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‘This was an orchestrated effort’: Devin Nunes sues Twitter, ‘Devin Nunes’ cow’ for defamation

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said March 18 that he’s suing Twitter and three individual users for defamation and negligence. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

There’s a cow on Twitter. But it isn’t just any cow — it claims to belong to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

“Hanging out on the dairy in Iowa looking for the lil’ treasonous cowpoke,” reads the bio of the account “Devin Nunes’ cow,” which, as of early Tuesday, had nearly 45,000 followers.

The opinionated bovine appears to not be the biggest fan of its owner. “Devin’s boots are full of manure,” it once tweeted. “He’s udder-ly worthless and it’s pasture time to mooove him to prison.”

On Monday, Nunes said he is suing the cow account, other individual users and Twitter for defamation and negligence, alleging that the social media platform “knowingly acted as a vessel for opposition research” and censors conservative voices. The lawsuit — the latest one accusing a social media site of anti-conservative bias — drew criticism Monday as many, including legal experts, questioned its motivations and wondered if it could be a “publicity stunt.”

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has filed a $250 million defamation lawsuit against Twitter March 18, 2019. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

As of late Monday, the suit was not listed in Virginia state court records, where Fox News reported it had been filed.

The complaint alleges that Twitter “intended to generate and proliferate false and defamatory statements” about Nunes to influence the midterm elections; tried to “intimidate” the congressman, who is currently the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee; and sought to “interfere with his important investigation of corruption by the Clinton campaign and alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election,” according to a copy of the suit obtained by Fox News. Nunes is seeking $250 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.

“This was an orchestrated effort,” Nunes said during an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity on Monday. “People were targeting me.”

Aside from Twitter and the cow account, the lawsuit names Liz Mair, a Republican political consultant, and another anonymous Twitter account known for mocking Nunes — “Devin Nunes’ Mom” — as defendants. Nunes alleges that the accounts “repeatedly tweeted and retweeted abusive and hateful content” about him, violating the platform’s user guidelines.

Nunes and his attorney, Steven S. Biss, did not respond to requests for comment late Monday. In an automated email, Mair said she had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment. Twitter also declined to comment.

“Twitter is a machine,” Biss told Fox News on Monday. “It is a modern-day Tammany Hall. Congressman Nunes intends to hold Twitter fully accountable for its abusive behavior and misconduct.”

On “Hannity,” Nunes said the lawsuit against Twitter was “the first of many” to come.

“What we’re doing here, is we’re actually going after Twitter first,” he said. “They’re the main proliferator, and they spread this fake news and this slanderous news.”

In the lawsuit, Nunes accused Twitter of “shadow banning” conservatives such as himself while “facilitating defamation on its platform” by “ignoring lawful complaints about offensive content and by allowing that content to remain accessible to the public,” even if it allegedly violated the site’s terms of service or rules. In recent years, “shadow banning,” which refers to the practice of hiding an active user’s posts from others on a platform, has become “a politically loaded catchall for censorship,” according to The Post’s Abby Ohlheiser.

Twitter has been repeatedly criticized by many, including President Trump, over claims that it systematically bans right-wing voices or content. The social media giant denied allegations of “shadow banning” based on political viewpoint or ideology in a blog post last July. The company’s executives explained that the platform uses algorithms that rank tweets and accounts to minimize harmful content, and has since worked to make changes to the systems, The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin reported.

Trump shared the news of Nunes’s lawsuit on Twitter, tweeting a link on Monday night to a story from the Daily Beast.

In the lawsuit, Nunes also took aim at the three individual users, calling them “defamers.”

Mair, the suit alleged, “relentlessly smeared and defamed” the California congressman. The complaint highlighted a June tweet from Mair, in which she referenced information reported in a Fresno Bee story that “implied that Nunes colluded with prostitutes and cocaine addicts, that Nunes does cocaine, and that Nunes was involved in a ‘Russian money laundering front.’” Nunes has denied the allegations in that report.

The suit went on to accuse the two parody accounts of making “libelous” statements, arguing that the users “maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes’ character, honesty, integrity, ethics and fitness to perform his duties as a United States Congressman.” Nunes added that he was requesting the court to order Twitter to reveal the identities of the anonymous users and suspend their accounts from the site, the lawsuit said.

“I guarantee you that if I put something out that was sexually explicit, or attack someone personally, they would stop it,” Nunes told Hannity. “They would say this is a sensitive tweet. They never did that to any of the people that were coming after me or other conservatives.”

The account for Devin Nunes’ Mom was suspended this year, according to the suit. Devin Nunes’ cow was still active as of early Tuesday, offering glib reactions to the lawsuit and retweeting supporters. The account did not respond to a request for comment early Tuesday.

Recent lawsuits similar to Nunes’s have not seen much success in courts as there are laws in place that protect social media platforms and First Amendment rights, Jim Bickerton, an attorney with Bickerton Law Group in Honolulu, told The Washington Post.

“The case is not really well thought through,” Bickerton, who has practiced libel law for nearly 40 years, said of Nunes’s suit. He noted that Nunes, a public official and public figure, will have to overcome the “actual malice” standard set by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964. Actual malice is defined as “a statement made with a reckless disregard for truth,” and requires the person making the statement to have a “high degree of awareness” that it is false.

A number of the examples cited in Nunes’s lawsuit appear to be “things that are most obviously hyperbole,” Bickerton said, which along with opinion is a form of protected speech.

He likened Monday’s lawsuit to one filed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. against Hustler magazine in the 1980s. Falwell, a prominent religious figure, sued the publication for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” among other claims, after the magazine ran a parody of a popular advertisement that portrayed him engaging in drunken sexual activity with his mother in an outhouse. The Supreme Court unanimously decided that public figures, like Falwell, were not protected from “patently offensive speech” as long as the statements couldn’t be construed as actual facts.

“Here, they actually have someone who says she’s Devin Nunes’s mother,” Bickerton said. “People are going to know that’s not really his mom. Just like how people knew Jerry Falwell wasn’t having sex in the outhouse with his mother.”

The other obstacle Nunes faces is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Kevin Goering, a media law expert, told The Post. Under the act, Internet service providers, such as social media sites, and their users have protections because they are not “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

“It’s an iffy case,” Goering, a partner with Mintz & Gold in New York, said about Nunes’s lawsuit. “He’s trying to put together a patchwork quilt of arguments.”

Bickerton said it’s possible Nunes is using his lawsuit as a way to revive debates around libel law in a time where the “level of discourse has reached a point that anything goes on the Internet pretty much.”

“In the court of courts, it’s unlikely to be successful,” he said. “In the court of public opinion, that may be where he’s hoping to get the real traction.”

Reis Thebault contributed to this report.

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