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?