It may be easy to dismiss a recent defamation lawsuit filed in Virginia by former U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes as material for a late-night comedy sketch. After all, defendants include @DevinNunesMom and DevinCow, anonymous parody Twitter accounts that criticize Nunes, who has history in the dairy industry.
But this lawsuit is no joke. It is perilous.
The online anonymity that serves as a shelter from which to hurl insults also protects those who want to level valid criticisms or provide much-needed context to complicated issues and processes. Regardless of whether Nunes is successful in his legal battle, even the threat of similar lawsuits that could identify anonymous Twitter users could discourage important free expression.
In this case, the former Republican Congressman from California filed a defamation lawsuit against Twitter and three Twitter users, Republican strategist Liz Mair and the two anonymous parody accounts, both of which have both posted a variety of unkind and blatantly untrue things about Nunes, as parody accounts are wont to do.
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As multiple media law scholars have noted, Nunes is a public figure, which makes proving libel difficult. Further, services like Twitter generally aren’t accountable under the law for what users post.
The suit will likely fail, and Nunes may not get his $250 million — but just filing the suit could hurt the public’s ability to access useful information in the future.
It’s easy to find many of the negative byproducts of anonymity online. Communications scholars and people who reads online comments sections know that posters are often more aggressive and vocal when they are anonymous. Anonymity reduces the risk that people will face the social consequences of their speech.
We often see this as a bad thing — a license to be petty or vulgar or worse. But there are also times when anonymous voices have valuable things to offer.
That’s what I’ve found during the course of extensive research of the AltGov Twitter accounts, which are almost all anonymous. They are a mix of current and former government employees and others who have strong knowledge of government working and policy because of adjacent careers and work through individual and group accounts, mostly on Twitter. Some of their tweets are parodic criticism of government officials and policies, like those from @DevinCow.
But there are also plenty that are serious and provide hard-to-find context and explanations about the processes behind environmental regulation, drug approval, diplomacy and more. At their best, these informative comments, offered anonymously, provide a civics education to an audience of thousands if not millions.
For example, environment-related AltGov accounts shared information about automotive fuel efficiency and how to participate in a public comment period. Other accounts gave examples of issues with net neutrality leading up to that comment period. Accounts have shared effective ways for citizens to communicate their views with their congressional representatives.
There is valid and valuable information mixed in with the japes and GIFs. And in an America where a substantial portion of the population gets most of its news from social media, these voices matter.
I studied a set of follower responses to the AltGov accounts, and I found that a top reason that followers choose to read the accounts is this much-needed context. Still, these posters choose to be anonymous because they are afraid of the possible career or personal consequences of being outspoken against proposed government policies.
“Doxxing,” or providing real-world identification and contact information for people on the internet, has become vigilante justice in some case. The cost of sharing unpopular views has risen. Anonymity appeals when the consequences of publicly expressing your opinion can include a crowd yelling outside your home or someone showing up with a gun.
A lawsuit like that filed by Nunes opens the door for those who feel aggrieved to dox via the docket. The names of the account holders could be required as a part of the discovery process in a court case, a step that could make private information public. People’s willingness to speak could be suppressed by nothing more than the fear they could face a lawsuit of this kind.
Some states have enacted laws against lawsuits filed to inconvenience or threaten critics into being quiet. These laws provide the ability to strike such cases when the matter is of public concern. California, Nunes’s home state, has a robust body of cases where this has happened, and public concern has prevailed.
But Nunes filed his case in Henrico County. In Virginia, the record and laws are different and such a dismissal is less likely. A second suit against additional defendants later was filed in Charlottesville.
In an age when presidential Tweets represent an official way to learn about what’s happening in your government, political figures should not use lawsuits against obvious parodies to threaten the free expression of ideas and opinions that might be in the public interest.
Amanda Sturgill is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina.