Why is Nancy Pelosi a target for conspiracy theorists?

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How a false conspiracy theory about sex workers and Paul Pelosi went viral

Conservatives built on an existing fallacy about Pelosi to reject a connection with years of vilifying the House speaker.

How a false conspiracy theory about sex workers and Paul Pelosi went viral
The News

Almost as soon as the news broke that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband had been attacked by a man with a hammer in their San Francisco home, a false conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi and a sex worker emerged on right-wing Twitter. The lie spread across QAnon conspiracy accounts, and then it leapt into the mainstream with prominent figures like Donald Trump Jr. and Elon Musk repeating it.

The evidence that a sex worker was involved in the break in: absolutely none.

According to a federal complaint released by law enforcement, the suspect told investigators he brought a backpack with zip ties and duct tape with the plan to hold Nancy Pelosi and torture her. When asked why he didn’t flee the scene when police arrived, he said “he was fighting against tyranny without the option of surrender.”

The Context

Republicans and prominent figures on the right have dismissed accusations that a decade of attacks on Pelosi inspired the assault, with many calling it a random act of violence committed by an unwell person. The conspiracy theory offers another alternative theory, besides the likely political motivation.

Misinformation Lens

Genesis of a sex worker conspiracy theory

Like many conspiracy theories, the sex worker fallacy wasn’t entirely random; it emerged from an existing right-wing myth.

In August, Paul Pelosi was convicted of driving under the influence when he crashed his car in a May accident. He was sentenced to five days in jail, three years of probation and fined $4,927 by a judge in Napa, California.

Fox News covered the story aggressively, warning viewers in many segments to look out for bias — which was never established — because Pelosi is married to the House speaker.

Online, conservatives latched on to that story line. They also, baselessly, claimed sex workers, or a sex worker, were involved in the incident. Twitter was awash in tweets about Pelosi and a “hooker” for months.

Soon after the break-in at the Pelosi residence became public on Oct. 29, conservative Twitter users began to post (some in jest) that the “hooker” from the DUI night was the culprit. Trump Jr. posted a Halloween-themed joke.

Even as details of the alleged attacker emerged, the joke morphed into tweets asserting that the alleged attacker was a prostitute. By Sunday afternoon, the tale leapt from marginal Twitter circles into the mainstream. Musk posted it in a reply to a tweet by Clinton, kicking off a bigger controversy.

On Monday morning, the conspiracy theory was a top trending topic on Twitter.

— Laura McGann

Politics Lens

A decade of vilifying the House speaker

The conspiracy theory is one way some conservatives are deflecting claims that the event was motivated by anti-Nancy Pelosi rhetoric. Many conservatives, including on Fox News, have framed the event as a random act, not as potential political violence. Others blamed both sides for raising the temperature in America.

For Republicans to consider the possibility that the perpetrator was committing an act of political violence would require some reckoning with their yearslong anti-Pelosi campaign.

In 2014 and 2016, Republicans featured Pelosi in 13 percent and 9 percent of their attack ads, according to an analysis by Kantar Media.

Only two days before the attack, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., posted a video of himself firing a rifle with the caption: “13 days to make history. Let’s #FirePelosi.” In response to questions from CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan on Sunday, Emmer denied the post could be an incitement to violence.

Women in politics face more threats than men running for office, according to multiple indicators. Other data indicates that women are being targeted globally for physical violence as well. And, as the first female speaker, Pelosi has long faced gendered attacks.

The alleged attacker posted misogynistic memes on social media for years.

Many Republican lawmakers condemned the physical attack on the Pelosi residence, but some also took to the airwaves over the weekend seeking to spread the blame for the event on both sides of the aisle.

“[Pelosi] is demonized, as is Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, and I’m sure Kevin McCarthy when he becomes speaker will be demonized,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said Saturday on CNN. “It’s a terrible environment, and I believe people in both parties are guilty of intense rhetoric that really leads to — feed into these people who are deranged and create violence.”

Democrats including Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), noted the silence of former president Donald Trump, whose rhetoric fanned the flames of conservative contempt for Pelosi for years.

“President Biden and Democrats have stood behind law enforcement and strengthening protections for those in public life,” Coons said on Fox News. “That’s what I think we should be focusing on in this moment, when leaders of both parties — but so far not President Trump — have decried the attack on Paul Pelosi.”

The Washington Post Editorial Board weighed in on the attack on Friday, arguing “it is incumbent on politicians — regardless of party — to condemn anything resembling political violence.”

— Steve Reilly, Leah Askarinam

Business and Tech Lens

Using positions of power to promote a fallacy

Musk, the now-owner of Twitter, added a gasoline truck to the conspiracy theory fire when he tweeted out the sex worker theory to his more than 112 million followers.

After previously tweeting that Twitter would not be a “free-for-all hellscape” so that advertisers would want to stay on the platform, Musk seems to be testing that premise and confirming concerns about how he would (or wouldn’t) moderate content that arose when he first said he would purchase Twitter months ago.

Conservative figures have cheered his purchase over the potential he might reinstate for Trump’s account, and boosters of the QAnon conspiracy were excited over the prospects of him owning the platform.

While platforms like Twitter are considered by some a public square, Ángel Díaz, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law — who has written reports on content moderation and marginalized communities — contends they’re really controlled by a few people. And Musk, who seems to have no problem with the havoc and hurt misinformation on a social media platform can cause, now controls one of the most influential ones out there.

“We are stuck with how they view online speech and online community building,” he said when Musk first expressed a desire to own the platform. “And that is to the detriment of ordinary people, but certainly the detriment of marginalized communities.”

Musk has said he is not making any immediate changes to Twitter’s moderation policy. While some are protesting Musk, and therefore Twitter’s, new potential direction by dropping off the platform, the reality is that it’s unlikely to lose its outsized clout and potential to amplify content — whether it’s good or bad.

“Twitter is especially important in the political space because it is also where journalists are,” said Shannon McGregor, a senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in April. “No one is writing stories about what Ted Cruz posts on Parler.”

— Benjamin Powers

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Benjamin Powers
    Benjamin Powers

    Technology Reporter

    Benjamin Powers is a technology reporter for Grid where he explores the interconnection of technology and privacy within major stories.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.

  • Laura McGann
    Laura McGann

    Executive Editor

    Laura McGann serves as executive editor for Grid.

  • Leah Askarinam
    Leah Askarinam

    Senior Editor

    Leah Askarinam is Senior Editor at Grid, overseeing coverage of politics, misinformation and the economy.

  • Suzette Lohmeyer
    Suzette Lohmeyer

    Senior Editor

    Suzette Lohmeyer is the senior editor at Grid, where she focuses on daily news.

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