The $250-million lawsuit filed in Virginia by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) – against Twitter, a handful of fake accounts on the social media platform, and a libertarian political consultant – may not succeed in court, but it may not have to.
It may be just enough to (further) expose the company’s hypocrisy and bias in the ongoing battle against censorship of conservatives by the big tech companies, which also include Facebook, Google and Apple. And it may lead to other productive actions, legal or otherwise.
Nunes, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee the last four years, was subjected to a relentless smear campaign during the 2018 election cycle – much of it in the form of tweets. Political communications strategist Liz Mair is the named consultant in his complaint, as are accounts controlled by unknown individuals that go by the Twitter handles “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” Nunes held on to his House seat by about 5 percentage points, a far narrower margin than he had in previous elections, while several other incumbent California Republicans lost their races. He alleges the Twitter smear campaign defamed him and cost him votes.
Being a sore winner does not appear to be Nunes’s chief motivation for suing, however. What did provoke him were numerous crudities and insults published in tweets, many using an account that appropriated the identity of his still-alive mother, which clearly violated Twitter’s terms of service. Examples:
- Accusing Nunes of being “eyeball-deep” in a federal obstruction investigation while “cradling the president’s b*lls full time,” insinuating that he was inhibiting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of hypothetical collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia;
- Saying the congressman put up a “Fake News MAGA” sign outside a Holocaust museum;
- Stating that Nunes would probably join the “Proud Boys,” “if it weren’t for that unfortunate ‘no masturbating’ rule;”
- Suggesting that Nunes might be willing to give the President a “bl**job;”
- Depicting Putin, Trump and Nunes in a homosexual threesome in a cartoon.
There are dozens more tweets cited, and the complaint notes two other accounts that “Twitter authorized the creation and operation of” to attack Nunes: “Devin Nunes’ Grapes” and “Fire Devin Nunes.”
“The sheer volume of defamatory tweets and the short time period over which they were published is staggering,” the complaint states, adding that Twitter finally suspended the “Devin Nunes’ Mom” account only this month after the congressman “suffered substantial insult, humiliation, embarrassment, pain, mental suffering and damage to his reputation.” The account was closed at the request of his mother.
Meanwhile, “Devin Nunes’ Cow” is still active and now has more Twitter followers than the congressman, since his lawsuit was filed on Tuesday. Several other variations of parody/attack accounts have cropped up as well.
Nunes’s lawsuit seeks to find out who is behind the Twitter handles.
“The Twitter attacks on Nunes were pre-planned, calculated, orchestrated and undertaken by multiple individuals acting in concert, over a continuous period of time exceeding a year,” the complaint states. “The full scope of the conspiracy, including the names of all participants and the level of involvement of donors and members of the Democratic Party, is unknown at this time and will be the subject of discovery in this action.”
Which may be the primary goal of Nunes’s filing: to out the anonymous actors behind the attacks, for potential targets of future actions (Nunes told Sean Hannity it is the “first of many”) – or if nothing else, to identify them and their funders to the public.
There already has been plenty of expert legal analysis about the California representative’s lawsuit, and most expect the suit to go nowhere because First Amendment case precedent allows mockery of public figures, and makes proof of libel and defamation an extremely difficult bar to clear. Also, existing law protects social media companies like Twitter from culpability because they are considered “distributors” and not content creators. How Nunes’s suit would fare under Virginia law, as opposed to federal court, would still seem to be a longshot.
But Nunes is no dummy, and likely realizes this is another step or battle (in addition to PR campaigns, investigations, whistleblower revelations, Congressional hearings, etc.) in the effort to rein in the leftist social media companies that control so much of political messaging, and hold under their stewardship the reputations of every citizen – public or private, powerful or weak. Twitter makes it so easy for users to assume fake identities and attack their enemies.
“I do believe that civil suits may be able to get further into this then maybe what the government can do,” said former Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2015 to 2017, on Fox News. “From the Federal Trade Commission and the Security and Exchange Commission, those two because these companies are publicly traded, they’re going to subject themselves to a whole lot more scrutiny and there’s a lot of evidence out there that this always goes one direction and it’s against conservatives not against liberals.”
And that’s what Nunes appears to want stopped: the one-way nature of Twitter’s enforcement of its standards, whether it’s shadow-banning conservatives, or allowing graphic, vulgar and unmitigated attacks against them that they would shut down against liberals.
“[Twitter] should come clean, give us all your algorithms. How is it possible that I can be attacked relentlessly hundreds of times a day by fake accounts that they claim in their terms of service should not be there?” Nunes told Hannity Monday night.
“I guarantee you if I put something out that was sexually explicit or attacked someone personally, they would stop it,” he added. “They would say this is a sensitive tweet. They never did that to any other people that were coming after me or other conservatives.”