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Twitter troll arrested, accused of election interference related to disinformation campaign

The charges are potentially a tectonic shift in how the federal government tries to enforce laws against election interference.
Image: A voter walks toward the entrance of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Great Lakes Bay Region to cast their ballot in Bay City, Mich., during Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020.
A voter walks toward the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Great Lakes Bay Region to cast a ballot in Bay City, Mich., on Nov. 3.Kaytie Boomer / The Bay City Times via AP file

The notorious Twitter troll and alt-right figure Douglass Mackey, known better as his alter ego, Ricky Vaughn, was arrested Wednesday on federal charges of election interference stemming from allegations of a 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 potentially a 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.

After an initial appearance in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, Mackey was released on a $50,000 bond. Mackey's federal public defender declined to comment, citing a policy against doing so for pending cases.

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 HuffPost 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 107th, ranking above NBC News and the Drudge Report.

Mackey is accused of having used Twitter to mislead voters into casting their ballots via text.

He was involved in numerous group direct messages, including one with the name "War Room," wherein dozens of people shared ideas about how to influence the election, according to federal prosecutors. In the group chats, Mackey and others created, refined and shared memes and hashtags meant to misinform potential voters. The group created several memes falsely suggesting that celebrities were supporting Donald Trump's candidacy.

Another campaign hatched in the "Draft our Daughters" meme, which falsely suggested that Hillary Clinton had created ads promoting 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 votes by posting on Facebook or Twitter or by voting through text messages. According to the complaint, 4,900 unique telephone numbers texted their votes to the number that was provided.

"There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote," Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. attorney for Eastern New York, said in a news release. "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 have 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."