19 March 2019 | KATE IRBY | McClatchy DC
In suing two Twitter parody accounts for defamation, Rep. Devin Nunes amplified their audiences.
One of the accounts, known as Devin Nunes’ Cow, saw its followers on Twitter swell from just over a thousand to more than 135,000 in less than a day after the Republican congressman from Tulare announced his lawsuit on Fox News.
The anonymous writer behind the account continued to taunt the congressman. In one post, the author wrote, “Do process servers visit dairies, or will it come in the mail?”
Nunes filed his lawsuit in Henrico County, Virginia early Tuesday. He’s seeking more than $250 million from Twitter, a political strategist who is critical of Nunes on Twitter and the anonymous users behind the parody accounts, arguing the tweets damaged his reputation and were responsible for his narrower-than-usual win of his congressional seat in 2018.
Nunes said the lawsuit was “the first of many,” when he appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox show Monday night. He added he was “starting with Twitter and going on to the fake new stories.”
He further alleged that Twitter favors content that is critical of him, while hiding or banning content from conservatives who support him.
“This was an orchestrated effort. People were targeting me. There were anonymous accounts that were developed,” he said in the Fox interview.
His lawsuit named parody accounts called “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” Twitter suspended the Devin Nunes’ Mom account earlier this month because Nunes’ “real mom” complained, according to the lawsuit.
Twitter declined comment.
Many of the tweets by the “Devin Nunes’ Mom” account specified in the lawsuit were explicit, but other tweets read similar to the following:
“Devin Nunes your district is looking for you? Are you trying to obstruct a federal investigation again? You come home right this instant or no more Minecraft!”
But the account Devin Nunes’ Cow had its followers increase exponentially, amplifying a message that had only been received by just over a thousand people before that point. Some users pledged to help it obtain a larger Twitter audience than Nunes, whose official Twitter account has 391,000 followers.
The cow account has less explicit content, with many of its tweets insulting Nunes, a former dairyman, with cow puns. One called him a “treasonous cowpoke.” Another called him “udder-ly worthless.”
Nunes while chairman of the House Intelligence Committee gained a national reputation as a prominent defender of President Donald Trump, including releasing documents that Democrats said appeared intended to undercut Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
That renown helped Nunes’ opponent, prosecutor Andrew Janz, raise more than $9 million in a failed bid to unseat the congressman.
Democrats won the House majority in November’s midterm election, and Nunes is no longer a committee chairman.
Some Tweets from the accounts named in his lawsuit read as obvious parody. Others criticize Nunes’ involvement in Russia-related investigations or cite Fresno Bee stories on a lawsuit filed against a winery that Nunes partly owns.
Legal experts say his case is a long shot. Not only is parody protected speech, public figures suing for defamation and libel are rarely successful.
“You have to prove not just that was said about him was false, but that they also knew it was false and acted maliciously,” said Louis Michael Seidman, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown Law.
Other cases filed against Twitter related to activity on the platform have been dismissed. A federal court in San Francisco ruled in August 2016 that Twitter was not responsible for tweets by the terrorist group Islamic State on its platform.
The judge cited a section of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes websites from legal liability for the comments of their users.
Carl Szabo, Vice President and General Counsel at NetChoice, an advocacy group for the tech industry, said in a statement he hoped the lawsuit would not undermine internet forums for talking about public officials.
“This suit’s survival is unlikely as the ability to criticize and mock our public officials is well settled court doctrine,” Szabo said.