Lies and conspiracy theories about attack on Pelosi’s husband spread online

The man who attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband in his home on Friday is facing federal criminal charges. David DePape will also face additional charges, including attempted murder, filed by local authorities. Lisa Desjardins has an update on what we know and on the flood of false claims and disinformation being spread on the right.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, the man who attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul, in his home on Friday is facing federal criminal charges.

    The suspect has been charged with one count of assault of the immediate family member of a U.S. official, in this case, Speaker Pelosi, in retaliation for that official's duties and one count of attempted kidnapping of a U.S. official.

    Now, that's in addition to a host of charges filed locally by the San Francisco district attorney, including attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and elder abuse.

    Lisa Desjardins has an update on what we know and on the flood of disinformation being spread on the right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Out of San Francisco, alarming details of the assault on Speaker Pelosi's family.

    In an affidavit, FBI agents testify that suspect David DePape brought zip ties, tape and rope with him, and that his plan was to tie up Speaker Pelosi and break her kneecaps if she didn't answer questions the way he wanted. Further, the filing says he broke a glass panel to enter her home and woke up Paul Pelosi in his bed.

    Officers say DePape compared himself to the founding fathers and said he was fighting Pelosi as the leader of the Democrats. In the lead-up to the attack, DePape trafficked in right-wing conspiracies online, including posts related to QAnon and attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

    Now powerful figures like Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, are adding new layers of untethered conspiracy targeting Pelosi. This weekend, Musk tweeted: "There's a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye."

    He later deleted that post, but, in it, Musk link to a discredited right-wing article theorizing, with no evidence, that the assault was actually a drunk dispute with a male sex worker. That baseless conspiracy was echoed by Republican House member Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana in a barely veiled tweet about drugs and nudity, which he later deleted.

    Texas Senator Ted Cruz proclaimed as truth a conspiracy-raising post saying: "No one will ever know what happened in the attack, but it was not right-wing violence."

    And there was this.


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Before the attack, Republican Congressman Tom Emmer had tweeted video of himself at a firing range, and he had tweeted — quote — "Let's fire Pelosi."

    Emmer, who heads the Republican efforts to retake the House, kept that video and tweet up even after the attack. And while he condemned the violence, Emmer defended his original message yesterday to CBS News.

    Margaret Brennan, Host, "Face The Nation": You're shooting a gun. Our viewers just saw it.

  • Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN):

    Yeah, right.

  • Margaret Brennan:

    Hashtag #FirePelosi, with a weapon.

  • Rep. Tom Emmer:

    Exercising our Second Amendment rights, having fun…

  • Margaret Brennan:

    That's not a debate about…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meantime, the top House Republican in the country, Kevin McCarthy, did condemn the attack outright on FOX News this weekend.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA):

    Let me be perfectly clear. Violence or threat of violence has no place in our society. And what happened to Paul Pelosi is wrong.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But he has not yet sent out a single tweet or issued a public written statement on the assault.

    President Biden had this message for Republicans:

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: The talk has to stop. That's the problem. That's the problem. You can't just say, I feel badly about the violence and we condemn it. Condemn what produces the violence. And this talk produces the violence.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just over a week until the election, tension and alarm remain high.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on all this, I'm joined by an expert in online misinformation, the research director at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, Joan Donovan. She also is author of the new book "Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America."

    Joan Donovan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much.

    You have looked at what this man DePape was posting online. What struck you about it? And how far from reality was it — is it?

  • Joan Donovan, Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center:

    So, it's very far from reality, but is not unlike much of the content that we watch as researchers of the Internet.

    So he seems to be progressing along in a pattern with his blog posts that follows essentially most of the popular conspiracies that are proliferating across social media. And what's unique about a situation like this is, someone like him does believe that he is spreading true and correct information.

    He believes that he's getting the real news and doing his own research. But it's unfortunate that he was very, very far down rabbit holes on the Internet, including stuff about QAnon, with, in particular, that — a conspiracy theory that names Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats as people that need to be brought to justice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what's an example of something that is central to that set of beliefs?

  • Joan Donovan:

    Essentially, without making it seem too absurd, they draw on a theory of the deep state, and essentially thinking that Trump was out there trying to govern as best he could, but the government is really run by this shadowy group of cabal-type globalists.

    So these are all dog whistles, of course, for antisemitism. And, in that, they believed — even for back with drain the swamp, they believed that Trump was almost a Christ-like figure that was going to rid the government, the U.S. government, of these deep state figures, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton playing central roles in this conspiracy theory.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know this kind of material is now more widely spread than ever.

    What is the evidence that you have of the number of people who are willing to turn this into some kind of action against the people here?

  • Joan Donovan:

    So, at the Shorenstein Center, we have been researching this concept that we're really trying to get our heads around, which we're calling network incitement.

    So we're looking at well, to what degree are people being mobilized to do something different with their time and energy and politics? And so we have looked at a lot of the affidavits and the statements made by those arrested during the January 6 riots. And it's very clear that people feel as if the democracy is being lost, that there is no legal recourse, and that only they can stop what's coming.

    And so, unfortunately, the Internet is paradoxical, in the sense that it does mobilize people. We know that from back during Occupy and the Indignados Movement in Spain and whatnot. Like, we don't have to prove that the Internet convinces people to join mass movements.

    What's hard about this is that people are being mobilized by lies and disinformation. And they believe it. And it's coming straight from some of our political leaders and even from some of the world's richest or most well-connected celebrities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As in who?

  • Joan Donovan:

    Elon Musk has really stepped in it here.

    And we're a few days out from major midterm elections for — Brazil just have their elections. And we have the richest man in the world in control of the most important, influential network platform that the Internet has really ever seen. And he is setting media narratives in ways that are, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, really damaging.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a — do you see anything in history that tells you there is a way out of this, that this kind of spreading of lies can be — can be handled, can be done away with?

  • Joan Donovan:

    There's a few things that can be done.

    But I do consider our journalists the front line of the information war. And so I would suggest that journalists keep pumping out timely, accurate local knowledge. And so keep making sure that people know how to get to the polls, they know who's running in local elections, they know what platforms the politicians are standing on.

    If they are witness to political disinformation online, write a story about it, but make sure you show the reader and the audience how you gathered the news, so make them believe it, so that you can counter or pre-bunk some of these narratives.

    And then, lastly, I think, for individuals, you really have to stop and say, "WAIT," which should stand for: Why am I tweeting?

    And if you ask yourself that and you take a step back and think about if it's playing on your emotions or confirmation bias, just you want to make sure you're dealing with reputable sources at this stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Joan Donovan, I know you will continue to follow this. We're certainly going to continue to report on it.

    Thank you very much, Joan Donovan, at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard.

  • Joan Donovan:

    Thank you.

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