Florida Man Charged With Election Interference by Spreading Disinformation, Usually Via Memes

A Florida man arrested Wednesday is accused of using social media platforms to mislead voters ahead of the 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Douglass Mackey, a 31-year-old social media influencer who operated under the online alias "Ricky Vaughn," was charged with conspiring to spread disinformation designed to "deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote."

"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 the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.

Mackey was charged by criminal complaint in the Eastern District. According to the Justice Department, he was taken into custody Wednesday and made a court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart in the Southern District of Florida.

Prosecutors say the disinformation campaign launched by Mackey and other individuals "often took the form of 'memes.'" Some of the memes altered images of celebrities to falsely suggest they were supporting one candidate over the other.

While the criminal complaint did not explicitly name the candidates referenced in each meme, Mackey was revealed to be an avid Trump supporter and well-known figure in the "alt-right" movement by The Huffington Post in 2018.

The group also pushed out the "Draft our Daughters" meme, which falsely claimed Clinton supported making women eligible for the draft.

As the election drew nearer, Mackey and his co-conspirators allegedly urged people to cast their ballots through invalid means. They claimed a person could vote for a major-party candidate by sending text messages or using certain hashtags on social media.

In one example highlighted by the Department of Justice, days before the election Mackey allegedly tweeted a picture of a Black woman standing in front of a sign for an unnamed candidate, with a caption that read: "Avoid the line. Vote from home."

At the time, Mackey had an audience of 58,000 Twitter followers. In February 2016, an analysis from the MIT Media Lab ranked "Ricky Vaughn" as the 107th most important election influencer—a higher ranking than CNN (11th) and NBC News (114th).

The Justice Department said that at least 4,900 unique telephone numbers texted a candidate's name to the number posted online by Mackey and his co-conspirators on or around Election Day.

William Sweeney Jr., the assistant director of the FBI's New York field office, said in a statement that what Mackey allegedly did "amounted to nothing short of vote theft."

"It is illegal behavior and contributes to the erosion of the public's trust in our electoral processes," Sweeney Jr. added. "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."

Newsweek reached out to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York for additional comment but did not hear back before publication.

Florida man arrested election interference 2016
The Twitter logo on a mobile phone. A Florida man has been charged with using social media platforms to mislead voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images