Notorious Twitter troll and alternative right-wing figure Douglass Mackey, best known by his alter ego, Ricky Vaughn, was arrested Wednesday on charges of federal interference in the election stemming from an alleged voter misinformation campaign in the election from 2016.
Mackey is accused of conspiring with others “to disseminate false information aimed at depriving individuals of their constitutional right to vote”, according to the new unsealed criminal complaint.
The charges represent a potentially tectonic shift in the way the federal government attempts to enforce laws against electoral interference. False statements about the elections on the internet and social media have been a major problem, with major platforms such as Facebook and Twitter trying to limit their spread.
But there are few examples of social media posts that served as the basis for such criminal charges.
“I’ve never seen anything like it on social media account information,” said Chip Stewart, a journalism professor at Texas Christian University who specializes in media law and communications technology.
Outside of electoral misinformation, Mackey was a well-known figure in the alternative right movement and a prolific poster of anti-Semitic content. Banned from Twitter for “targeted harassment” in 2016, Mackey opened several new Twitter accounts to evade persistent bans. His true identity was revealed by the Huffington Post in 2018.
An analysis from the MIT Media Lab determined that Mackey was among the top 150 influencers in the 2016 presidential election. Mackey was 107 years old, ranking above NBC News and the Drudge Report.
Mackey is accused of using Twitter to mislead voters into voting by text message. Mackey has been involved in numerous group direct messages, including one with the name “War Room,” in which dozens of people shared ideas on how to influence the election, according to federal prosecutors. In these panel discussions, Mackey and others created, refined, and shared memes and hashtags intended to misinform potential voters. The group has created several memes falsely suggesting that celebrities are supporting former President Donald Trump’s candidacy. Another campaign hatched in the “Draft our Daughters” meme, which incorrectly suggested that Hillary Clinton supported making women draft eligible.
In September 2016, Mackey’s groups turned to creating memes that misled potential voters about how they might vote, creating memes falsely claiming that supporters could vote by posting to Facebook or Twitter or by voting by SMS. According to the complaint, 4,900 unique phone numbers sent their votes by text message to the number provided.
“There is no room in public discourse for lies and disinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting US Attorney Seth DuCharme said in a press release announcing the charges. “With Mackey’s arrest, we mean that those who would subvert the democratic process in this way cannot rely on the cloak of anonymity on the Internet to evade responsibility for their crimes.” They will be investigated, arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. “
Mackey was arrested in West Palm Beach, Florida, and will appear by video conference.
Stewart said the federal government will have to prove that Mackey’s actions “amounted to” hurting “or” oppressing “the right to vote.
“I just don’t know if people who try to send an SMS vote are harming or suppressing their right to vote,” he said. “They certainly appear to have evidence of their intention to suppress the vote, especially among black voters, which may be enough for a conviction.”
Jason abbruzzese contributed.