Devin Nunes Milks Fake Cow Account on Twitter For Nonsense Lawsuit
Plus: SCOTUS declines Hawaii lesbian case, UC stands by professor in free speech standoff, and ACLU warns of "privacy Trojan horse."
A prominent member of the House Intelligence Committee is suing Twitter over conspiracy theories in an effort to overhaul fundamental federal tech policy and force the doxxing of his critics, including a fake cow. In a new lawsuit, Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Calif.) is accusing Twitter of engaging in systematic "shadowbanning" of conservatives, allowing defamation against him, and basically orchestrating a conspiracy against him by…well, existing.
Shadowbanning is the nefarious term aggrieved users have cooked up for algorithmic processes that lead to some posts showing up in more timelines than others, or some accounts getting put in a time out (based on things like multiple reports to Twitter support) in which users can still tweet and people can still read their tweets but their content may not be broadcast into feeds for a period of time. Some conservatives convinced their content isn't getting the attention it deserves have latched on to the idea that they're part of targeted Twitter action to suppress conservatives. Perversely claiming the mantle of free speech, they want the government to force a private company to somehow redistribute attention to them (or pay them for not doing so).
Nunes is seeking $250,350,000 on behalf of himself and a few other Twitter users, claiming (without evidence) that they have been systematically censored. He is claiming conspiracy, that Twitter was negligent with regard to "insulting words" aimed at him, and that it both permitted and "created" defamatory posts about him.
In the suit, "Nunes claimed Twitter wanted to derail his work on the House Intelligence Committee, which he chaired until 2019," reports Fox News. Nunes is ranking Republican member on the committee.
The lawsuit was filed in state court—which means that on the defamation claim, Nunes runs up against Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the one that says web platforms aren't to be treated as the speaker of user-posted content for state and civil legal liability purposes). Under Section 230, Twitter does not need to determine itself what is or isn't defamatory content, it only needs comply if legal authorities say it must take something down.
Perhaps Nunes knows all this; some congressional Republicans have been itching to dismantle Section 230 further under the guise of promoting ideological fairness on social media. Based on a complete misreading of the law, folks like Nunes and Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) have begun arguing that in making any content decisions at all, Twitter and its ilk should be excluded from Section 230 protection. But this is directly opposite of how the law works and what all sorts of judges have written on it.
Nunes also offers an absurd reading of what it meant to "create" content. Under Section 230, platforms and web service providers lose protection if they create or substantially edit the criminal content. Nunes suggests that Twitter somehow "created" the content (that was authored and posted via myriad individual users) because it made "a publicly available commodity" that people could use to spread words, and "unscrupulous political operatives" had used some of those words against him.
Even if the lawsuit isn't searching for a Section 230 challenge, it's still 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.
This is the same process officials pulled with Backpage and other internet companies. With access to enough internal communication, maybe they'll find that at some point Twitter staff or leadership made some misstep with regards to a specific content moderation decision. That can be all it takes to order congressional hearings and command misleading headlines.
Or perhaps Nunes is more simpleminded and petty than all that. As part of the suit he's seeking the identities of people behind specific accounts that were critical of him—including accounts using the name @DevinCow and claiming to be Devin Nunes' Cow and also @DevinNunesMom—and which he says are guilty of legitimate harassment and defamation. Maybe this is all a ploy to find out who his biggest Twitter enemies are.
Any or all of the above motivations don't bode well coming from an elected official who helps oversee national intelligence policy.
UC–Davis stands by professor. Folks on the right complain a lot—and rightfully so—when liberal college students demand censorship of each other or their teachers in the name of being kept safe from "dangerous" (or simply disagreeable to them) ideas. But give chattering-class conservatives a chance to pull the same speech-stifling silliness on someone they find taboo, and time and again they will take it. Our latest example of this comes from the University of California-Davis, where English professor Joshua Clover tweeted a few years ago about dead cops.
His words "are horrifying statements, but they are also protected by the First Amendment," writes Robby Soave. "Clover's general endorsement of violence against the police is not a true threat, or incitement to lawless action." Read more on the situation here.
SCOTUS declines Hawaii lesbian case. The Supreme Court won't hear a case in which a Honolulu bed and breakfast was found in violation of Hawaii anti-discrimination law by refusing to allow a lesbian couple to stay there. Comparisons to Masterpiece Cakeshop aren't quite right, here, pointed out Reason's Scott Shackford yesterday.
Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was clear that he wasn't refusing to sell cakes to gay people or to gay couples. He argued that his religious opposition to gay marriage recognition meant that he shouldn't have to make a cake that would be seen as celebrating same-sex marriage.
"Reasonable people can debate whether baking a cake counts as a form of expression," Shackford continues. But "renting a room or a home is not seen by most as requiring a personal or moral approval of the renting party's romantic relationships." (Libertarians may disagree, but we're talking about prevailing popular opinion and legal interpretations here.)
One more note: many people think the bakery case—which SCOTUS did take on, ruling in favor of Phillips—hinged on Phillips' right to free expression under the First Amendment. At oral arguments, "they publicly debated what counted as speech or expression in the producing of a consumer good and whether forcing Phillips to bake a cake was compelling him to engage in speech, but they didn't ultimately decide the case on that issue," notes Shackford. More here.
• Congressional Democrats are pushing for an investigation into a woman who owns massage parlors and took selfies with the president.
• A "privacy trojan horse"? The American Civil Liberties Union is sounding alarm about bills pushed by Hu-manity.co that are making in headway in some states. "Hu-manity.co's strategy is to use legislation to artificially generate a robust market for 'customer information sales agents' who will facilitate—and profit from—the sale of patients' medical information," the ACLU blog says.
• Pennsylvania lawmakers just introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana sales.
• Leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio, sure seem like they're trying to harass this downtown hotel out of business.
• Catherine Oxenberg, star of the '80s TV hit Dynasty and mother of a young woman who got caught up in NXIVM founder Keith Raniere's weird lady group, has a new book out about "a mother's crusade to save her daughter from a terrifying cult."