These are strange times. A town in Minnesota is mourning the death of its dog mayor. A town in Vermont just elected a goat. A colicky pomeranian sits in the White House. And on Twitter — where everything gets even stranger — a Congressman’s cow is moo-nopolizing all the attention.
You may have heard that California Representative Devin Nunes announced a $250 million defamation lawsuit he filed against Twitter as well as three users — Republican strategist Liz Mair, and two parody accounts: the now-suspended @DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow.
Nunes’s suit claims that Twitter is “shadow-banning” conservatives and conservative content, knowingly hosting abusive content (otherwise known as “Twitter”), ignoring complaints about abusive content, and failing to self-regulate and “thereby selectively amplifying the message of defamers such as Mair, Devin Nunes’ Mom and Devin Nunes’ cow.”
(It also manages to casually toss in that the mean amplified-cow-tweeting “illustrates the desperate and cowardly attempt to manufacture evidence of ‘collusion’ where none exists.” What were we talking about again?)
One might imagine another good way to selectively amplify salty Twitter cows is to sue them for hundreds of millions of dollars — and one would be right.
Within 24 hours of Twitter catching wind of Nunes’s lawsuit against the “portal of defamation,” the @DevinCow account — which routinely ruminated on its owner’s behavior by royally milking the cow puns (e.g. “Devin’s boots are full of manure. He’s udder-ly worthless and it’s pasture time to mooove him to prison”) — jumped over the moon, going from 1,200 followers to a current tally of just under 620k. (Nunes’s personal Twitter has just under 400,000 followers.)
He also has about a 1 in 400,000 chance of seeing any money from this lawsuit. But as many have pointed out, that may not be the point. As Jane Coaston wrote at Vox: “To the California Republican and his allies, social media platforms have been far too unfair to conservative and right-leaning users. And now, Nunes argues, it’s time to fight back — in court.”
Those allies include people like the president, his family, and a chorus of talking heads and disembodied AM-radio voices who carry forth the tired refrain of orchestrated censorship against conservatives on social media. (Guess what liberals are saying social media is doing to them!) This lawsuit may be a signal of other, dumber lawsuits to come.
But why? Nunes isn’t stupid. Certainly, he knows full well that suing Twitter for Twitter being mean will be as productive as running head first into a wall. And certainly, he knows that targeting a literal imaginary cow for harassment will only inspire new, louder, meaner cows — or, you know, other things — there’s already @DevinNunesSkin (one tweet: “still thin”), and “Devin Nunes’ Alt-Mom,” steadily gaining steam. “Devin Nunes Threatens Defamation Lawsuit After Reputation Ruined By His Official Twitter Account,” half-joked a headline in the Onion.
Like anything on social media, Nunes’s performance is just that: a grand dance in front of Devin-hating-Twitter to indicate that he and the powers that be would only stand for so much proverbial cow-tipping. And as Trump routinely threatens to loosen libel laws (that he doesn’t understand) and weaken long-established protections that hold public officials to different standards in cases of alleged libel, it matters less and less if there’s no legal value to Nunes running headfirst into a wall. If he can pass off the head wound as a battle scar, there’s political value to leech.
And there may be other motives in play. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown suggests in Reason, the exercise may also be “a fishing expedition of sorts. Nunes' claims may ultimately be declared nonsense, but Twitter defending the lawsuit would mean it has to turn over all sorts of internal company documents and process information as part of discovery.”
Whatever Nunes’s reasoning, the lawsuit recenters a dangerous notion of a state-side regulation of political critique, which, in the hands of this administration, I am going to guess would be handled less gently than migrant children.
This is not good news for an Internet bracing itself for a toxic election even more turbocharged than the one that got us into this current mess of a discourse. The Republican establishment is not going to like the things it hears about itself should it continue stumbling down its current path; and the mob of mobs we call the Internet has no intention of keeping its opinions to itself.
The way this big, explosive, and ultimately pointless tantrum resolves could still determine just how free our speech is. We may need more than a moo-vement to protect it.