A parody Twitter account purporting to be owned by an unhappy cow living on one of Rep. Devin Nunes’ Iowa farms attacked the California Republican as a “treasonous cowpoke” and “udder-ly worthless” during the 2018 campaign.
Now Nunes wants $250 million in damages from Twitter for failing to police the accounts of @DevinCow as well as another parody, @DevinNunesMom, and a political activist named Liz Mair.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Virginia, Nunes complained that all three defamed him in hundreds of tweets over several months last year. It also seeks $350,000 in punitive damages, though legal experts say the suit has little chance of moving forward.
Nunes, a close ally of President Trump, says in his complaint that he endured what “no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life.” He said it caused him to win reelection last November by a narrower margin than in the past and distracted him from running the House investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election.
Among other things, Nunes, from Tulare, cited a variety of tweets that used crude humor to accuse him of criminal behavior, including soliciting prostitutes.
Most politicians and celebrities today face similar parody accounts. Many just ignore them, though a few play along. A Twitter account called @Betosblog lampoons Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rouke. Parody accounts of President Trump have hundreds of thousands of followers.
The @DevinNunesMom account was suspended by Twitter after his actual mother, Toni Dian Nunes, complained.
But if Nunes hoped his lawsuit would intimidate his trollers into silence, the move may have backfired.
The @DevinCow account has jumped from just over 1,000 followers to more than 137,000 followers as of Tuesday afternoon, and still rising.
Mair said on Twitter she will not comment publicly on the complaint.
As part of the suit, Nunes wants Twitter to disclose the real names of the people who created the parody accounts. The suit also accuses Twitter of bias against conservatives.
Nunes has clashed with his media critics before. Last year, he sent out a glossy, 40-page mailer shortly before the 2018 election attacking the Fresno Bee after its editorial board criticized him repeatedly.
Twitter has indicated in the past that parody accounts do not violate its rules as long as the profile or user name states that the account does not belong to the person it’s satirizing. The company has denied a political bias but has not commented specifically on Nunes’ suit.
Nunes, who last year cosponsored legislation titled the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act, has a hard road ahead to winning the suit.
Courts have generally ruled that satirical works are opinion, not a representation of fact, and are therefore not subject to libel and defamation laws.
First Amendment experts say the Communications Decency Act protects large social media companies like Twitter from being held liable for what users publish on their platforms.
The courts have traditionally ruled that anonymous speech is protected under the 1st Amendment, and that social media sites are by their nature "a place where people engage in outrageous opinion … rather than fact,” said Alex Abdo, litigation director for the Knight First Amendment Center at Columbia University.
And since Nunes is a public official, he faces a higher burden to prove libel or defamation.
“The claim against Twitter is almost certain to get dismissed very quickly and my guess is the rest of it … is likely to get dismissed very quickly,” Abdo said.
The lawsuit was announced to conservative media outlets first, and Nunes told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Monday night that Tuesday’s suit is the first of many he plans to file.
“We have to hold all of these people accountable, because if we don’t, our 1st Amendment rights are at stake here,” Nunes said. “How is it possible that I can be attacked relentlessly, hundreds of times a day by fake accounts that [Twitter] claim in their terms of service should not be there?”