On Monday, Rep. Devin Nunes from California filed a massive lawsuit against Twitter and a handful of its users. Nunes has accused the social media platform of “shadow-banning conservatives” to hide their posts, “ignoring” lawful complaints of abusive behavior, and censoring opposing viewpoints. Nunes is looking for $250 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. In the complaint, which was filed in a Virginia state court on Monday, Nunes claimed that Twitter wanted to hinder the work he has done on the House Intelligence Committee, which he was the chairman of until 2019, in regards to the research he conducted about alleged and apparent surveillance abuses within the government. Nunes accused Twitter of “knowingly hosting and monetizing content that is clearly abusive, hateful and defamatory – providing both a voice and financial incentive to the defamers – thereby facilitating defamation on its platform.”
The lawsuit points out negligence, conspiracy, and defamation, as well as, the violations of the state’s prohibition against “insulting words,” which are defined as fighting words that tend to lead to “violence and breach of the peace.” Nunes is looking for damages, but he’s also asking for Twitter to give up the names of the people that have defamed him and harassed him on the social media website. “Twitter is a machine. It is a modern-day Tammany Hall. Congressman Nunes intends to hold Twitter fully accountable for its abusive behavior and misconduct,” said Nunes’ attorney, Steven S. Biss. Typically, federal law exempts services like Twitter from all levels of defamation liability, but Nunes’ lawsuit claims that because Twitter has taken full control of organizing and banning content, rather than just hosting it, they should have to face liability just like any other company found guilty of doing so. “Twitter created and developed the content at issue in this case by transforming false accusations of criminal conduct, imputed wrongdoing, dishonesty and lack of integrity into a publicly available commodity used by unscrupulous political operatives and their donor/clients as a weapon. Twitter is ‘responsible’ for the development of offensive content on its platform because it in some way specifically encourages development of what is offensive about the content,” wrote Nunes’ legal team. This lawsuit is completely separate from the work that Nunes is doing on the House Intelligence Committee, which he is now the ranking member of.
Also, as the complaint stated, Twitter has the responsibility of exercising reasonable care to avoid hosting any content that could be considered slanderous because of how important its role is in staying up with current affairs. “Access to Twitter is essential for meaningful participation in modern-day American Democracy. A candidate without Twitter is a losing candidate. The ability to use Twitter is a vital part of modern citizenship. A presence on Twitter is essential for an individual to run for office or engage in any level of political organizing in modern America. That is because Twitter is not merely a website: it is the modern town square. Twitter is equivalent to the private owner of a public forum who has fully opened its property to the general public for purposes of permitting the public’s free expression and debate. That is, in fact, what Twitter has always claimed to be,” stated Nunes’ complaint. The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, has always insisted that Twitter retains the right to censor speech because it is a private company, even though he has previously testified in front of Congress saying that his platform is sort of like a “digital public square.” According to the complaint, Nunes has “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” because of Twitter’s actions.
Nunes’ complaint also pointed out specific Twitter user accounts that have allegedly spread defamatory material about Nunes. One person in question, identified as “Liz” Mair, reportedly published tweets 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,'” according to Nunes’ lawyers. According to the complaint, Mair posted a tweet on June 22, 2018, that stated that Nunes had invested in a winery that “allegedly used underage hookers to solicit investment.” Fox News reached out to Mair for a comment, but the user didn’t respond. The news station also reached out to Twitter, but they were told “we’re not commenting at this time” by the company.
“Devin Nunes’ Mom” was another profile named in Nunes’ complaint. According to the lawsuit, “Devin Nunes’ Mom” is “a person who, with Twitter’s consent, hijacked Nunes’ name, falsely impersonated Nunes’ mother, and created and maintained an account on Twitter (@DevinNunesMom) for the sole purpose of attacking, defaming, disparaging and demeaning Nunes.” According to Nunes’ lawyers, “In her endless barrage of tweets, Devin Nunes’ Mom maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes’ character, honesty, integrity, ethics and fitness to perform his duties as a United States Congressman.”
According to the complaint, one of the tweets from the account contained a drawing of President Trump, Nunes, and Russian President Vladimir Putin linked together in an arrangement like the characters from the horror film “The Human Centipede.” The complaint continues by accusing the account of posting factually false and defamatory information, combined with prohibited “insulting” fighting words. According to the complaint: “Devin Nunes’ Mom stated that Nunes had turned out worse than Jacob Wohl; falsely accused Nunes of being a racist, having ‘white supremacist friends’ and distributing ‘disturbing inflammatory racial propaganda’; falsely accused Nunes of putting up a ‘Fake News MAGA’ sign outside a Texas Holocaust museum; falsely stated that Nunes would probably join the ‘Proud Boys’, if it weren’t for that unfortunate ‘no masturbating’ rule’; disparagingly called him a ‘presidential fluffer and swamp rat’; falsely stated that Nunes had brought ‘shame’ to his family; repeatedly accused Nunes of the crime of treason, compared him to Benedict Arnold, and called him a ‘traitor.'”
When Fox News attempted to access the @DevinNunesMom account on Monday afternoon, they noticed that Twitter had suspended it. But according to Nunes’ complaint, “Twitter only suspended the account in 2019 after Nunes’ real mother, Toni Dian Nunes, complained. … Twitter permitted @DevinNunesMom, for instance, to tweet and retweet with impunity throughout 2018.” However, “Twitter did nothing to investigate or review the defamation that appeared in plain view on its platform. Twitter consciously allowed the defamation of Nunes to continue” regardless of the reports and reviews conducted by Twitter’s content moderators. “As part of its agenda to squelch Nunes’ voice, cause him extreme pain and suffering, influence the 2018 Congressional election, and distract, intimidate and interfere with Nunes’ investigation into corruption and Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election, Twitter did absolutely nothing,” the complaint continued.
The complaint named another account as a defendant, as well. According to Nunes, “Devin Nunes’ Cow” or @DevinCow apparently referred to Nunes as a “treasonous cowpoke” and an “udder-ly worthless” criminal. According to Nunes’ legal team, the timing and content of the tweets made it obvious that Mair was working with the @DevinCow and @DevinNunesMom accounts. The complaint also states the Mair’s LinkedIn profile contains the boastful comment: “What do I do for [my] clients? Anonymously smear their opposition on the Internet.” When @DevinCow heard about the lawsuit they posted several tweets making fun of Nunes. One of them read: “I’m not quitting my day job.”
According to the complaint, Nunes was “shadow-banned” by Twitter in 2018 “in order to restrict his free speech and to amplify the abusive and hateful content published and republished by Mair, Devin Nunes’ Mom,” as well as other accounts. A user who has been “shadow-banned” can see their own tweets, but others may not be able to easily access them, or see them at all, which makes it extremely difficult for the user to see that they’re being censored. “The shadow-banning was intentional. It was calculated to interfere with and influence the federal election and interfere with Nunes’ ongoing investigation as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Twitter’s actions affected the election results. The combination of the shadow-ban and Twitter’s refusal to enforce its Terms and Rules in the face of clear and present abuse and hateful conduct caused Nunes to lose support amongst voters,” read the complaint. The lawsuit also pointed out a number of articles that have been published about Twitter, including one from Vice News, that have discussed how the social media website has been downplaying the visibility of notable conservatives in their search results. In a blog post from last year, Twitter denied shadow-banning any profiles based on their political beliefs, and they also said that all tweets are accessible from the users’ profile. They did, in fact, acknowledge that tweets from “bad faith users” would be found at a lower spot in the search results when other users attempt to look for specific search terms.
On Monday, the managing editor of The Federalist, Sean Davis, wrote that he had also been a victim of a form of shadow-banning on Twitter, and he also said that despite the claims made by Twitter, there were other users that were unable to see specific tweets even if they were on his profile. “Twitter gave me no notice or explanation when it shadowbanned one of my Tweets about Russian interference in our elections. But what’s worse is how Twitter apparently gives its users the fraudulent impression that their tweets, which Twitter secretly bans, are still public,” wrote Davis. He also insisted that Twitter “claimed in its e-mail to me that it ‘mistakenly remove[d]’ a completely anodyne tweet about public congressional testimony, but didn’t explain why it left the tweet–and metrics showing no engagement–visible to me when logged in. Is conning users a bug, or a feature?” The Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, acknowledged while speaking on Joe Rogan’s podcast that Twitter had been too aggressive when it came to banning certain accounts. Twitter’s chief legal officer, Vijaya Gadde, explained that the company would learn from its mistakes. “Where we draw a line is when people use their voice and their platform to use their voice to silence someone else on the platform. It’s rare for us to outright ban someone without warning,” said Gadde on the podcast.