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Florida social media influencer faces charges for voter disinformation campaign in 2016 election

Douglass Mackey, 31, arrested Wednesday morning
Paul G. Rogers Federal Building U.S. Courthouse in 2020
Posted at 10:09 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-27 22:09:13-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A prominent Twitter troll from 2016 whose accounts were suspended by the social media platform has been charged in federal court with knowingly spreading disinformation in the wake of the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to influence voters' behaviors, according to court records.

Douglass Mackey, aka Ricky Vaughn, made an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart in West Palm Beach on Wednesday morning. The complaint and affidavit in support of an arrest warrant was filed under seal in the Eastern District of New York. Mackey was a resident of New York at the time.

According to the complaint, Mackey and others conspired to injure, oppress threaten or intimidate people's right to vote, a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 241.

"Specifically, in or about and between September 2016 and November 2016, Mackey, together with his co-conspirators, formulated, created and disseminated information over social media that claimed, among other things, that supporters of a presidential candidate from one of the two main political parties (the "Candidate" could and should vote for the candidate by posting a specific hashtag on Twitter or Facebook, or by texting the Candidate's first name to a specific telephone text code)," the complaint said.

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FILE - This April 26, 2017, file photo shows the Twitter app icon on a mobile phone in Philadelphia. On Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, the social media giant announced through a blog post that they are working on a new verification policy and are inviting feedback from the public before they implement it. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The complaint accuses Mackey and others of conspiring "to design and distribute these messages with the intent that supporters of the candidate would believe the fraudulent information contained therein, attempt to cast their votes via social media or text message and, as a result, fail to cast their vote in the Election in a legally valid manner."

Stuart Kaplan, a former FBI agent who now practices law in Palm Beach County, said the case is a "first-of-its-kind."

"This is a very sophisticated attempt to obviously influence, not necessarily propaganda, but actually influence someone's vote so that they think it was cast but was never actually legally cast," Kaplan said in a brief phone interview. "I have to tell you, it's pretty scary. ... You take this one type of scenario, and you wonder how many of the people they [law enforcement] can properly identify."

One of Mackey's Twitter handle's identified in the complaint, @Ricky_Vaughn99, was ranked in an analysis by the MIT Media Lab as the 107th most important influence in the then-upcoming 2016 election, above more widely known handles, including NBC News and Stephen Colbert, according to court records.

The Southern Poverty Law Center called @Ricky_Vaughn99 "one of the most prolific and longstanding Alt-Right personalities on Twitter," in a 2016 blog post.

Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter and spokesman for the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said about Mackey's arrest and charges, "This idea that somebody like Doug Mackey, who had really retreated from public view ... that he would be charged with something at this stage, I think, really presents a new day and new possibilities for who might get arrested for their involvement on social media in 2016."

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Contact 5 interviews Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter and spokesperson for the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, over Zoom on Jan. 27, 2021.

Hayden said he used to go on far-right extremist sites and chat with Mackey when he was still using the Ricky Vaungh pseudonym.

"These were some of the most horrific social media presences that I've ever seen in my life," Hayden recalled.

Mackey's reach and influence, Hayden said, was widespread.

"This was not just one person trying to steer people away from voting," Hayden said. "This was a guy who had over 100,000 followers on Twitter at the time. ... He was everywhere."

Hayden noted Mackey was well known for connecting far-right extremists and neo-Nazi ideas to "establishment" Republican thought.

"He was sort of ahead of his time in breaking down those barriers. ... I think there are few people involved on social media who had as notorious influence in making those changes and introducing extremist content into Republican mainstream circles as Douglass Mackey," Hayden said. "He was notorious for a reason, because he was a very effective propagandist."

A judge granted Mackey a bond of $50,000 with conditions, including that he may travel between South Florida and New York, where the charges were filed.

Court records do not indicate any attorney representing Mackey at this time. Mackey could face up to 10 years in prison.

READ THE COMPLAINT HERE:

This article was written by Erik Altmann for WPTV.