On Cows, Devin Nunes, and Twitter

On one level, it is rather amusing; on another is it quite insidious.

As you may have heard, Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) is suing Twitter, Liz Mair, and the users behind a couple of Twitter handles, @DevinCow and @DevinNunesMom.  The NYT has the basics:

The complaint, which was filed in Henrico County Circuit Court in Virginia on Tuesday, seeks $250 million in damages. In making his case, Mr. Nunes, a loyal ally of President Trump and the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, repeated several common Republican complaints that Twitter has repeatedly denied: that it censors Republicans, “shadow bans” their accounts and actively helps their opponents.

Though absorbing criticism comes with the territory for politicians, the complaint described the objectionable tweets from the three users as something “that no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life.”

To make his case, he cited a wide variety of tweets that included accusations of criminal misconduct, crude jokes at his expense and relatively banal criticism. The complaint says the tweets “falsely stated” that Mr. Nunes had brought “shame” to his family and that he was voted “Most Likely to Commit Treason” in high school, and that one of them included a cartoon image of a sexual act with Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The complaint lists dozens of other tweets he found insulting.

Mr. Nunes singled out Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who said on Twitter that she would not comment on the lawsuit, and two parody accounts: @DevinNunesMom, which was suspended last year, and @DevinCow, which is still active. The complaint says that Ms. Mair coordinated with the anonymous accounts on “a vicious defamation campaign” but did not offer evidence she was behind them or communicated with them, except for one tweet encouraging people to follow @DevinCow.

On one level, it is utterly absurd and rightly has been the object of ridicule on, you guessed it, Twitter today. Indeed, as many people noted, myself included, this is a textbook case of the Streisand Effect, as I (and many others) had never heard of @DevinCow prior to this lawsuit.

One another, it is an insidious act for a politician to attempt to use a lawsuit as a means of silencing a critic.  As Aaron Blake wrote in WaPo:

Unless, of course, this isn’t about winning lawsuits. Unless, this is really just about exacting financial pain on outspoken opponents and making Twitter and others who would dare to run afoul of Nunes think twice. If that’s the goal, then suing @DevinCow seems rather savvy. What better way to draw attention to something than to sue what is obviously a parody account claiming to be a creature without the opposable thumbs necessary to fire off a tweet? If such a ridiculous account can be subject to a $250 million lawsuit, then what about someone using their own voice and identity to attack Nunes or other Republicans?

[…]

More likely is that this is the latest installment in a long-running Republican campaign to “work the refs” when it comes to political discourse. Republicans have alleged media bias for decades, tempting the press to adjust its coverage to avoid criticism. Trump, who promoted Nunes’s effort in a tweet Monday night, has talked publicly about opening up libel laws to make it easier to sue people. Conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr., have increasingly argued that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook censor them. A $250 million lawsuit would seem a good way to make Twitter think long and hard about how it’s applying its standards.

So feel free to chuckle about the spectacle of Devin Nunes suing “Devin Nunes’ cow” — especially given Nunes’s past opposition to “frivolous lawsuits” — but know that this most likely isn’t about his purported cow or what it said. Nunes is telegraphing an expansive effort to go after people who hurt Republicans with their public discourse. Its potential impact, not so much legally as from personal behavioral standpoint, shouldn’t be so casually dismissed.

It is problematic for an elected official to try and use the courts to bully dissenters. What more is there to say?

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    Though absorbing criticism comes with the territory for politicians, the complaint described the objectionable tweets from the three users as something “that no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life.”

    Perhaps the handle that Nunes should use is @WhinyAssTittyBaby…oh wait, he might sue me now…

    18
  2. Hal 10000 says:

    Well my days of not taking Nunes seriously are certainly coming to a middle.

    26
  3. Teve says:

    Robert A George
    @RobGeorge

    FAKE MOOS!!! FAKE MOOS!!!
    Quote Tweet

    Kevin M. Kruse
    @KevinMKruse

    In less than 24 hours, @DevinCow has gone from 2.2k followers to 153.5k

    I’d like to move that we rename the Streisand Effect as the “Nunes Effect”

    7:50 PM · Mar 19, 2019 from Manhattan, NY · Twitter for iPhone

    10
  4. gVOR08 says:

    Darn, I was trying to work this Nunes suit into a comment on James’ free speech post.

    Yes, this suit is frivolous and should be laughed out of court pretty quickly, but it will still have some chilling efect on the refs. Whatever rules Twitter and Facebook et al may come up with, Republicans will use their advantage in money and resources and lack of ethical constraint to cheat.

    10
  5. Jen says:

    It’s daft and I hope he’s ordered to pay court costs for Ms. Mair.

    What an awful person he is.

  6. Slugger says:

    This suit is clearly a form of SLAPP. Being sued is very unpleasant even if you win, and these suits are intended to intimidate. For years, conservative legal thinkers have been very outspoken against this practice. I am sure we will soon hear loud denunciations of Mr. Nunes from principled leaders of the right.

    20
  7. Teve says:

    I just started following Devin’s Cow on Twitter. It’s up to 272k followers 🙂

    In even funnier news, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who I just checked has a lifetime rating of 87% from the American Conservative Union, has just been disinvited from the state’s GOP Lincoln Day celebration, because he voted against Trump’s emergency declaration.

    aaaaaaand the state GOP in Missouri is not calling it The Lincoln Day Dinner anymore. It’s now called the Lincoln / Trump day dinner.

    11
  8. For what I have read, the real point of this is a kind of establishing a precedent – in the last years, a talking point of conservatives is that twitter, facebook, etc. are not really neutral common carriers, but sites that explicitly curate their content – and, because of that, should not be covered by the immunity from liability that common carriers have; and this lawsuit is an attempt to see if a court rules in these way.

    6
    1
  9. Jen says:

    @Teve: WOW.

    That is astonishing (re: Missouri). A little (ancient) history: Roy Blunt ran against Bill Webster, the former MO state AG, in the primary for the governer’s seat when it was open in 1992. It was a nasty, brutal primary, which Webster won, but many of the conservative state GOP were really, really ticked at Blunt for years. Webster had to spend a lot of money in the primary, and came out of it damaged and lost to Mel Carnahan. (IMHO, he would have lost anyway, this was back when MO was still pretty competitive and that was a good year for Democrats.) Webster went on to be convicted of campaign finance violations (IIRC, using his official staff for campaign work).

    Renaming Lincoln Days is also interesting…there were a handful who had a problem with that name, some side-nudging about naming a GOP event after the President who started the “war of Northern aggression,” if you catch my drift.

    More about that brutal primary: https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article41364921.html

  10. Teve says:

    Mass for Shut-ins (podcast)
    @gin_and_tacos
    ·
    19m
    It’s crucial for the Democratic nominee to articulate an agenda beyond “let’s get along” pablum or “things were basically fine until trump” because this is their last crack at the White House before the GOP finds a competent authoritarian and we are all fucked.

  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This clown is nothing but a Trump-fluffer and a fuq’ing snowflake.
    I hope these people really ratchet up their legal fees, so Nunes will get stuck with a big bill for his frivolous lawsuit.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jen:

    That is astonishing (re: Missouri).

    As a resident of the fine state of Misery in the heart of trumpistan, it does not surprise me at all.

  13. Joe says:

    So here’s where Twitter can actually do a public service. Given that they have some resources and a dog in this fight, Twitter should kill this ant with a sledgehammer, doing whatever they can to make Nunes’s life in this lawsuit a living hell and make this lawsuit a choice he wishes he hadn’t made in a way that will warn others against following similar tracks.

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  14. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @DevinCow is now at 353,000+ followers. Milk that, Devin!

  15. Jen says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: As you might have surmised from my comment, I know a fair bit about your fine state. 😉

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jen: It saddens me me how far we have fallen and how little time it took. In 2008 it was weeks after the election before they were able to declare we went for McCain. Now look at us.

    PS: I voted for the dead man! Because even a zombie Mel Carnahan would have been better than a Sen John Ashcroft.

  17. Eric Florack says:

    Well, he could always use the IRS to silence critics. I mean, that’s never been done before, right?

    Oh, wait.

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  18. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @Eric Florack:

    You’re right, Eric. That never has been done before. You really should put that lie to bed; it’s way past due for burial.

    P.S. @DevinCow now at 362,000+ followers!

    14
  19. R. Dave says:

    @Joe: Absolutely. They should move for dismissal, request recovery of attorney’s fees, and then file suit against him for malicious prosecution, abuse of process and whatever else they can make a plausible case for.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Beating dead horses is a hobby of his, because live ones kick back.

  21. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Well, he could always use the IRS to silence critics.

    Please link to a credible source describing an instance when the FBI was used to silence critics.
    If you have to lie to make your point…you don’t have a point.

  22. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This is obviously a funny thing. Unfortunately it’s part of the Republican strategy to limit free-speech and thus criticism of the Dennison regime.
    And in the meantime:
    White Nationalism is still on the rise.
    NoKo is still nuclearizing.
    Russia is still attacking us.
    Our infrastructure is still crumbling.
    The deficit is still exploding.
    Income inequity is still growing.
    The number of un-insured is still growing.
    Our air and water is becoming more polluted.
    Our work-places are becoming less safe.
    And Flint still doesn’t have safe water.

  23. SenyorDave says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Add attempts to turn this into a Christian country:

    State Department blocks reporters from Pompeo briefing with faith-based media: report

    This is astonishing, should be a major story. A special briefing for faith-based media only by the SecState. No transcript will be provided, which is contrary to SOP.

  24. SKI says:

    I’m torn between wanting this to get quickly shot down by the Courts (with damages under VA’s Anti-SLAAP) and wanting to see discovery proceed to a deposition of Nunes…

  25. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Eric Florack:
    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Please link to a credible source

    Crickets.

  26. Teve says:

    Devin Nunes’ cow
    @DevinCow
    Hanging out on the dairy in Iowa looking for the lil’ treasonous cowpoke. TheRealDevinCow@gmail.com
    United StatesBorn October 1, 1973Joined August 2017
    1,553 Following
    410.7K Followers

    Followed by Preet Bharara, J. Kenji “Individual Fun” López-Alt, and 6 others you follow

  27. MikeSJ says:

    I suspect this is an attempt to harass his critics thru imposing legal fees/expenses on them. Even if you win you incur up front costs and time spent.

    Nunes will lose and have to pay costs but as I’ve seen pointed out he’s probably not paying for any of this himself, it’s all coming from a big money republican e.g. Mercers/Koch/Adelson types.

    It’d be nice if a Democratic billionaire like a Tom Steyer type would announce he’s covering all legal expenses for any one Nunes is suing just to take the expense harassment off the table.

  28. Teve says:

    Devin Nunes’ cow Retweeted

    DefamatoryCowHat
    @Popehat
    ·
    39m

    In the civil justice system, insults by cows are considered especially heinous. On Twitter, the dedicated public servants who refuse to endure these vicious calumnies are part of an elite squad known as the
    @GOP
    . These are their stories.

    MOO MOO

  29. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Teve:
    I saw that on Twitter…hilarious.

  30. Teve says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: two days ago Devin Nunez’s cow had two thousand followers. Then the lawsuit. As of 2 minutes ago Monsieur Cow has 466 thousand followers 🙂

  31. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @Slugger: Wait…there are principled leaders on the right? Who knew?

  32. Teve says:

    @The abyss that is the soul of cracker: slugger hypothesized their existence, but we haven’t seen them materialize yet.

  33. grumpy realist says:

    OT: Brexit: Present status: who in the hell knows? Looks like the EU is more or less pissed off with the U.K. and has decided to give Theresa May one last chance to shove the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament before cutting the cord. There are tons of commentators over at the Daily Telegraph absolutely certain that this is all one big fat conspiracy on the part of the EU (and Soros. And the Illuminati…) and there is no way that the EU will “allow” the U.K. to leave with a No Deal.

  34. rachel says:

    …the Daily Telegraph absolutely certain that this is all one big fat conspiracy on the part of the EU (and Soros. And the Illuminati…) and there is no way that the EU will “allow” the U.K. to leave with a No Deal.

    I don’t understand this. How is the EU leaving w/o a deal more skin off the EU’s nose than it is the UK’s? The attitude of the Brexiteers that of course they’ll get favorable terms because Britain is just that special puzzles me to no end. Do they think nothing has changed in the last hundred years?

  35. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: As I recall, Nixon actually took steps in that direction; among the many offenses for which he faced impeachment and removal from office.

  36. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:

    He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to… cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be intitiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.

    Endeavored being the operative word.
    Regardless…Florack the Racist was obviously pointing to the faux IRA/Obama kerfuffle.