Thousands of Hillary Clinton supporters were misled into casting invalid “votes” via text message by a social media influencer who used the Twitter handle “Ricky Vaughn” to spread racist content and Russian misinformation during the 2016 election, the government says.
Douglass Mackey, 31, was charged Wednesday by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, in what they believe to be the first case targeting social media activity under a Reconstruction-era law designed to combat voter suppression.
Mackey, who was arrested Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Florida, made an initial court appearance there before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart and was released on $50,000 bond, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said. Kristy Militello, a public defender who represented Mackey in his court appearance, declined to comment on the case. Mackey could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors say Mackey, whose @Ricky_Vaughn99 Twitter account had about 58,000 followers in 2016, conspired with unidentified other people to disseminate fraudulent social media messages encouraging supporters of one presidential candidate to “vote” via text messages, social media or other invalid methods. Though the candidate was not indentified in charging documents, a source familiar with the matter said it was Clinton.
‘Avoid the Line’
Mackey, whose Twitter account often tweeted racist and anti-Semitic content along with support for Donald Trump before it was suspended in October 2016, and his co-conspirators appeared to target Black voters with messages suggesting they could “avoid the line” and use a provided phone number to text their vote. According to prosecutors, about 4,900 voters did so instead of casting legitimate votes at the polls. The phone number was also used in “multiple” deceptive campaign images tweeted by Mackey, according to the U.S.
“What Mackey allegedly did to interfere with this process — by soliciting voters to cast their ballots via text — amounted to nothing short of vote theft,” said William Sweeney, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York Office.
The Huffington Post in 2018 identified Mackey as “Ricky Vaughn.” According to the report, Mackey grew up in Vermont, graduated from Middlebury College in 2011 and worked at an economic consulting firm in New York before establishing an online presence. After Twitter shut down @Ricky_Vaughn99, Mackey resumed his social media activity using the account @RapinBill, which was re-tweeted by a Russian-controlled social media account.
He is not the first Trump supporter to face criminal charges for intentionally spreading election-related misinformation. Conservative activists Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl were charged by state prosecutors in Ohio and Michigan in October with orchestrating a robocall campaign in Detroit, Cleveland and other large cities aimed at discouraging residents from voting by mail in the 2020 election. The calls falsely claimed that absentee-ballot information could be used by law enforcement and debt collectors, among others.
Mackey was charged under the federal conspiracy against rights statute, which was enacted after the Civil War. If convicted, he faces as long as 10 years in prison.
According to prosecutors, the scheme dated back to 2015 when Mackey and four others participated in numerous online forums to discuss the use of internet memes to influence the upcoming election, referring to their efforts as “psyops,” shorthand for psychological operations.
At the height of his popularity, an analysis by the MIT Media Lab ranked Mackey’s Twitter account as the 107th most important influencer ahead of the 2016 election, ranking it above outlets and individuals like NBC News and comedian Stephen Colbert.