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Navigating Musk’s “free-for-all-hellscape.”
October 31, 2022
The attempted assassination of Speaker Nancy Pelosi has struck at the heart of America’s political dysfunction and mass delusion. Major media outlets are going out of their way to caution that “the assailant’s motives are unknown” and limiting their description of what occurred to “an attack on Paul Pelosi” without acknowledging that the intended target was the person third-in-line for the presidency of the US. Right-wing media is in full conspiracy mode, trafficking in wild and baseless claims that are insulting, defamatory, and offensive to a grieving family and a severely wounded victim. Elon Musk inflamed the situation by tweeting and deleting a bogus “opinion” article from a media outlet known for peddling bizarre conspiracy theories, e.g., that Hillary Clinton died before the 2016 election and her “body double” debated Trump.
At a time when the focus should be on the recovery of the victim, the safety of Speaker Pelosi, and the hate speech that provoked the attack, the media seems to be talking about nearly everything and anything else. It is maddening and sickening.
First, as to the attack on Paul Pelosi: The assailant illegally entered the Pelosi home armed with a hammer, zip ties, duct tape, and a “list of people he wanted to target.” The assailant, David Depape, found Paul Pelosi asleep in an upstairs bedroom and confronted him, demanding to know “Where’s Nancy?” Paul Pelosi engaged the unknown intruder in conversation and managed to surreptitiously dial 9-1-1. Pelosi kept the line open so an operator could hear the exchange in which Paul Pelosi signaled that the was in peril without saying those words—to avoid provoking Depape. Pelosi’s strategy worked, giving police enough time to arrive and capture Depape as he and Pelosi were struggling to gain control over Depape’s hammer.
Second, erroneous reporting by a local Fox News affiliate in San Francisco included details that were later retracted—but not before the falsehoods spread like wildfire on Twitter. A right-wing website in Santa Monica that frequently publishes falsehoods ran an “opinion” piece on Saturday that was clearly labeled as opinion (using the abbreviation IMHO—"in my humble opinion”). The author “opined” a wild scenario that I won’t describe (although Washington Post and New York Times repeated it in detail). Key details of the “opinion” piece were later explicitly refuted by prosecutors in San Francisco. For clarity, Depape illegally entered the Pelosi home with a list of “targets” and a hammer, duct tape, and zip ties. Depape was not previously known to Paul Pelosi, who was asleep in an upstairs room when Depape broke into the house. And reporting by the Fox affiliate about the state of dress of the assailant was later retracted.
Third, many right-wing disinformation specialists immediately began claiming that the attack was a “false flag” operation designed to affect the midterms.
Finally, Elon Musk then tweeted a link to the baseless “opinion” piece that speculated about what “might” have happened preceding the break-in. Musk deleted the tweet shortly thereafter, but not before it was exposed to his 120 million followers. The damage was done. No amount of truth-telling or retractions by reckless Fox affiliates will overcome the momentum created by Musk’s tweet. See NYTimes, Elon Musk, in a Tweet, Shares Link From Site Known to Publish False News and WaPo, Paul Pelosi attack prompts Elon Musk and political right to spread misinformation.
In short order, Elon Musk and a reckless Fox affiliate converted a near-miss national tragedy into a cesspool of disinformation and delusion. In the process, the Pelosi family is being subjected to a second trauma that may be greater than the original assassination attempt and injuries suffered by Paul Pelosi.
It is vital that we speak the truth about the cause and nature of the attack.
As to the cause, there is a direct line between the hate speech and coded incitement to violence that has become accepted in the Republican Party. Marjorie Taylor Greene said that Speaker Pelosi had committed a crime “punishable by death”—a tweet greeted by a collective yawn by GOP leadership in the House. But the dog whistle attacks on Speaker Pelosi have been occurring for decades. See Vox, Republicans demonized Nancy Pelosi long before the attack on her husband.
Max Boot has it right in this essay in WaPo, Don’t blame ‘both sides.’ The right is driving political violence. Boot writes,
There is little doubt about what is driving political violence: the ascendance of Trump. The former president and his followers use violent rhetoric of extremes: Trump calls President Biden an “enemy of the state,” attacks the FBI as “monsters,” refers to the “now Communist USA” and even wrote that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a “DEATH WISH” for disagreeing with him. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has expressed support for executing Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats.
As to the nature of the attack, major media outlets are missing the point. In the main, the incident is being described as “an assault on Paul Pelosi.” That description is true, but misleading. Depape was not looking for Paul Pelosi, but for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The fact that Nancy Pelosi was not home at the time does not change the essential nature of the attack or its intended victim, which makes it an attempted assassination. Why major media outlets seem to be minimizing the true nature of the crime is puzzling. Indeed, as many readers noted, the NYTimes reported the incident “below the fold” in its Saturday edition. Would the same low-key coverage have been given if the intended victim was a former president whose spouse was savagely beaten when the assailant could not find the former president after breaking into their home?
Also puzzling is the extraordinary caution of media outlets that make the point that Depape’s “motives are unknown.” Really? Journalists spend all day every day speculating about the outcome of the 2022 election, but they are unable to make a reasonable inference that Depape was looking to assassinate Nancy Pelosi given that he broke into her home, was calling “Where’s Nancy?”, and was armed with a hammer, duct tape, and zip ties? Oh, and there’s the fact that he posted conspiracy theories about 2020 election and the January 6th attack.
The media’s dysfunction is occurring in the “Musk hellscape” that is Twitter. Shortly after Musk took over Twitter, he tweeted,
Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all.
It took all of twenty-four hours for Musk to break his promise by converting Twitter into his personal “free-for-all-hellscape” by promoting a baseless, offensive, defamatory statement about the attempted assassination of Nancy Pelosi and assault on Paul Pelosi. Though Musk deleted his tweet, he offered no correction, no apology, and no suspension of his own account for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter is quickly reflecting the disordered nature of Musk’s mind and personality. That bodes ill for Twitter and democracy.
How should people who use Twitter legitimately react to Musk’s takeover and his immediate abuse of the platform? For the moment, I hope that responsible commentators will remain on Twitter and continue to provide fair, factual, and important commentary. Although I do not actively post on Twitter, I respect many who do. We cannot abandon Twitter to extremists and conspiracy-theory mongers who seek to undermine our democracy. There may come a time when being associated with Musk and Twitter is untenable. That time has not yet arrived. So, if you use Twitter responsibly, I hope you will continue to add balance and reason to Musk’s hellscape.
Without regard to whether we use Twitter, each of us has a role to play in fighting the disinformation and hate that seem poised to overwhelm and sunder that platform—and our nation. Speaking the truth requires that we educate ourselves about the truth. That is the only way we can navigate the free-for-all-hellscape created by Elon Musk. I understand that can be difficult and exhausting—but that is what the trolls and lunatics who lurk on Twitter are counting on. In whatever way you can, to whatever degree you can, be an ambassador for the truth. Our nation’s future depends on it.
Here is the truth: A man who traded in right-wing conspiracy theories was incited to violence by the hate speech that passes for political discourse in the GOP. He intended to assassinate Nancy Pelosi, broke into her home, and savagely beat her husband. The right-wing is lying about the facts to avoid their moral responsibility for the crime.
I cannot close without acknowledging the tragedies in South Korea and India that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians in each country. I express my sorrow and condolences and hope that the families and survivors receive the support and aid necessary to help them through this tragic time.
Talk to you tomorrow.