Politics is not a pursuit for the faint of heart or the thin of skin. Yet Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) has evidently been so deeply wounded by the invective directed his way on Twitter, 140 to 280 characters at a time, that he has filed a defamation lawsuit against the company and three of its microblogging auteurs. He is seeking a whopping $250 million for the damage he believes they inflicted on his reputation.
Two of those alleged defamers went by the monikers “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” leavening their tweets occasionally with maternal and bovine jokes, respectively. In other words, they were parody accounts.
We would be the last to argue that Nunes or anyone else shouldn’t be able to seek redress for defamation in court. In this instance, though, it seems Nunes might be doing more damage to his reputation by focusing attention on the critical tweets than by just moving on and doing his work. Then again, Nunes has a history of doing damage to his own reputation, as his performance over the last two years on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence shows.
Nunes’ lawsuit doesn’t identify the people responsible for @DevinNunesMom (which was shut down this month) or @DevinCow on Twitter; the third microblogger sued is Liz Mair, a self-described libertarian Republican who has acted as a communications director for a series of Republican candidates across the country. So the catcalls appear to have been bipartisan.
There are serious questions to ask and answer about how Twitter and other giant social networks manage their users. And then there is Nunes’ lawsuit.
Admittedly, some of the tweets were harsh enough to make a grown man cry — especially the ones from “Devin Nunes’ Mom,” who had a thing for salacious and profane hyperbole. A frequent topic was Nunes’ relationship with President Trump; as you may recall, Nunes positioned himself as Trump’s shield on Capitol Hill, taking the intelligence committee’s probe into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and turning it into an attack on the FBI. That led “Devin Nunes’ Mom” to accuse him of being such things as “presidential fluffer and swamp rat,” according to the complaint.
The tweets cited in the complaint are so ridiculously over the top, you have to wonder why Nunes paid any attention to them. These include posts that, according to lawsuit, “falsely stated that … ‘Devin might be unscrupulous, craven, back-stabbing, charlatan and traitor, but he’s no Ted Cruz’; falsely stated that Nunes was ‘voted ‘Most Likely to Commit Treason’ in high school’; [and] falsely stated that ‘The people of California’s Central Valley are upright folk who work hard, look you square in the eye and give you a firm handshake. And then there is @DevinNunes.’”
There’s a long tradition of low blows and anonymous accusations in politics, and somehow candidates find a way to survive them. Having a sense of humor helps.
Just guessing here, but the real point of the lawsuit may not be to strike back at Nunes’ critics (although he did just that in his successful 2018 campaign for reelection, sending out a 40-page mailer attacking the negative press he’d received in the Fresno Bee). And his goal may not be to collect a huge sum from Twitter, which is so clearly protected by federal law against this very sort of lawsuit that Nunes’ lawyers had to have told him it was a fool’s errand.
Instead, the purpose may simply have been to give Nunes a role in the fight against giant Silicon Valley tech companies that Trump and other Republicans have been waging since before the 2018 election. The lawsuit claims that Twitter censors conservatives and “shadow bans” them (makes their tweets harder to search for on the site), citing as evidence a since-discredited news story that ostensibly uncovered the shadow-banning and a series of reactions to it, largely in conservative media (and on a news site financed by the Russian government). The claims may not pay off in court, but they may play well among GOP donors.
Funny, but liberals have long complained that Twitter is too permissive of racist and misogynistic tweets. The company is also under heavy pressure from policymakers to crack down on fake news, terrorist propaganda and other forms of harmful content that bad actors use its network to distribute. So there are serious questions to ask and answer about how Twitter and other giant social networks manage their users. And then there is Nunes’ lawsuit.
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