Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman from California, said on Monday that he is suing Twitter, a GOP operative, and unnamed defendants behind parody accounts on the social network, for defamation and other claims, after those accounts insulted him on the platform.
In an appearance on Fox News' Hannity, Nunes said he was suing Twitter in the first of many lawsuits he plans to file against technology companies for their alleged bias against conservatives. That appearance came after Fox News reported that the congressman had filed a $250 million lawsuit "in Virginia state court" on Monday and posted a document without a case number or any verification that it had been filed.
Nunes, who represents the 22nd District in California, said in the document posted by Fox News that Twitter played a willing party to abuse he faced from a number of parody accounts, including one using the Twitter handle @DevinNunesMom. He also alleged that Twitter shadowbanned his account @devinnunes — a process by which a social network can quietly curb the distribution or reach of a user’s content without outright banning them — when he tried to respond to that criticism.
“The shadow-banning was intentional,” Nunes’s document reads, noting that Twitter is “essential” for the meaningful participation in American democracy. “It was calculated to interfere with and influence the federal election and interfere with Nunes’s ongoing investigation as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”
Republicans have alleged that technology platforms including Google, Facebook, and Twitter have an unfair bias against conservative viewpoints, an argument that these companies have repeatedly denied and disputed. Last July, following a disputed report by Vice News that stirred up conservative sentiment and is cited in the Nunes complaint, Twitter said in a blog post that it does not shadow ban, which it defined as making a user’s content undiscoverable to everyone but that user. “And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology,” the company wrote.
BuzzFeed News spoke with a deputy clerk in Virginia's Henrico County Circuit court on Tuesday who said that Nunes' lawyer, Steven Biss, only filed the lawsuit on Tuesday morning, despite earlier reports. The deputy clerk said that there was no way to file lawsuits online or overnight, adding that the document was currently being processed by the court's system.
It's unclear how Fox News obtained Nunes' complaint, or why it stated that the suit had been filed on Monday. A Fox News spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
Neither Nunes’s attorney nor his press representative answered BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment. Twitter declined comment.
Liz Mair, a Republican communications strategist who has worked for a number of GOP lawmakers and who is also named a defendant in the suit, told BuzzFeed News in an email that she had not reviewed the documentation. Having been critical of Nunes in the past on Twitter, Mair claimed she had learned of the congressman’s plan to sue from another reporter — implying she had yet to be served with a suit — and declined further comment.
Along with Twitter and Mair, Nunes’s document says that he is suing the unknown operators of the Twitter accounts @DevinNunesMom and @devincow, which he claims defamed him by saying, among other things, that he was a Russian spy who is friends with racists. The document alleges that Mair and the two accounts were engaged in a coordinated campaign to defame him.
Twitter allows parody accounts, though its terms of service prohibits direct impersonation that is intended to mislead others. Nunes says that the @DevinNunesMom account defamed him when it posted a diagram of three humans representing Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Nunes in a sexually compromising position. In the document, Nunes argues that Twitter is party to this defamation because it allowed these tweets to be posted and kept him from exercising his First Amendment rights through a supposed shadow ban.
“In 2018, Twitter shadow-banned Plaintiff in order to restrict his free speech and to amplify the abusive and hateful content published and republished by Mair, Devin Nunes’ Mom, Devin Nunes’ cow, Fire Devin Nunes, Devin Nunes Grapes, and others,” the document reads.
In arguing that Twitter is responsible for the content of the users making fun of him, Nunes’ suit attempts to sidestep a current law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that protects internet companies from responsibility for much of the content that their users post on their platforms.
"Nunes thinks Twitter is simultaneously liable for banning everything he likes and for not banning everything he doesn’t like," Stanford law professor Mark Lemley said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "The suit will almost certainly fail under section 230. It also runs afoul of Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute. Nunes is likely to end up owing Twitter attorneys’ fees."
Adam Steinbaugh, a First Amendment lawyer, noted that regardless of the lawsuit's filing, Nunes' open discussion of the matter and the mere threat of a lawsuit could have an impact on public expression. Someone who is critical of Nunes, for example, may think twice before posting that on social media.
"Even if it were not formally filed until this morning, the public concern about the lawsuit arises from its pursuit at all," he said. "Even if it had just been threatened, but never filed, the threat itself can have a chilling effect."
In an appearance on Fox News’ Hannity show on Monday night, Nunes encouraged viewers to go to Fox News’ website to see his complaint. He also said he’d take legal action against other tech companies; He sued Twitter first because “they’re the main proliferator” of “fake news," Nunes said. He also suggested that Twitter should show make public its algorithms so they can be reviewed for bias.
Nunes is far from the only conservative to allege bias at social media companies like Twitter, but he is the first sitting lawmaker to say he’d take legal action to stop it. On Sunday, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. wrote an opinion piece that accused Facebook of conservative bias, something the company has also strongly denied.
The story was updated with details about the timing of the lawsuit's filing from a deputy clerk in Virginia's Henrico County Circuit court and comments from two lawyers on Nunes' case.