Musk tweets conspiracy theory about Pelosi attack, raising concerns about platform

Suspect in violent assault, David DePape, has spread theory online that Jews are to blame for the war in Ukraine

Elon Musk, arriving for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on May 2, 2022. (Angela Weiss / AFP / File)
Elon Musk, arriving for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on May 2, 2022. (Angela Weiss / AFP / File)

WASHINGTON — New Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted an anti-LGBT conspiracy theory Sunday about what happened the night US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked, underscoring concerns about the platform’s future, after he vowed it would not become a “free-for-all hellscape.”

Musk, a self-declared “free speech absolutist,” was responding to former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had tweeted to draw a line between Republicans who promote baseless conspiracy theories and the violent attack on Paul Pelosi in San Francisco.

The man arrested for the violent attack was identified by the San Francisco police as David DePape, who had previously spread the theory online that Jews are to blame for the war in Ukraine.

“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk replied to Clinton, attaching a link to the story, which is no longer accessible, by the conservative Santa Monica Observer. The attached article claimed, without providing any evidence, that Mr. Pelosi was attacked by a person he met at a gay bar.

The weekly outlet has published other conspiracy theories in the past, including that a body double for Clinton was sent to a debate with Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Musk’s tweet swiftly became a focal point for critics who have been nervous about the direction in which he intends to take Twitter, the leading platform for global discourse and diplomacy.

Musk, whose outspoken and controversial tweets have courted trouble in the past, has vowed to dial back content moderation, relying more on computer algorithms than human monitors. Conservatives say past moderation has unfairly targeted their views.

In a message meant to reassure jittery Twitter advertisers on his leadership, Musk said earlier this week that he realizes Twitter “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape where anything can be said with no consequences.”

But detractors warn that without standards, the world’s “digital town square” is at risk of becoming flooded with misinformation, with possibly perilous consequences for democracy and public health.

“Clinton: Conspiracy theories are getting people killed and we shouldn’t amplify them. Owner of Twitter: But have you considered this conspiracy theory?” wrote University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket, after Musk’s Sunday tweet.

Masket later tweeted a screenshot suggesting he had complained to Twitter about Musk’s tweet, adding: “Somehow I doubt much will come of this.”

Troll campaign tests Musk

Nancy Pelosi, who is second in line to the US presidency, has said her family is “heartbroken and traumatized” after the intruder broke into the couple’s San Francisco home early Friday and attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer, fracturing his skull.

The 82-year-old is recovering in hospital.

President Joe Biden said it appeared that the assault was “intended for Nancy,” and called out increasingly polarizing political rhetoric.

“The Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories. It is shocking, but not surprising, that violence is the result,” Clinton said in her tweet.

Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi, and her husband, Paul Pelosi, arrive at the State Department for the Kennedy Center Honors State Department Dinner, December 7, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)

Musk’s response came just hours after Twitter said that the site was being targeted by a trolling campaign testing its moderation policies under the billionaire’s leadership.

“Twitter’s policies haven’t changed… And we’re taking steps to put a stop to an organized effort to make people think we have,” tweeted the platform’s chief of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth.

Roth said that a “small number of accounts” had posted “a ton” of hate content — including 50,000 tweets using a particular slur made by just 300 accounts.

“Nearly all” of the accounts are inauthentic, he said.

Roth also retweeted a Musk post in which the Tesla chief reiterated that “we have not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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