A baseless conspiracy theory about the assault of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi trended on Twitter Monday morning after being boosted all weekend by prominent conservatives and even new Twitter owner Elon Musk.
Hashtags including “PelosiGayLover,” “PelosiSmollett,” “PelosiGate,” and “Listen to the 911” appeared in the trending bar amid the proliferation of false claims about the attack and mockery of Pelosi. Several prominent right-wing figures pushed the false idea that both the attacker and Pelosi were in their underwear at the time of the assault, and that Pelosi knew his attacker and that they were actually lovers because Pelosi had referred to him as a “friend” while attempting to tip off 911 dispatchers as to his situation.
San Francisco police have debunked claims that both men were in their underwear and that Pelosi knew the attacker. The attacker, David DePape, 42, broke into the Pelosi home early Friday morning, allegedly shouting “Where’s Nancy?” before ultimately attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer. Pelosi underwent “successful surgery to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands,” and according to a statement from the speaker’s office, “doctors expect a full recovery.”
Musk on Sunday tweeted (and later deleted) a story from right-wing rag The Santa Monica Observer claiming Paul Pelosi was not the victim of a break in, but that the attack was part of a domestic dispute with a male prostitute. It has been widely noted that the Observer has a history of publishing false claims, including that Hillary Clinton had died and been replaced with a body double. Musk later made fun of The New York Times for reporting that the tweet was based on a claim from a regular source of misinformation.
Former first son Donald Trump Jr. mocked the attack on Instagram and Twitter later on Sunday, posting a meme depicting a pair of underwear and a hammer with the text, “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.” Jr. captioned the post “OMG. The internet remains undefeated.”
Trump Jr. on Monday morning tweeted out a photo of a hammer in a holster, captioned “open carry in San Francisco”
Sitting politicians have also been mocking the attack. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) tweeted, then deleted, an image mocking Speaker Pelosi, captioning the tweet, “That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser.”
Researchers have found that while DePape did hold anti-establishment ideologies, his online activity indicated a longstanding pattern of extremist beliefs, including QAnon conspiracies, Holocaust denail, false voter fraud claims, and screeds against trans people and “groomers.”
On Fox News, the hosts of Fox & Friends alluded to the conspiracy on air. “Something, something doesn’t make sense,” said host Pete Hegseth, adding that it “doesn’t add up.” Larry Elder, the former California gubernatorial candidate and frequent Fox News guest, mocked the attack at an event Sunday night, saying that between the DUI conviction and the assault Pelosi was “was hammered twice in six months.”
Professional conspiracy theorists beat the disinformation drum on Twitter all weekend. Dinsesh D’Souza began publishing an alternate version of events on social media virtually immediately after the attack happened. Former Trump administration hand Sebastian Gorka published what is allegedly a partial clip of the conversation between 911 dispatchers sending someone to Pelosi’s home, captioning the video “The Paul Pelosi 911 Lie…” (The clip does not feature Paul Pelosi himself speaking to officers.) Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich claimed news outlets are “hiding facts from the public,” suggesting that a break in at the Pelosi home was implausible and baselessly alluding to a connection between the attack and Paul Pelosi’s recent DUI case.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has thrown the future of enforcement of anti-disinformation policies into chaos. Massive layoffs are expected at the social media company, and over the weekend Musk tweeted that he had not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies, but reports indicated that instances of racist and hateful abuse on the platform skyrocketed in the immediate aftermath of Musk’s takeover.
On Monday morning, Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt defended Musk tweeting a conspiracy theory about Pelosi’s attack, labeling it a “free speech” issue.