The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Alito ‘rumor’ spread

Abortion rights activists demonstrate near the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh on Saturday.
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It has become a nugget embedded in the many reports and social media posts expressing outrage about protests at Supreme Court justices’ homes in support of Roe v. Wade: the idea that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was forced to vacate his residence for an “undisclosed location” out of fear for his safety.

The only problem is that it doesn’t seem to be based on anything. It could turn out to be true that Alito and his family left their home — but various people spread the rumor without any actual reports substantiating it. And it provides a great case study in how a rumor gets laundered into supposed fact, making it all the way into the Twitter feeds of multiple U.S. senators.

Politico did some digging into the story, tracing it back to last week — but even then, it doesn’t appear to have been anything more than a rumor. Their report links it to a pair of interviews Thursday and Saturday by Georgetown University lecturer Ilya Shapiro. Appearing on a D.C. area radio program, Shapiro said he had “heard a rumor that Justice Alito and his family have been taken to an undisclosed location.” He followed that up on Fox News two days later by saying, “I’ve heard that Justice Alito has been taken to an undisclosed location with his family.”

But Shapiro told Politico he couldn’t remember where he heard the rumor.

“I don’t have any nonpublic sources,” he said. “I forget whether I saw the rumor on Twitter or somebody told me. I don’t know.”

Later Monday, Shapiro retweeted a Reuters reporter who described the rumor as “a viral tweet that made the claim but unclear how that was sourced if at all.” He also told the Washington Examiner, “It was a rumor, and I never claimed it was anything other than a rumor.”

Alito canceled plans to attend a conference in Nashville last week, but in his prerecorded remarks did not discuss why (or his location). The Supreme Court has not said whether there might be any validity to the rumor, but that’s very much in keeping with its policies of not commenting on security matters.

Certainly, sharing unsubstantiated claims on a platform such as Fox News isn’t a great idea, but at least it was couched as a rumor and as hearsay. Others went on to apply significantly less caution.

The same day as the Fox News interview, Breitbart ran with the headline, “Justice Samuel Alito Moved to Undisclosed Location.” The piece, written by a former Trump administration official, briefly cited “reports around D.C.” but didn’t detail those reports or where they came from. The post has since been updated to add a “REPORTS” caveat to the headline and now says “rumors around D.C.” instead of “reports around D.C.” It also added links to Shapiro’s interviews. (The changes aren’t explained.)

By Sunday, an antiabortion activist repeated the claim on social media. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life America, tweeted, “Justice Alito and his family have been moved to an undisclosed location.” The source for the claim is not addressed. (The group didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

An editor for the conservative site Townhall responded to Hawkins by saying, “Is this being reported or confirmed anywhere else? If so, I’d love to do an article!”

Ultimately, despite no apparent actual confirmation — or indeed, a real, substantiated report to begin with — the editor updated an earlier post by adding “As Justice Alito Moved to Undisclosed Location” to the headline. The update referenced only Hawkins’s tweet and the Breitbart report, and the headline was later changed to add the “Reports” caveat that Breitbart had also added. (The editor didn’t respond to a direct message.)

The claim has also been written up on conservative sites such as the Federalist, the Post Millennial and the Western Journal and was also included in a Boston Herald column. In the headlines, there’s rarely a caveat that this might be in question. When it’s mentioned offhand, it’s often treated as fact.

Oftentimes, this kind of thing stops at such sites and random users’ social media postings. But the rumors proved too attractive. A prominent Fox News analyst promoted it as a “reportedly.” A former top spokesman for the GOP promoted the same tweet. So too did GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

Lee highlighted the claim as support for the idea that the demonstrations have gotten out of hand. “@POTUS must condemn the threats against SCOTUS justices,” Lee said.

“Shameful,” Cruz concluded. “And the Biden White House is encouraging this lawless mob intimidation.”

Cruz, of course, is no stranger to sharing thinly sourced allegations that stir up the base. He did it with the Taliban supposedly hanging a man from an American helicopter. He did it with a First Amendment tablet being removed from the defunct Newseum. He did it with a Freedom Convoy protester who was supposedly killed by Canadian law enforcement. He did it with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director’s comments on the coronavirus and comorbidities. In some of these cases, he deleted the tweet and allowed that the record had been corrected. But he’s also proven himself a rather willing vector for this kind of narrative. And on Monday, he was served up a story that was too good for him — or many others, apparently — to check.

It is, again, possible that it happens to be true that Alito left his residence. About 100 protesters showed up at his home Monday night, after previously protesting at the homes of other justices. But so far, there has been next to no reason to believe the rumor — or any justification for spreading it. And we know that because those who originated the “undisclosed location” claim, and passed it along, have said as much.

This story has been updated.