Douglas Mackey, a white nationalist troll who ran a racist and highly influential pro-Trump account on Twitter using the name “Ricky Vaughn,” has been charged with election interference.
Mackey, a 31-year-old from Vermont, was arrested in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Wednesday. Federal prosecutors allege he conspired with others to use memes and social media platforms to spread misinformation aimed at depriving people of their right to vote during the 2016 presidential election.
“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,” Seth D. DuCharme, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.
If convicted, Mackey faces up to 10 years in prison. He is set to appear via videoconference at a West Palm Beach federal court on Wednesday.
In 2016, Mackey amassed a huge Twitter following across multiple troll accounts using anti-Semitic memes and racist messages.
At the time, MIT Media Lab listed the anonymous personality as one of the top 150 influencers of the 2016 presidential election, placing him ahead of NBC News, Stephen Colbert, and Newt Gingrich.
The complaint alleged that between September and November 2016, Mackey used his @TheRickyVaughn account to tweet fraudulent messages designed to encourage those who supported Donald Trump’s opponent to vote via text message or social media so that they would fail to cast legal ballots.
While the complaint did not identify which candidate’s supporters Mackey was targeting, BuzzFeed News reported at the time that at least one of his tweets sought to spread misinformation about voting among Hillary Clinton’s Black and Spanish-speaking supporters.
On Nov. 1, 2016, Mackey allegedly tweeted an image of a Black woman standing in front of a sign that said “African Americans for Hillary Clinton.” The image falsely claimed that voters could “avoid the line” and “vote from home” via text. The image was made to appear as if it had been created by the Clinton campaign, even displaying a fine print at the bottom: “Paid for by Hillary for President 2016.”
At least 4,900 telephone numbers texted the candidate’s first name to the false number that was listed in multiple deceptive campaign images tweeted by Mackey, the complaint states.
The complaint also describes how, starting in 2015, Mackey and his unidentified coconspirators used group DMs to discuss how to influence the election and disseminate political memes and hashtags, often describing their actions as “psyops.”
For instance, in December 2015, Mackey allegedly discussed making a meme to suggest that certain voters were hiding their desire to vote for their preferred presidential candidate.
“It’s actually a great meme to spread, making these shitlibs think they’re [sic] friends are secretly voting for [Candidate 2],” Mackey said in one group discussion at the time. (The complaint does not identify the candidate, but “Candidate 2” apparently refers to Trump.)
He later said, “We’ve hit upon meme magic motherlode.”
In another group chat, Mackey and others discussed making memes that would alter celebrities’ images to falsely suggest they were supporting “Candidate 2.”
According to the complaint, Mackey then tweeted the meme, which stated, “BREAKING NEWS: [CELEBRITY 1] JOINS THE #[CANDIDATE] TRAIN!!” apparently referring to the popular hashtag #TrumpTrain.
Mackey and others also allegedly contributed memes to #DraftOurDaughters, a fake online ad campaign created by pro-Trump and alt-right groups to falsely suggest that Clinton would draft American women into the military as part of her platform.
The complaint describes how excited Mackey allegedly was to create and share memes to spread misinformation.
“WE ARE THE MEMES WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR,” Mackey said in one group chat. In other chats, he said, “THE MEMES ARE SPREADING” and “I’m starting to believe in Meme Magic.”
Mackey and his coconspirators also created other deceptive messages intended to disenfranchise voters, such as falsely claiming that one candidate’s supporters could vote from home on Nov. 8, 2016, by tweeting the candidate’s first name, the complaint states.
Mackey maintained numerous accounts on Twitter, according to prosecutors. In October 2016, the social media site shut down @Ricky_Vaughn99, according to HuffPost, but allowed other accounts to remain.
Days before the 2016 presidential election, Twitter suspended @TheRickyVaughn, one of Mackey’s anonymous accounts, following a BuzzFeed News story that highlighted its clear attempts at voter suppression.
After the story was published, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that he was “not sure how this slipped past us, but now it’s fixed.”
On Wednesday, Twitter said it had permanently suspended the “accounts at issue” for violating its rules.
“Consistent with our ongoing relationship and collaboration with law enforcement and government partners, we’ve worked closely with the appropriate authorities on this issue,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement.
After a BuzzFeed News reporter called a cellphone number associated with Mackey and identified himself, a man on the line said “oh, sorry” and hung up. Further attempts to reach the number were unsuccessful.
In 2018, HuffPost revealed Mackey as the man behind the accounts and outlined his connections to the far right as “Trump’s most influential white nationalist troll.”
Last year, BuzzFeed News revealed that Mackey had worked as a contractor for Smartcheckr, the predecessor to Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition firm.
As a Smartcheckr consultant, Mackey pitched ad microtargeting and “extreme opposition research” to Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist candidate who was running to fill departing House speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional seat in Wisconsin.
“[Mackey] worked for 3 weeks as a consultant to Smartcheckr, which was the initial name of Clearview in its nascent days years ago,” Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That told BuzzFeed News last year. Ton-That also said at the time that Clearview was unaware of Mackey’s Twitter personas while he worked for the company.
“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,” William F. Sweeney of the FBI said in a statement. “It is illegal behavior and contributes to the erosion of the public’s trust in our electoral processes. He may have been a powerful social media influencer at the time, but a quick Internet search of his name today will reveal an entirely different story.”
Rosie Gray contributed reporting to this story.