Attorneys gave their opening arguments Monday in the federal trial of a right-wing troll accused of using memes to trick Democrats into trying to vote by text in the 2016 election. Douglass Mackey, once known to his 58,000 Twitter followers as “Ricky Vaughn,” faces one count of conspiring to violate people’s constitutional right to vote. He was arrested and charged in Jan. 2021 and has pleaded not guilty.
In the months and weeks ahead of the 2016 election, Mackey and unnamed co-conspirators allegedly created several phony campaigns encouraging people to vote via hashtags on Twitter and Facebook, while they joked in group chats that the “dopey shitlibs” would fall for it. “Vote early text Hilary to 59925 today,” said the text on one meme Mackey distributed. It included fine print to make it appear more legitimate, prosecutors say: “Paid for by Hillary Clinton for president. Must be 18 years or older to vote. Must be a legal citizen of the United States. Vote by text not available in Guam, Puerto Rico, Alaska or Hawaii.” According to federal authorities, nearly 5,000 voters fell for the text ruse.
Speaking to the jury, U.S. Attorney Turner Buford said Mackey set out, with unnamed co-conspirators, to plan a “coordinated attack” on people’s right to vote. He had significant influence on Twitter, Buford said, having been named the 107th most important influencer of the upcoming election in a Feb. 2016 by MIT’s Media Lab, outranking more mainstream names including NBC News, Stephen Colbert, and Newt Gingrich. He used his influence on social media to reach as wide an audience as possible with the goal of not changing votes, but “vaporizing” them, Buford said.
Mackey’s lawyer, Andrew Frisch, said Mackey will testify in his own defense and defended Mackey’s posts on the basis of free speech. “It’s not a crime to vigorously support your candidate of choice,” Frisch said. He also said there’s no evidence that Mackey’s actions stopped anyone from voting properly.
According to the 2021 complaint, Mackey and his co-conspirators planned their misinformation campaigns in Twitter DM group chats. In groups with names including Fed Free Hatechat and the War Room, they discussed ways to get the maximum reach, including jumping onto already trending hashtags and appropriating the colors and font of official Clinton campaign graphics to make fake images look more legitimate.
In one instance in Dec. 2015, prosecutors claim, Mackey and co-conspirators messaged each other memes about liberals secretly supporting Trump. “It’s actually a great meme to spread,” Mackey wrote in the group chat, according to the complaint. “Make all these shitlibs think [their] friends are secretly voting for [Trump].” Another user described the plan as “perfect psyops,” to which Mackey replied “We’ve hit upon meme magic motherlode.”
Prosecutors allege Mackey and his accused co-conspirators were then inspired by a disinformation campaign related to the 2016 vote in England on whether to leave the European Union. One image falsely told opponents of Brexit that they could vote “remain” through Facebook or Twitter, according to the complaint.
Mackey and his associates designed similar calls to action. They created an image urging Clinton supporters to vote on Twitter and Facebook using a hashtag, including her campaign logo and a link to her website for legitimacy. Some of the memes appeared to target Black voters, like one featuring an image of a Black person in front of an “African Americans for Hillary” sign. Mackey shared a similar message written entirely in Spanish, the complaint said.
A week before the election, according to court filings, Mackey Tweeted about the importance of limiting the Black vote to ensure Trump’s victory. “Obviously, we can win Pennsylvania,” he said. “The key is to drive up turnout with non-college whites, and limit black turnout.”
Twitter suspended Mackey at least twice after he began spreading false information. Prosecutors claimed the memes had already reached a wide audience, however, and continued to spread. As a result of Mackey’s misinformation campaign, prosecutors claimed, 4,900 phone numbers texted the number he’d set up in a futile effort to cast votes for Hillary Clinton.
The prosecution will present testimony by a co-conspirator-turned-cooperating witness who will appear using only his social media handle, MicroChip, a major pro-Trump engine of disinformation leading up to the 2016 election. The man behind MicroChip has claimed to be a software developer from Utah, and in 2017 told Buzzfeed News that he took Adderall to work 12 hour shifts running an army of bots that generated 35,000 retweets daily.
In his opening statement, Mackey’s attorney, Frisch, argued that people only began texting the false text-to-vote number after media outlets covered the disinformation campaign and it became a national news story. Two people texted “Hillary for prison” to the number, he said.
Frisch compared Mackey’s memes to a rap battle or a celebrity roast — designed to shock and get under the skin of those holding opposing viewpoints. He said the marketplace of ideas requires the toleration of all kinds of speech, even things said in bad taste. “It’s through speech that truth comes out,” he said, and accused the government of lacking evidence that Mackey had conspired to do anything but gain attention through “shitposting” on social media.
The prosecution began calling witnesses on Monday, and told judge Ann M. Donnelly they expected to question a dozen that same day. They plan to call a total of 19 people to the stand before the defense will present its case. If convicted, Mackey could face up to 10 years in prison.