Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
An intruder broke into the California home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi early Friday and attacked her husband Paul Pelosi with a hammer while she was in Washington, DC. Paul Pelosi underwent surgery “to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands,” but is expected to make a full recovery, according to a statement released by the speaker’s office.
The suspected attacker, David DePape, who has a history of sharing conspiracy theories on social media, said he would wait “until Nancy got home,” according to a source briefed on the attack. DePape was taken into custody on suspicion of attempted homicide, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse and several additional felonies, according to SFPD Chief William Scott.
This shocking episode is just the latest in a series of escalating attacks and confrontations against politicians, and women politicians in particular – many of whom face unacceptable hatred on the Internet that spills over into physical threats or violence. Social media platforms and law enforcement must act now to stop this abuse before a politician is gravely injured or killed.
From 2017 to 2021, threats against members of Congress investigated by US Capitol Police increased by 144%, Axios reported. Many of the lawmakers on the receiving end of these threats are women and people of color.
After an assailant smashed a window in the home of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, she told The New York Times, “What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and real violence.” She said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal has been harassed by a man who showed up repeatedly outside her home, armed with a handgun. Jayapal’s husband said he heard the voices of two men shouting obscenities and suggesting that they would stop harassing her neighborhood if she killed herself.
“We sign up for a lot of things when we sign up for this job,” Jayapal told the Times. “But having someone show up to your door with a gun, scaring your neighbors, scaring your staff, and clearly trying to intimidate me — it’s hard to describe.”
And Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York receives so many threats that she has a round-the-clock security team and, at times, sleeps in different locations. Her own colleague, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, tweeted an altered anime video of himself appearing to kill her last year. (Gosar deleted the video and did not apologize. An hour after the House voted to censure him and remove him from two committee assignments last year, he retweeted a tweet that included the video.)
Earlier this week, the New York Post said they fired a rogue employee who changed the headline of an online editorial to read, “We must assassinate AOC for America.”
Gosar’s video – and the torrent of abuse Ocasio-Cortez has received in its wake – shows the way online abuse can make the world less safe for women. As I’ve warned before, research shows that witnessing violence in the media is correlated with committing acts of violence or aggression.
And women politicians face a torrent of online abuse and disinformation campaigns. This toxic, widely-tolerated social media content is clearly helping normalize attacks on women who lead – which could help explain why women like Pelosi are now becoming the targets of physical violence.
Pelosi is a particular target of hatred among the right. In 2019, the House Speaker, who has famously clashed with Former President Donald Trump, became the subject of manipulated videos that made her appear as if she were stumbling over and slurring her words. Those videos were then amplified by both Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on social media, where they went viral. During the January 6 attack on the Capitol last year, Trump supporters ransacked her office and yelled, “Where are you, Nancy?” – a chilling echo of the words DePape uttered on Friday: “Where is Nancy?”
The harassment, hate and violence must stop.
Social media companies claim they don’t tolerate this kind of hate. Yet the reality is clear: it continues to exist on their platforms. They must get serious about using algorithms and human moderators to take down this abuse. Any time users see online hate like Gosar’s video, we should immediately use the available reporting tools so these social platforms can take it down.
Of course, it’s sobering that this attack on Pelosi happened just as Elon Musk has finalized his purchase of Twitter, given that Musk has indicated that he favors more lenient content moderation policies. If Twitter – or any other platform – becomes a bigger cesspool of misogyny and abuse, then users should make the decision to stop using it.
The FBI should also investigate and prosecute the abuse of women both online and off. If the agency needs more funding to do it, Congress should levy a tax against social networks to fund an expansion of resources. I imagine the many lawmakers who have been threatened and harassed would be happy to cast a vote in favor of such a bill.
The unthinkable attack on the Pelosi home shows how violence against members of Congress is getting out of hand. It’s time for social media companies to stop hosting content that normalizes this kind of violence and for the FBI to get serious about investigating and prosecuting these attacks. They should use this horrific episode as the wake-up call that it is, and not wait for Sen. Collins’ prediction that a member of Congress may end up dead to come true.