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Devin Nunes sued a parody cow, and it conquered Twitter
[NEW YORK] Consider this: A parody account pretending to be an imaginary cow owned by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is more popular on Twitter than the congressman, a day after he sued the account (and Twitter) for US$250 million.
This is how politics and humor now play out in the strange world of social media.
The parody account @DevinCow had only 1,200 followers on Monday, but it ended Wednesday afternoon with 467,000, surpassing Mr Nunes' account with its 395,000 followers. And the count was still growing.
But there's more. A website now sells Devin Cow T-shirts. Twitter users have been celebrating with cow-themed items and jokes. Even Mr Nunes' fellow legislators showed their support for the errant beast. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., told Nunes on Twitter to "lighten up, dude."
Of course, no one might have heard of @DevinCow if Mr Nunes had not sued Twitter and other users for defamation Tuesday, seeking US$250 million and an end to online mockery he said no one should have to "suffer in their whole life."
The cow account, created in August 2017 and apparently inspired by the Nunes family's dairy farm, has mocked him relentlessly.
For some, the lawsuit was another reason to poke fun at Mr Nunes, who is viewed as an ally of President Donald Trump. For others it proved how toxic Twitter could be. Indeed, there was some surprise that a parody account would garner more attention than a publicly elected official.
Fake funny animal accounts with a political twist are a popular Twitter trope. There is one for Larry the Cat, the political mouser who camps out on Downing Street. There, too, is an account for Cats against Brexit.
Political satire can often be a stand-in for other things. In the case of @DevinCow, it is dissatisfaction with the policies of Trump and his supporters.
"I'm not so sure what we are seeing is solely a backlash against Nunes," said Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor at New York University and the author of "Is Shame Necessary?"
"Instead it echoes a lot of the issues people have" with Mr Nunes and the president, she said. "They are bullies and thin-skinned at the same time." (In her opinion.)
A spokesman for Mr Nunes did not respond to an email seeking comment. But in his lawsuit, the congressman singled out Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who said on Twitter that she would not comment on the lawsuit, and two parody accounts: the cow account and @DevinNunesMom, which was suspended last year.
It seems unlikely this case will succeed in court, given long-standing free-speech protections for parody and opinion. Others have tried suing over fake social media accounts.
For example, Tiffany Dehen, a Trump supporter and college student, sued Twitter in 2017 for US$100 million over a parody account that impersonated and poked fun at her. The case was dismissed last year.
As many were quick to point out, Mr Nunes soon encountered the "Streisand effect," in which his efforts to end a nuisance only called more attention to it.
(The name comes from Barbra Streisand's failed attempt in 2003 to bar people from taking photos of her house.)
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, defenders rallied for @DevinCow. One was Andy Lassner, the executive producer of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
On Monday night, Mr Lassner, who has 356,000 followers, posted a tweet that said, "Let's try and get @DevinCow more followers than @DevinNunes."
His call to arms was retweeted 6,252 times. Over the following days, he urged his followers on.
"Let's bring it home, America," he tweeted Wednesday morning. "God bless @DevinCow."
By Wednesday afternoon, he claimed victory in capital letters. (He added the hashtag #BeButter, a take on Melania Trump's "Be Best" campaign.)
Of course, Twitter does have rules against impersonation, targeted harassment and attacks motivated by bigotry. But in cases of parody, Ms Jacquet said, it might be better for public figures to ignore criticism from little-known Twitter accounts instead of lashing out.
"It's one thing if it's a fake account that looks legitimate," she said. "But this is a cow."