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.
Outside of election misinformation, Mackey was a well-known figure in the alt-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 continued bans. His real identity was revealed by The Huffington Post in 2018.
An analysis by MIT’s Media Lab determined Mackey to be among the top 150 influencers of the 2016 presidential election. Mackey was 107, ranking above NBC News and the Drudge Report.
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. According to the complaint, 4,900 unique telephone numbers texted their votes to the number provided. [Continue reading…]
Ricky Vaughn also played an important role in amplifying disinformation injected into American politics by the Russian government. HuffPost and a team of data scientists known as Susan Bourbaki Anthony that tracks online propaganda analyzed who was retweeting the now infamous Kremlin-controlled Twitter account @TEN_GOP, which consistently praised Trump, attacked Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and churned out a vile medley of racism, Islamophobia and “fake news.”
In the data set of significant accounts we looked at, Ricky Vaughn retweeted @TEN_GOP the most, by far. Although Twitter shut down his @Ricky_Vaughn99 handle in October 2016, another handle he possibly used, @RapinBill, took over and retweeted @TEN_GOP at least 162 times between early March and late August 2017. (@RapinBill also retweeted @Pamela_Moore13, another Kremlin-controlled account, at least 37 times during this period.) [Continue reading…]