California Representative Devin Nunes, one of the president’s biggest yes-men in Congress and recent filer of a lawsuit against Twitter and several of its users, including the account @DevinCow and Republican strategist Liz Mair, over mean things said about him has launched yet another lawsuit. This one again targets Mair, as well as the McClatchy Company, which publishes numerous newspapers. Also again, Nunes’ legal team appears to have exposed their ongoing ineptitude when it comes to Twitter.
According to Fox News, Nunes is accusing McClatchy reporter MacKenzie Mays and Mair in Virginia state court of conspiring to spread online and offline smears, including that he “was involved with cocaine and underage prostitutes.” Nunes wants $150 million as payback.
At issue is a 2018 Fresno Bee article detailing a lawsuit by a female former employee of the Napa Valley-based Alpha Omega Winery, in which Nunes is an investor and limited partner. The employee said that while working for the winery during a 2015 charity cruise, she witnessed attendees using cocaine and procuring the services of sex workers (some of whom allegedly appeared underage). In the lawsuit, Nunes’ legal team allege that Mays had “abandoned the role of journalist, and chose to leverage their considerable power to spread falsehoods and to defame” him—such as by including photo and video of Nunes in the article, when the winery had denied Nunes was even tangentially involved with the charity cruise or the management of the winery. It also accuses McClatchy publications of quoting Mair in articles without disclosing “she was being paid ‘by clients’ to smear Nunes.”
Unfortunately for Nunes, the version of the lawsuit linked to by Fox News also appears to contain a cringeworthy misunderstanding of a key Twitter feature: the search function.
As spotted on Twitter, Nunes’ counsel included a screenshot of a May 2018 tweet from Mays in which the words “woman,” “Devin,” and “cocaine” appear in bold, which the lawsuit claims is evidence Mays “chose to emphasize” those words in her tweet. Twitter, of course, does not have native support for bold text (though it is possible to mimic this using unicode text that looks bolded). Instead, it appears as though Nunes’ lawyers searched for the words “woman,” “Devin,” and “cocaine,” which were then automatically highlighted in search results.
A quick scan shows that the original tweet by Mays does not, in fact, have any text in bold.
However, if one searches for “woman Devin cocaine” on Twitter, the tweet does show up displaying the bold text seen in Nunes’ suit.
One might also note that searching “woman Devin cocaine” is a rather roundabout way to pin down a specific reporter’s tweets that included the words woman, Devin, and cocaine. But searching “woman Devin cocaine” would, on the other hand, be a very convenient way to ensure those words appeared to be highlighted in such a screenshot.
This is far from the first time Republican political figures have misunderstood or mischaracterized the way Twitter works. Trump infamously and baselessly accused the site of “‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent conservatives” last year after hundreds of thousands of accounts were hidden from search auto-suggestions. (These claims made an appearance in Nunes’ prior lawsuit naming Twitter.)
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who was once supposed to be some kind of cybersecurity expert for the administration, mistakenly inserted an unregistered URL into one of his tweets late last year, then accused Twitter of allowing hackers to “invade my text with a disgusting anti-President message” when someone registered the URL and set up a website calling Trump a “traitor.” More generally, many prominent conservatives have yelled bloody murder whenever some right-wing figure or another finally blundered into a Twitter ban.
Nunes’ legal team will presumably try to sweep this little error under the rug, but he would appear to be on shaky standing regardless. Even the normally Republican-friendly Fox News noted in its coverage that “Virginia, like many other states, includes robust protections for journalists and other actors accused of defamation in what is called an ‘anti-SLAPP statute.’ SLAPP stands for ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.’”