During the 2016 election cycle, a Twitter user called Ricky Vaughn became one of the most high profile Trump supporters on the Internet. He is most known for using a photoshopped picture of Charlie Sheen, from the movie Major League, with a photoshopped Donald Trump hat on his head.
Apparently, he posted a joke advertisement aimed at trolling Democrats. It urged Hillary supporters to vote via text message and provided instructions to text a number. The DOJ is arguing that this was a “conspiracy” and a serious crime. The criminal complaint actually cites a 2016 Buzzfeed story that accusing Vaughn of “disenfranchising voters.” You would think that the DOJ would be going after the thousands of people who organized and/or promoted violent rioting, or posted violent threats on Twitter. But no.
According to the DOJ, Ricky Vaughn, who’s real name is Douglass Mackey, committed “vote theft” with his joke advertisement. The whole thing reeks of partisan revenge. It would seem that some people in the DOJ must have prepared this indictment years ago and then sat on it waiting for a Democrat to be president again. In fact, Gerald Greenberg, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, told the Florida Sun Sentinel “it is possible that within the Department of Justice it was decided that there would be a more receptive audience for the charges now that the Trump administration is out. The timing is a little too coincidental to me to think it was just your standard, ‘They finally got around to it.’ The timing of this seems somewhat deliberate.”
This sounds a lot like charging MAD Magazine, or the Babylon Bee with a crime.
In fact, there are Hillary supporters who posted the exact same kind of joke materials. They told Trump supporters to vote via text and/or vote on “Wednesday, November 9th,” (the wrong date). Here is an example that is still live on Twitter right now! Why was Kristina Wong never banned from Twitter? Why is she not also being indicted?
— Kristina Wong ❄️ (@mskristinawong) November 8, 2016
The DOJ Press release itself is almost unbelievable:
“According to the allegations in the complaint, the defendant exploited a social media platform to infringe one the of most basic and sacred rights guaranteed by the Constitution: the right to vote,” said Nicholas L. McQuaid, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “This complaint underscores the department’s commitment to investigating and prosecuting those who would undermine citizens’ voting rights.”
“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.”
“Protecting every American citizen’s right to cast a legitimate vote is a key to the success of our republic,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office. “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. 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.”
The DOJ press release claims Ricky Vaughn was more influential in the election than NBC News or Stephen Colbert! An extreme feat, considering the press release says Vaughn had 58k Twitter followers at his peak and both NBC News and Colbert have millions. In 2018, the Huffington Post claimed Vaughn was a leading figure in disseminating Russian propaganda. The far-left Southern Poverty Law Center also said he was one of the first people to “fully seize the potential in strategic, mainstream social media use.”
At some point, Twitter banned Ricky Vaughn. Buzzfeed alleges that Jack Dorsey personally had him banned from the site, after they complained to Dorsey about his text to vote advertisement. Shortly after being banned, he was “doxxed” by a man named Paul Nehlen. Vaughn had kept his true identity a secret, because he lived in Manhattan. Apparently, he is now a resident of West Palm Beach.
The DOJ also says that 4,900 unique telephone numbers texted a number that Ricky Vaughn had posted in the joke ads. Though the press release does not actually allege that they have evidence that a single person did not vote because they were tricked by Vaughn.
Of the 4,900 unique telephone numbers, what percentage were people who just wanted to text the number to see what happens?
It remains to be seen what happens with the case. If a lower court convicts him, this could end being a major freedom of speech case and go all the way to the Supreme Court. Obviously the very indictment is going to place a chilling effect on online humor and memes.
Vaughn faces ten years in Federal prison.