On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced charges against a social media influencer for a meme that was circulated in the weeks running up to the 2016 presidential election. According to the complaint, the meme erroneously informed Hillary Clinton voters they could cast their ballots simply by texting a number from their cell phones.
Prosecutors allege 31-year-old Douglas Mackey, aka Ricky Vaughn, of West Palm Beach, Florida, interfered with the 2016 election by using social media to deprive individuals of their right to vote. At the time, Mackey had a Twitter audience of approximately 58,000 followers and was ranked by the MIT Media Lab as the 107th most influential influencer in the then-upcoming election.
According to the complaint, between Sep. 2016 and Nov. 2016, Mackey conspired with others to use social media platforms, like Twitter, to direct Hillary Clinton voters toward an invalid method of voting. The complaint cites a Nov. 2016 meme tweeted by the defendant that depicts an African American woman standing in front of a Clinton campaign sign. The meme included the text, "Avoid the Line. Vote from Home. Text 'Hillary' to 59925."
The words, "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 Hillary for President 2016," were in fine print below.
The complaint states that at least 4,900 unique telephone numbers texted the word "Hillary" or some derivative of the word to the 59925 number.
"There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote," said Seth D. DuCharme, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "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."
The charges represent a potential shift by the Justice Department when it comes to prosecuting individuals on social media over so-called election interference.