Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
October 28, 2022
At about 2:30 am, police in San Francisco responding to a call discovered that an assailant had broken into the San Francisco home of House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and attacked her husband, 82-year-old Paul Pelosi, with a hammer, shouting, “Where’s Nancy?” The attacker apparently tried to tie Mr. Pelosi up “until Nancy got home” and told police he was “waiting for Nancy.”
Mr. Pelosi suffered a fractured skull and serious injuries to his right arm and his hands. He underwent surgery today. He is expected to recover.
Speaker Pelosi was in Washington, D.C., at the time. The House speaker is the third-ranking officer of our government, second in line to succeed the president. An attack on her is an attack on our fundamental government structure.
Those who knew the alleged attacker, 42-year-old David DePape, say his behavior has been concerning. His Facebook page featured conspiracy theories common on right-wing media, saying Covid vaccines were deadly; that George Floyd, the Minneapolis man murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin, actually died of a drug overdose; that the 2020 election was stolen; and the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “FARCE.” He reposted a number of videos by Mike Lindell, the Trump loyalist and chief executive officer of the MyPillow company, lying that the 2020 election was stolen.
Matthew Gertz of Media Matters reviewed DePape’s blog and found it “a standard case of right-wing online radicalization. QAnon, Great Reset, Pizzagate, Gamergate and all there, along with M[en’s] R[ights] A[ctivist]/misogyny, hatred of Blacks/Jews/trans people/’groomers,’ and anti-vax conspiracy theories.”
According to Harry Litman, the legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, DePape has been booked so far only on state crimes, including attempted homicide and elder abuse. According to Joyce White Vance at Civil Discourse, evidence that he went after Mr. Pelosi in order to intimidate Speaker Pelosi or stop her from performing her official duties would constitute a federal crime.
The attack on Mr. Pelosi comes after right-wing figures have so often advocated violence against the House speaker that the rioters on January 6 roamed the U.S. Capitol calling for her in the singsong cadences of a horror movie. Before she ran for Congress, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said Pelosi was a “traitor” and told her listeners that treason is “a crime punishable by death,” and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) once “joked” about hitting Speaker Pelosi with the speaker’s gavel if he becomes speaker himself, prompting laughter from his audience.
Whipping up supporters against a perceived enemy to create a statistical probability of an attack without advocating a specific event is known as “stochastic terrorism.” Without using that phrase, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) explained it today: “[W]hen you convince people that politicians are rigging elections, drink babies blood, etc, you will get violence. This must be rejected.”
Right-wing media channels immediately spun the home invasion and attack into Republican talking points, saying that “crime hits everybody” and that “this can happen anywhere, crime is random and that’s why it’s such a significant part of this election story.” Some tried to pin the attack on President Joe Biden, blaming him for not healing the country’s divisions; Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin said of Pelosi and her husband: “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.” Aaron Rupar of Public Notice called out how few Republicans publicly condemned the attack and how many tried to pin the blame for it on Democrats.
Late yesterday, Twitter’s board completed the $44 billion sale of the company to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk has promised to be an advocate for free speech and to reopen the platform to those previously banned for spreading racist content or disinformation—including former president Trump—but his actual purchase of the site might complicate that position.
In the technology magazine The Verge, editor Nilay Patel wrote, “Welcome to hell, Elon.” The problems with Twitter, Patel wrote, “are not engineering problems. They are political problems.” The site itself is valuable only because of its users, he points out, and trying to regulate how people behave is “historically a miserable experience.”
Patel notes that to attract advertising revenue, Musk will have to protect advertisers’ brands, which means banning “racism, sexism, transphobia, and all kinds of other speech that is totally legal in the United States but reveals people to be total a**holes.” And that content moderation, of course, will infuriate the right-wing cheerleaders who “are going to viciously turn on you, just like they turn on every other social network that realizes the same essential truth.” And that’s even before Twitter has to take on the speech laws of other countries.
Musk clearly understands this tension. Trying to reassure advertisers before the sale, he tweeted: “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!” Car manufacturer General Motors has temporarily stopped running ads on Twitter until its direction becomes clearer.
Today, racist and antisemitic content rose sharply as users appeared to be testing the limits of the platform under Musk. The Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies disinformation on social media, noted that posters on the anonymous website 4chan have been encouraging users to spread racist and derogatory slurs on Twitter. The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, which focuses on civil rights law, backed this observation up today when it noted that on October 27, an anonymous post on 4chan, which users immediately spread to extremist Telegram channels, told followers how to increase antisemitic content on Twitter.
In the first 12 hours after Musk acquired the site, the use of the n-word increased nearly 500%.
After a few high-profile accounts appeared to have been reinstated, this afternoon, Musk tweeted that he is creating a council to figure out a content moderation policy, and that no major content decisions or reinstatements will happen until it creates a policy. At the very least, this should protect Twitter from becoming associated with new accounts promoting violence before the midterm elections.
And that is a concern. Today, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and U.S. Capitol Police warned of violent extremism surrounding the upcoming midterm elections, including attacks on “candidates running for public office, elected officials, election workers, political rallies, political party representatives, racial and religious minorities, or perceived ideological opponents.”
The aim of those attacking our elections is to discredit our democracy.