First of all, yes: We should all still be laughing at the lawsuit that former California Rep. Devin Nunes filed against Twitter, claiming a couple of anonymous accounts, one run by a fictional cow, had caused him “extreme pain and suffering.” Nunes, a Republican stalwart and Trump apologist, claims that Twitter—for some strange reason—was institutionally determined to thwart his work when he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and that the social media behemoth worked tirelessly to make sure Nunes’ Twitter messages weren’t seen or heard by the masses. Nunes claims the company has defamed him, and he told Fox News that his followers can’t see his tweets. (They can.)
In the short term, the lawsuit clearly backfired, in part because the rather obscure anti-Nunes Twitter accounts that he singled out in it quickly became overnight Twitter sensations. One of them, @DevinCow, has gone from 8,000 followers to nearly 600,000 followers. In other words, Nunes’ illogical lawsuit simply helped shine a massive spotlight on accounts that publish relentlessly hostile tweets about the congressman. So yeah, mission accomplished there. In the medium term, it’s likely the lawsuit will fail and get summarily tossed out of court since the suit itself is laughable. (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act plainly states that companies that post content provided by others on internet platforms are immune from liability.)
In the long term, though, the lawsuit is troubling because previous (and equally outlandish) Republican attempts to bully social media and tech giants have clearly worked. The Nunes lawsuit seems to be the latest weapon in the GOP’s arsenal used to effectively bully and push around nervous tech companies. By falsely screaming “conservative censorship,” it hopes everyone will look away as the Trump mob tries to swamp the internet with a tsunami of lies, especially as he faces re-election. For him to succeed in 2020, it’s absolutely essential that Trump loyalists flood social media with unparalleled amounts of false information and concocted “news” stories, and not be constricted by the tech giants.
“The ‘conservative censorship’ talking point provides an Overton Window counterweight to the idea that social media companies should close off algorithmic pathways to extremist content,” notes Ben Collins, who covers the conspiracy underworld of the fringe-right for NBC News. “Fear of angering conservatives creates a political gridlock that benefits Trump in 2020.”
To make sure Twitter and Facebook don’t clamp down too hard on relentless misinformation, Republicans continue to work the refs hard, which is what Nunes’ otherwise ridiculous lawsuit is all about. They complain so loudly and so ferociously about phantom fouls of “liberal bias” that tech companies think twice about even appearing to offend Republicans down the road. Conservatives do that via congressional hearings, presidential tweets, relentless messaging from Fox News, and hardball legal action. They realize that Twitter and Facebook, among others, represent the most important players in news media today and could dominate the landscape for decades to come, and in a way, traditional news outlets will not. So they have shifted their focus and started using the same playbook that they used on newspapers, cable news, and network TV for years, which consists of raising holy hell regarding bogus claims of “bias,” and striking fear into the executives that run those companies.
To date, tech companies are doing exactly what traditional media companies did when they faced bogus cries of “bias” from the right-wing swamp: They’re running around trying to curry favor with conservatives, desperately trying to explain that they’re not really anti-GOP.
Last summer, Facebook and Twitter executives scheduled hush-hush meetings and dinners with members of the conservative media elite as part of a feel-good outreach tour. The move came after the companies were relentlessly attacked, based on bogus charges, for supposedly blocking content from conservative voices. (The charges make no sense since conservative voices are among the loudest and most popular on Twitter and Facebook.)
Part of the Silicon Valley damage control push was the issuing of mea culpas, like the one from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: “It’s no secret that we are largely left leaning, and we all have biases. That includes me, our board, and our company.” (This came after Dorsey consulted with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.) Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill and told legislators that the social media giant is an “extremely left-leaning place” to work.
The distressing Facebook backstory with regard to bogus claims of liberal bias goes like this: In 2016, a dubious press report suggested Facebook editors were “suppressing conservative news,” which set off a right-wing mob. In response, Facebook eliminated human editors, or “news curators,” from the news selection process in favor of an algorithm. That move promptly unleashed a tidal wave of fake news stories on Facebook, which helped Trump get elected. (One “news” story, announcing that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump, was shared nearly 1 million times on Facebook.) Incredibly, Zuckerberg then hired a retired far-right Republican U.S. senator (!) to investigate whether Facebook is guilty of conservative bias.
All of this is done in a useless effort to placate a right-wing beast that cannot be won over. Twitter, Facebook, and others can’t rationally debate “censorship” with conservatives because the “censorship” simply does not exist. The truth is, Republicans don’t want a truce with social media companies; they want a war. And right now, they’re winning, because Republicans know how to marshal their forces for their dishonest media crusades.