The notorious Twitter troll and alt-right figure Douglass Mackey, known better by his alter ego, Ricky Vaughn, was arrested on Wednesday on federal charges of election interference stemming from an alleged voter disinformation campaign during the 2016 election.
Mackey is charged with conspiring with others “to disseminate misinformation designed to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote,” according to the newly unsealed criminal complaint.
The charges are a potentially tectonic shift in how the federal government tries to enforce laws against election interference. False claims about elections on the internet and social media have been a major problem, with large platforms including Facebook and Twitter trying to limit their spread.
But there are few examples of social media posts having been used as the basis for such criminal charges.
“I haven’t seen anything like this about information on social media accounts before,” said Chip Stewart, a professor of journalism at Texas Christian University who specializes in media law and communication technology.
Mackey is accused of using Twitter to mislead voters into casting their ballots via text. Mackey was involved in numerous group direct messages, including one with the name “War Room,” wherein dozens of individuals shared ideas on how to influence the election, according to federal prosecutors. In these group chats, Mackey and others created, refined and shared memes and hashtags meant to misinform potential voters. The group created several memes falsely suggesting celebrities were supporting former President Donald Trump’s candidacy. Another campaign hatched in the “Draft our Daughters” meme, which falsely suggested Hillary Clinton supported making women eligible for the draft.
In September 2016, Mackey’s groups turned to creating memes that misled potential voters about how they would be able to cast votes, creating memes that falsely claimed that supporters could cast their vote by posting on Facebook or Twitter or by voting through text message.
“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting United States Attorney Seth DuCharme said in a press release announcing the charges. “With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes. They will be investigated, caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Mackey was arrested in West Palm Beach, Florida and will appear via videoconference.
Stewart said the federal government will need to prove that Mackey’s actions “amounted to ‘injuring’ or ‘oppressing’ the right to vote.”
“I just don’t know if people attempting to text a vote is going to amount to injuring or oppressing their right to vote,” he said. “They certainly seem to have evidence that they intended to suppress voting, particularly among Black voters, which may be enough for a conviction.”
Brandy Zadrozny is an investigative reporter for NBC News.