Twitter User Hit With Criminal Charges for Memetic Voter Suppression in 2016 Election

Twitter User Hit With Criminal Charges for Memetic Voter Suppression in 2016 Election
Photo: Olivier Douliery, Getty Images

If the online MAGA army wasn’t nervous before today, the U.S. Department of Justice just gave them a good reason to tighten their sphincters. In a surprising announcement, DOJ officials said on Wednesday that they’ve charged a prominent Twitter user with taking part in a conspiracy to trick citizens into not voting during the 2016 presidential election.

According to a press statement from the DOJ, 31-year-old Douglass Mackey was taken into custody in his hometown of West Palm Beach this morning. Mackey is accused of operating an infamous Twitter account that used the handle @Ricky_Vaughn99. The account gathered a sizeable following in the run-up to the 2016 election, and a study by MIT’s Lab for Social Machines found that it was the 107th most powerful influencer during that political cycle. The ranking placed the account ahead of NBC News, Michael Bloomberg, Newt Gingrich, and other surprising names.

Prosecutors say that Mackey used all that power to “to disseminate misinformation designed to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote.” Specifically, he’s accused of spending the months of September 2016 to November 2016 working with a group of unnamed co-conspirators to spread deceptive memes and messages with the intent of convincing voters that they could vote for an unnamed presidential candidate via social media or text message. Here’s the DOJ giving an example of a meme that Mackey’s accused of spreading:

On Nov. 1, 2016, Mackey allegedly tweeted an image that featured an African American woman standing in front of an “African Americans for [the Candidate]” sign. The image included the following text: “Avoid the Line. Vote from Home. Text ‘[Candidate’s first name]’ to 59925[.] Vote for [the Candidate] and be a part of history.” The fine print at the bottom of the image stated: “Must be 18 or older to vote. One vote per person. Must be a legal citizen of the United States. Voting by text not available in Guam, Puerto Rico, Alaska or Hawaii. Paid for by [Candidate] for President 2016.”

DOJ doesn’t name which candidate’s voters were allegedly targeted by Mackey, but Bloomberg cites “a source familiar with the matter” who claims it was Hillary Clinton. And the fact is, the @Ricky_Vaughn99 character was a prolific racist and Trump supporter before it was suspended, relaunched as @RapinBill, and proceeded to be named “Trump’s Most Influential White Nationalist Troll” by the Huffington Post.

The criminal complaint describes alleged conversations that Mackey had with various people online in which they strategised to spread false information in order to suppress Black voter turnout. The text code that was used in memes encouraging voters to text their choice for president instead of going to the polls was registered with a company called iVisionMobile. The company told prosecutors that approximately 4,900 unique telephone numbers sent texts to the code that consisted of either the candidate’s first name “or some derivative.”

This is an unusual case. We’ve seen conservative troll Jacob Wohl get wrapped in similar criminal charges stemming from a voter suppression campaign conducted via robocalls. But it’s a surprise to see meme-makers being taken so seriously. And the crime is prosecuted under a pretty obscure law, the conspiracy against rights statute, which carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

It’s taken four years for prosecutors to bring this case. In that time, Donald Trump became president, made thousands of false statements, spent months trying to subvert the 2020 election results, and led a physical assault on Congress. And all that time, his followers were getting more comfortable online and drunk with power. Do you think the 2020 campaign might have produced more cases like this one?