How Devin Nunes turned Twitter parody accounts into political ‘weapons’ – against himself

Rep. Devin Nunes in a recent court filing referred to the parody social media accounts that taunt him on Twitter as a “weapon.”

His lawsuit against them gave them even more ammunition to turn on him and other Republicans.

They’re using it.

In recent weeks the anonymous authors of parody Twitter accounts known as Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom have employed their now-massive followings to promote Democratic candidates around the country and to solicit campaign donations through the Democratic fundraising machine known as ActBlue.

They could become formidable assets for Nunes’ challenger, Phil Arballo, too. In fact, the cow has already endorsed the Fresno Democrat.

Andrew Janz, local prosecutor and a Fresno mayoral candidate who ran against Nunes in 2018, said he believes the parody accounts will have a “huge” fundraising impact for Arballo’s campaign, capturing both local and national appetites to boot Nunes from office.

“I think if these had been around during my election it absolutely would’ve boosted my fundraising further,” said Janz, who raised more than $9 million in his 2018 campaign. “This is just a political stunt by Nunes, and I think we’ve capitalized on it.”

Nunes in March filed a lawsuit in Virginia that accused the two parody accounts, Republican political strategist Liz Mair and the social media giant Twitter of defaming him in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election. Nunes won the contest against Janz by 5 percentage points.

Nunes is suing McClatchy, the parent company of The Fresno Bee, in a separate lawsuit he also filed in Virginia. McClatchy has not yet been served with the complaint. The company intends to fight the lawsuit.

Nunes also is suing four Californians in Tulare County Superior Court alleging they conspired against him last year by challenging his characterization of himself as a farmer in materials sent to voters.

Huge increase in Twitter followers

His lawsuits swelled the social media audiences for the anonymous accounts he’s suing. The one that jokingly calls itself his cow, @DevinCow, gained about 619,000 followers since the filing. It had only 1,000 before Nunes named it in the first lawsuit.

The other anonymous account that calls itself the congressman’s mother, @NunesAlt, gained almost 50,000 followers.

Nunes got a boost from his lawsuits, too. He’s raising money for his re-election campaign in 2020 at a fast clip, picking up about $350,000 in donations in the 13 days following his filing of the Twitter lawsuit. Nunes’ office did not respond to a request seeking comment.

About 22 percent of adults in the U.S. use Twitter, according to survey results by Pew Research Center released in April 2019. Twitter users tend to be younger, are more likely to identify as Democrats, are more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall, according to Pew.

It’s unarguably an important political space. President Donald Trump tweets out policies and personnel decisions and it’s difficult to find a campaign or member of Congress who doesn’t have a Twitter account. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, has taught a class to other members of Congress on how to use the medium effectively.

The parody accounts’ authors declined to disclose their identities to McClatchy in responses to questions by email. Nunes in court documents has speculated that they are connected to Mair, although Mair says they are not.

The author behind the cow account has known Nunes for some time, the writer told McClatchy. “He has always been higher on himself than is healthy,” the Twitter user known as @DevinCow wrote in an email.

Although their identities remain concealed, the accounts are open about their desire to help one of Nunes’ challengers unseat him.

Both said they created the accounts because they disliked Nunes and wanted to insert a dose of humor into a chaotic online discourse.

NunesAlt would tweet about being embarrassed by her “son” and write dirty jokes. DevinCow also created a character as a dairy cow supposedly on Nunes’ family’s farm in Iowa. It would frequently tweet puns and refer to Nunes as a “treasonous cowpoke.”

DevinCow has retained the puns, signing every email with the hashtag #BeButter and peppering serious responses to questions with the occasional lighthearted reference to a pasture, dairy, or mooing. The writer refers to the account’s followers as “The Herd.”

Needling Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham

After the lawsuit, the anonymous authors said they felt a responsibility to hold elected officials accountable.

“Suddenly we could shout louder,” the creator of the Devin Nunes’ Mom account said in response to emailed questions. “We both focused a great deal on Nunes’ district ... We amplify the voices of his voters, who cannot access their representative in Congress unless they have a $2,700 check in their hands.”

The Devin Nunes’ Mom account has had several tweets linking to a site to contribute to Arballo’s campaign. “There IS a conspiracy to remove @DevinNunes from office, or as we like to call it: a free and fair election. Follow @PhilArballo2020,” one such tweet reads, linking to Arballo’s campaign Twitter account.

Both accounts have tweeted support for Amy McGrath, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Jaime Harrison, who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; and opponents of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, among other Democrats. DevinCow has tweeted the phrase “welcome to the resistance,” and followers of both commonly reference the resistance.

The Devin Nunes’ Mom account has pushed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to start impeachment proceedings against Trump. They also tweet against Trump or Republican policies such as separating children from families at the border and lack of action on increased gun regulation.

The writer behind the Devin Nunes’ Mom account wrote in an email that the two do not know each other personally. They have a joint fundraiser on GoFundMe for their legal expenses, raising more than $15,000 of their $20,000 goal so far. The page reminds people that the authors may be anonymous, but they are real people with real legal expenses and a real need for attorneys.

Followers of both accounts say they enjoy the humor of Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom. They follows also say they dislike Nunes, and appreciate the factual information the accounts share.

It’s more difficult to gain a follower than keep a follower on social media, and many credit their initial following to Nunes’ lawsuit.

“I follow Devin Cow because it’s an act of defiance. When Nunes tried to sue a bunch of parody accounts I decided they must be worth a follow,” one Twitter user called @Angel_ponders wrote.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.