It took roughly 48 hours for the right-wing media ecosystem to turn a story about a man who committed political violence after becoming consumed by right-wing conspiracy theories about the depravity of the left into another right-wing conspiracy theory about the depravity of the left.
On Friday morning, a man broke into the San Francisco home of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He was reportedly carrying zip ties and duct tape and, according to law enforcement, was looking for the woman who is second in line to the presidency. She was not present, but the man did find and severely beat her 82-year-old husband, Paul, with a hammer, sending him to the hospital for emergency surgery.
The assailant, who was arrested and identified by police as David DePape, had an extensive Internet footprint that suggests a standard case of online right-wing radicalization. DePape’s writings show his adherence to a wide range of conspiracy theories that are often propped up or adopted in their entirety by prominent right-wing media figures and Republican officials. President Joe Biden on Friday night condemned the impact the Republican Party’s “vitriol” has on those who may be mentally unbalanced.
But in the days since the attack, people who get their news from right-wing sources have instead been told an absurd and baseless conspiracy theory. In this telling, there was no home invasion; instead DePape is actually Paul Pelosi’s leftist gay lover, and the police, Democrats, and the press are covering up that the assault was really a lovers’ spat. The tale was quickly adopted by influential right-wing figures – including Twitter owner Elon Musk – and, if past is prologue, will be accepted by a sizable percentage of the GOP base.
The Pelosi conspiracy theory took hold so quickly thanks to the parallel media ecosystem the right constructed over decades. That ecosystem features numerous outlets that generate conspiracy theories for partisan and financial gain; food-chain mechanisms that swiftly distribute them to millions of people; an existing right-wing audience trained to demand such fantasies; minimal internal guardrails within the right-wing press to provide more credible information; and strong external barriers against contrary information from mainstream news sources.
How the right built a Paul Pelosi conspiracy theory
The right’s conspiracy theorists went to work soon after news of Paul Pelosi’s assault broke. They create dubious but politically beneficial narratives by taking existing facts – particularly ones that emerge early in the life of a story, when initial reports are often wrong – mixing in falsehoods, and using wild logical jumps to put the result in a different context.
First, an investigative journalist at a local TV affiliate reported on Friday that the assailant was wearing only his underwear when police arrived. But the journalist retracted that reporting the same day, and no other outlet confirmed it.
Second, the dispatcher who received a 911 call from Paul Pelosi said that he had identified the intruder as a “friend.” But Pelosi, according to law enforcement, was making that call surreptitiously from the bathroom and speaking “in code” to the dispatcher in an attempt to avoid his suspicion.
Third, some alleged that there were no signs of forced entry at the Pelosi home, suggesting that Paul Pelosi had willingly let DePape inside. In fact, police say he forced entry through the rear door, and aerial photos and video show shattered glass around that entryway (in fact, other internet sleuths claim that the glass pattern is suspicious).
Fourth, Politico reported on Friday based on San Francisco Police Chief William Scott’s press conference that the first police officers responding on the scene “were let inside by an unknown person. They discovered DePape and Pelosi struggling for a hammer.” This generated speculation that a third individual had been present. But Scott did not actually say that, and the SFPD subsequently confirmed only two people, DePape and Paul Pelosi, were at the home when police arrived.
The right’s conspiracy theorists took those four pieces of evidence, mixed in Paul Pelosi’s May DUI charge, and concocted the narrative that hehad been the victim of a drunken gay lovers’ spat that was subsequently covered up.
By Sunday, versions of this speculation were rampant on the right. Commentators who present themselves as credible offered a version in which they were simply asking questions because the press supposedly refused to do so.
Those who lack such airs simply claimed, as Dinesh D’Douza did, that “this guy, the assailant, is either a sexual partner or a male prostitute, and this is a sexual rendezvous that went sideways.”
Eventually, the story reached Musk, a troll beloved on the right with a penchant for conspiracy theories. And on Sunday morning, he blasted it out to his 112 million Twitter followers.
After Hillary Clinton shared an article about DePape’s promotion of conspiracy theories and commented that “violence is the result” of the right spreading such lies, Musk responded, “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to the story than meets the eye.” He provided a link to a site with the headline, “The Awful Truth: Paul Pelosi Was Drunk Again, And In a Dispute With a Male Prostitute Early Friday Morning."
The website, the Santa Monica Observer, had previously alleged that Clinton died in 2016 and had been replaced by a body double for her presidential debate with Donald Trump.
At the same time, the right-wing media generated nonsensical explanations for why the assailant’s Internet footprint is forged and he’s actually a leftist. They cannot accept that the assailant believed right-wing conspiracy theories without taking on responsibility, so they’ve developed an alternate explanation instead.
Roughly 72 hours after news of the assault on Paul Pelosi had broken, the conspiracy theory had been promoted by a Republican member of Congress and by Donald Trump Jr., and “Pelosigaylover” was trending nationally on Twitter.
The conspiracy-minded ecosystem that fuels the right
The right-wing information ecosystem is built to create and propagate conspiracy theories like the latest drivel about the Pelosi attack.
On message boards and social media platforms, an army of right-wing would-be sleuths looking for political advantage or simple amusement are constantly on the hunt for raw materials that they can spin into these alternate narratives.
Hyperpartisan news sites with no journalistic standards – from local ones like the Santa Monica Observer to national players like Gateway Pundit – trawl those venues looking for stories that they can write up and monetize.
The conspiracy theories move up the right-wing media food chain, with more and more prominent influencers and outlets picking up the story and running with it, until it becomes pervasive on the right.
Sprawling conspiracy theories like 2020 election denial, QAnon, Pizzagate, and Gamergate – all of which DePape had championed – worked their way through these networks.
The right-wing audience is uniquely vulnerable to these narratives.
The right-wing press spent decades spinning out these politically convenient narratives about the diabolical nature of their perceived enemies until the audience came to demand them. Few on the right – and none with any real degree of influence – are interested in debunking the rampant lies once they get going. Instead, powerful figures at Fox News and elsewhere end up pushing the likes of QAnon talking points and scoffing at its extremism. And decades of right-wing attacks on the mainstream press have created a bubble in which the audience is unlikely to receive or credit contradictory information from those outlets.
The result is that we consistently see the conspiracy theories come to infest the ranks of the movement, from Vince Foster’s death to QAnon.
I expect the Paul Pelosi fantasy to follow the same route. Republican politicians and prominent Fox hosts will either stand by as the conspiracy theory builds credence on the right or even give a knowing wink and nod to its supporters. Some will probably promote it entirely, perhaps suggesting that these are simply questions that the media refuses to answer.
Credible news outlets will divert resources from covering the rising tide of right-wing political violence or the GOP’s disturbing policy aims if the party gains ground in the midterm elections to pointing out that the right is peddling nonsense about Pelosi. But thanks to the right-wing media bubble, their facts won’t make it to the people inclined to believe it. And so a sizable chunk of the GOP will come to believe an absurd lie.