Republican Rep. Devin Nunes accused Twitter in a lawsuit Monday of censoring him and other conservatives during the 2018 elections, as the social media giant admitted it goofed in blocking the content of a conservative commentator last week.
Mr. Nunes, California Republican, argues in his $250 million lawsuit filed in state court in Virginia that Twitter has taken a hands-off approach to scurrilous content directed at conservatives because the company has taken sides, positioning itself as an ally of Democratic politicians and liberal positions on most social issues.
The lawsuit taps into a growing body of thought that Twitter and other Internet giants act like publishers in the market, choosing which content to print or block, rather than providers of an essentially neutral platform.
In that guise, Twitter’s “shadow banning” and the permission it grants to those posting defamatory content against conservatives leave the company liable just as a more traditional media outlet could be, the lawsuit argues. “Shadow banning” is a method through which the audience for a user’s tweets is limited.
“Twitter knew the defamation was (and is) happening,” the lawsuit said. “Twitter let it happen because Twitter had (and has) a political agenda and motive: Twitter allowed (and allows) its platform to serve as a portal of defamation in order to undermine public confidence in plaintiff and to benefit his opponents and opponents of the Republican Party.”
The complaint says Twitter censors “viewpoints with which it disagrees” by shadow banning conservatives such as Mr. Nunes, knowingly hosting “content that is clearly abusive, hateful and defamatory,” ignoring complaints about defamatory content and refusing to regulate tweets.
These “unscrupulous” attacks, which Mr. Nunes said Twitter knew were false and was repeatedly urged to ban, included allegations Mr. Nunes was a drug abuser who favored prostitutes, according to the lawsuit.
By permitting the outrageous attacks to continue despite being repeatedly informed they were fictitious, Twitter sought to not only undermine Mr. Nunes’ re-election bid but also his participation in congressional investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and its sympathetic agents within the Obama administration, according to the lawsuit.
Twitter’s actions served to “interfere with his important investigation of corruption by the Clinton campaign and alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election,” the lawsuit said. “Twitter knowingly acted as a vessel of opposition research.”
In addition to Twitter, Mr. Nunes named Liz Mair, president of Mair Strategies in Virginia, and an anonymous tweeter working with the moniker “DevinNunesMom” as defendants.
The “DevinNunesMom” account does not appear to be active any longer on Twitter. Mr. Nunes’ real mother had also filed a complaint about the bogus handle.
The company had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.
Ms. Mair, whose family hails from Scotland, is a GOP political operative who lives in Virginia. She said Monday evening that she had not reviewed the court documents and declined comment, although she did take to Twitter soliciting contributions for her legal defense.
Her “BrandValue$4B” handle had 32,000 Twitter followers as of Monday evening.
Meanwhile on Monday, Twitter apparently corrected an error made in the account of another conservative who accused the company of shadow banning.
Sean Davis, co-founder of the Federalist whose Twitter account has more than 160,000 followers, said a tweet he posted that included parts of the transcripts from former anti-Trump FBI lawyer Lisa Page seemed to encounter some sort of shadow ban because it remained visible to him, but not to any of his followers.
“Is @Twitter experimenting with shadow bans?” Mr. Davis tweeted last week.
He said he had to republish the transcripts, which detailed Ms. Page’s testimony to Congress that her former lover, fired FBI agent Peter Strzok, had impeachment on his mind when he took a job with the special counsel’s office investigating President Trump.
After Mr. Davis’s complaints online and an inquiry to Twitter from The Washington Times, the social media giant said Monday it got things wrong, though it didn’t explain why.
“Our priority is to keep people safe on Twitter. As part of that work, we err on the side of protecting people and sometimes mistakenly remove content that doesn’t break our rules,” the company said in a note Mr. Davis posted online. “When those mistakes happen, we work quickly to fix them.”
A source familiar with Twitter’s operations confirmed the fix to The Times.
In response to questions, Twitter reiterated that the company “does not engage in bias and we categorically do not enforce so-called ‘shadow banning’ tactics. Period.”
The company says it reserves the right to remove content it considers objectionable and to suspend or ban users who violate its stated rules, although critics contend both prongs are easily manipulated by political bias.
“We enforce the Twitter rules dispassionately and equally for all users, regardless of their background or political affiliation,” the company said.
But some observers said the number of hiccups involving conservative users has become too noticeable to ignore.
“There are so many anecdotes now it reaches a critical mass and becomes evidence,” said Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican shop. “I think the patience with the platforms has worn thin on both sides. If the platform companies wanted federal regulators to come in and police them, I don’t know that they’d be doing anything differently.”
Although Twitter says it doesn’t “shadow ban,” users say they see it happen, particularly to those on the right.
“I haven’t seen them ban a lot of liberals,” said Mr. Mackowiak, who writes a column for The Washington Times.
He is loath to request federal regulation of business, but he says it is obvious the social media titans are functioning much more like publishers than neutral platforms.
Several other incidents have made conservatives leery of the social media giant’s claims that it is not censoring political views with which it disagrees.
Most recently, Facebook erased links and posts by Zero Hedge, a popular conservative blog. Facebook later said the move had been a mistake.
Last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged conservative employees at the company do not feel comfortable expressing their opinions, but he denied that such a suffocating left-wing environment seeped into Twitter’s product.
Social media companies have made similar claims in congressional testimony.
Mr. Davis, though, wondered what in his tweet would have tripped Twitter’s censors.
The Page transcripts were linked in the Congressional Record and reported by news outlets across the country, most of which likely tweeted links to their coverage.
Mr. Davis says Twitter’s explanation of what happened doesn’t make sense because it didn’t remove his content, but rather hid it from his followers — leaving him to believe it was still posted, though others couldn’t see it.
“Is conning users a bug, or a feature?” he wrote on Twitter.
The internet companies know of the louder rumblings in favor of regulation. For example, last week Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president, posted ads on Facebook calling for the breakup of Facebook, Google and Amazon, like old-fashioned monopolies.
Facebook swiftly removed the ads from its platform, and then relented, saying it made a mistake after public backlash against the move.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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