunken dispute with him. The website has previously posted false news, such as a claim during the 2016 election that Clinton had died and been replaced with a body double for a debate.
Musk deleted the tweet around 2 p.m. later that day, but by then it had already racked up more than 28,000 retweets and 100,000 likes.
Conservative figures gleefully praised Musk for sharing the post. “.@ElonMusk just posted a link that says Paul Pelosi may have been drunk and with a gay prostitute,” tweeted Lavern Spicer, a former GOP congressional candidate. “I have never respected him more than now.” Her message was retweeted more than 11,000 times.
Gene DePape, the alleged attacker’s stepfather, said it was dismaying to see his stepson turned into a character in a conspiracy theory and used as a political talking point. He told CNN he scrolled through his Facebook news feed for hours over the weekend, where he first saw the posts claiming his estranged stepson had been lovers with Pelosi.
“It’s pretty sick,” he said.
David DePape’s own social media and blog postings show that he himself was steeped in conspiracy theories in the months and years before the attack—from musings about QAnon to antisemitic rants to claims of a looming takeover by the global elite.
DePape’s posts on Facebook from last year endorse a litany of right-wing falsehoods. He posted multiple videos produced by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell falsely alleging that the 2020 election was stolen, linked to websites claiming Covid vaccines were deadly, and shared videos questioning the January 6, 2021 attack. CNN reviewed the posts before the social media company took the page down, and several of DePape’s relatives confirmed the page belonged to him.
On other blogs apparently written by DePape, he also posted antisemitic screeds and endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Some conservatives’ embrace of the “gay lover” theory has muddied the waters of a story that had led to bipartisan condemnation and sympathy for Pelosi—and distracted from discussion of how other right-wing conspiracies could have inspired violence.
Miller-Idriss, the American University professor, said that prominent figures carelessly spreading misinformation can lead to wider impacts on society.
“It’s dangerous because it undermines peoples’ sense of truth, it helps them further divorce from reality,” she said. “It is a situation where they spread it further—and they pass it on.”
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