Congressman sues tweeting cow – receives lesson on Streisand Effect

Blog Post
Earlier this week, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) sued Twitter, Liz Mair (a republican strategist), and two obvious parody Twitter accounts: “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” A copy of the complaint is available here. Nunes claims that tweets by Mair and the parody accounts were defamatory and “fighting words” and that Twitter was negligent for not removing the posts and not blocking the Twitter users. Nunes seeks, wait for it...$250 million. Plenty has been, and will be, written about how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act absolutely immunizes Twitter against such claims (47 USC 230), whether the claims have merit (most agree they are meritless), and how many cow and “udder” puns can be squeezed into a headline.  
For businesses and individuals contemplating a libel lawsuit, or any lawsuit for that matter, Nunes’ lawsuit is a reminder of the Streisand Effect. According to NPR, and as quoted in Wikipedia (yes, the Streisand Effect has its own page), Mike Masnick of Techdirt coined the term in reference to Barbara Streisand’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against a photographer who had photographed her Malibu home and posted the photo online. At the time of the lawsuit, the image had only been downloaded six times, and two of those were Streisand’s own attorneys. Streisand’s lawsuit led to unwanted publicity and caused more than 420,000 people in the next month to visit the website to see the photo Streisand did not want the public to see. Streisand’s attempt to suppress the photo led to more publicity. Since then, lawyers have been warning clients contemplating public lawsuits over potentially embarrassing matters about the dangers of the Streisand Effect. 
For Nunes, within a day of his lawsuit, the parody account @DevinCow went from 1,204 followers to over 150,000 as of yesterday afternoon, and this morning @DevinCow is over 325,000. There are even t-shirts being sold that feature the @DevinCow profile pic. Because Nunes sued, many outside of California who had never heard of Nunes before, are now following the very Twitter accounts he is seeking to silence, and many have searched for and read the two newspaper reports (one about a yacht party and another about his family’s farm business in Iowa, hence the “cow” parody account) that appear to have gotten under Nunes’ skin the most. Since Streisand’s lawsuit in 2003, the risk for such a viral reaction has multiplied exponentially with Twitter and other social media outlets.

The lesson: before you sue, fully consider the possible Streisand Effect of the lawsuit, and let’s watch and see if it’s renamed the Nunes Effect.

UPDATE (March 20, 2019; 7 p.m.):  @DevinCow (463.3 K followers) has now surpassed the real Devin Nunes @DevinNunes (395.2 K followers) in number of Twitter followers.

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