Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Feb. 27, 2018.Bill Clark/AP
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On Monday, news broke that Donald Trump’s “very courageous man” in Congress, Rep. Devin Nunes from California’s Central Valley, would be suing Twitter and three of its users for $250 million because they composed and shared tweets that, for the most part, made fun of him. Jokes made at his expense—that he would probably join the Proud Boys “if it weren’t for that unfortunate ‘no masturbating’ rule,’”; that he is “a presidential fluffer and swamp rat”; or that while he “might be a unscrupulous, craven, back-stabbing, charlatan and traitor…he’s no Ted Cruz”—on Twitter’s platform represent an “orchestrated defamation campaign,” according to the complaint.
This alleged campaign to tear Nunes down on social media was so egregious that, according to the complaint, it led to the nine-term congressman’s first particularly challenging re-election effort in November, against Andrew Janz, the Democrat and Fresno prosecutor who came within striking distance of unseating Nunes in the 2018 midterms. “In 2018 …Nunes endured an orchestrated defamation campaign of stunning breadth and scope, one that no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life,” the complaint reads. “The malicious, false and defamatory statements and relentless attacks on Nunes’ reputation did not stop after he won the Congressional election in 2018. The defamation continues. It must be stopped.”
The filing also asserts the social media giant was “censoring” and “shadow-banning” conservatives, including himself. (The act of shadow-banning—hiding a user’s posts from others without entirely booting them off the platform—has been shown time and again to not exist. In a blog post last July, Twitter stressed that it does not do that.)
Twitter users—and not just the few focused on in the lawsuit, Republican strategist Liz Mair and two anonymous parody accounts, “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow”—have had a field day in the hours since the lawsuit was filed. It has also left many wondering if it’s simply a publicity stunt, a new way for Nunes to keep his name in the headlines now that he is no longer chair of the high-profile House Intelligence Committee. “I’ll be curious to see if this is going to become something he is going to repeatedly do,” says Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at Fresno State University, which is located near Nunes’ district. “Is this what we’re going to see from Congressman Nunes over the next couple years? He is no longer the powerhouse that he was now that he is in the minority and no longer controls the Intelligence Committee. Is this going to be his new way to try to be influential?”
For his part, Janz unsurprisingly claims he’s completely blameless here. “Devin Nunes thinks that he almost was defeated because of a conspiracy between Twitter and Democrats. I think he’s more detached from reality than I originally thought,” he says. The reason why this was a close race, Janz claims, is because Nunes is “never in his district.” Janz adds that Nunes “has not held a town hall in years, and even after this election he’s still not meeting with constituents…. The voters were holding him accountable for the first time in 15 years, and that has nothing to do with Twitter, or any conspiracy that he’s alleging.” Janz also highlights that in 2017, Nunes co-sponsored the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act, which is aimed at “going after people exactly like himself filing frivolous lawsuits.”
What’s more, as Holyoke notes, the suit likely has thin legal standing. “I suppose, in the sense that Andrew Janz was a supporter of using Twitter and a variety of social media strategies to get a message out criticizing Congressman Nunes,” he says. “I think blaming his narrow win on rampant Twitter bias is a little hard to swallow, especially since, as we’ve seen, Republicans—like the president—so effectively use Twitter. Where’s the bias there?”
Holyoke rather sees the lawsuit as little more than “a continuation,” he says, of Nunes taking up and running with “the ideas, notions, strategies, whatever it is that come from Donald Trump…The president demonizes social media as being biased, and now we’re seeing Devin Nunes essentially doing the same thing.”
He adds, “He seems to still be acting in Congress almost as an agent of the president rather than as a member of a body that is independent and equal to the president.”
Local Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be supporting their man. Fred Vanderhoof, chair of the Fresno County Republican Party Central Committee, is hosting Nunes at an event in April, and says, “I think that the problems that Congressman Nunes is having is representative of a nationwide effort to censure conservative opinion.” Sticking to the party line, he adds that Twitter can have a “chilling” effect on free speech, especially among those on the right. He also predicts the suit could be the start of something much bigger: “This type of thing could go to appellate court, circuit courts, and even the Supreme Court. I don’t know about this case, but the Supreme Court is going to have to get involved in this pretty soon I would think,” he adds, referring to the idea that conservative voices are being silenced, censored, shadow-banned, or otherwise quieted for political purposes.
But for now, people are definitely still focused elsewhere. “I got dozens of calls and text messages yesterday,” says Janz. “The sentiment is that Devin Nunes is a sore winner.”