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Federal authorities announced Wednesday that a social media influencer used his Twitter following to interfere in the 2016 election, posting memes encouraging Black voters to submit votes via text message.

According to the criminal complaint, the individual, Douglas “Ricky Vaughn” Mackey, 31, actively engaged in targeted disinformation efforts to interfere with Black voters’ ability to cast their ballots. Mackey was arrested Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Florida, and released on $50,000 bail. His case is the first in the country involving spreading false information through social media to encourage voter suppression. He faces a conspiracy to violate rights charge which could result in up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. 

Mackey is accused of leveraging his Twitter presence to spread memes intended to appeal to Black voters with language that suggested it was possible to vote from home to avoid standing in line.  

Allegations indicate that Mackey, aligned with other members of a distribution group called the Madman Group, circulated deceptive memes with the purpose of confusing potential voters. In one instance, the group claimed social media networks Twitter and Facebook had launched a partnership with the U.S. State Department to permit people to vote via social media by using the hashtag #PresidentialElection prior to Election Day 2016.

A statement released by the Department of Justice called Mackey’s actions an attempt to subvert the democratic process. “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,” said William F. Sweeney, Jr, Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office. 

“It is illegal behavior and contributes to the erosion of the public’s trust in our electoral processes,” continued Sweeney. 

An analysis by the MIT Media Lab ranked Mackey as a top election influencer, coming in at 107th, with approximately 58,000 Twitter followers. This places Mackey ahead of NBC News (#114), Stephen Colbert (#119), and Newt Gingrich (#141).  

While the complaint does not specifically name which 2016 candidate’s likely voters were targeted, a New York Times analysis found the right-wing provocateur and his network were targeting likely voters for Hillary Clinton. It’s estimated that nearly 5,000 numbers sent texts to the number from the deceptive image tweeted out by Mackey. 

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election much attention was directed at Russian election interference. Early congressional hearings focused on labeling multiple social issues as “divisive” instead of paying attention to the growing disinformation network led by right-wing actors. 

Now in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the ongoing effort to overturn a valid election, social media sites are grappling with how to address the intentional misdirection led by former president Donald Trump and his allies. Election related disinformation dropped 70 percent since Trump was banned from social media after the January 6 attacks.

Anoa Changa is a movement journalist and retired attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow Anoa on Instagram and Twitter @thewaywithanoa.

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