BROOKLYN (CN) — The 2016 presidential campaign spurred electoral meme-ification at unprecedented levels: Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump’s calls to “lock her up” and Clinton’s “delete your account” Twitter quip at Trump.
Jurors will weigh the line between meme and crime at a federal trial that kicked off Monday in Brooklyn. Douglass Mackey, who ran a popular far-right Twitter account under the pseudonym “Ricky Vaughn,” is charged with threatening voter rights by tweeting out a phony flyer that said Clinton supporters could vote via text message.
“Avoid the line. Vote from home,” one such flyer states. “Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925.”
Twitter ultimately deleted tweets with the flyers, often tweeted along with hashtags like Clinton’s campaign slogan #ImWithHer.
If convicted of entering a conspiracy against rights, Mackey faces up to 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors acknowledged that even misleading campaign messages are fair game during the election cycle: “Politics in America is a rough-and-tumble business,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Turner Buford said in his opening statement.
But the message Mackey sent from his Manhattan apartment crossed the line, Buford said, by potentially duping voters out of their constitutional right, rather than trying to sway their decision.
“This wasn’t about changing votes,” Buford said. “It was about vaporizing them.”
Mackey has garnered support from powerful conservative figures including U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who called the prosecution a political move and First Amendment threat.
The "Ricky Vaughn" account earned Mackey a high rank on a 2016 list of election influencers put out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. At 107, it placed just behind U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Defense attorney Andrew Frisch didn’t deny in his opening statement that his client had reach.
Under his avatar, borrowed from Charlie Sheen’s character in the 1989 movie “Major League,” Mackey was retweeted by the likes of actress and comedian Roseanne Barr and former television host Lou Dobbs.
“Ricky Vaughn became as popular on Twitter as Cher,” Frisch said.
But Mackey, who intends to take the stand, wasn’t aiming to get Clinton voters to stay home, the attorney argued. He was merely “shit-posting,” which Frisch defined as “deliberately provocative or off-topic comments” to distract from online discourse. Frisch likened a shit post to trash talk during a pickup basketball game or celebrity roasts where “the whole idea is to shock.”
“It’s not a crime to vigorously support your candidate of choice,” Frisch said. Mackey, who now lives with his wife in West Palm Beach, Florida, remains a “staunch political conservative.”
“Whether he was a great thinker or a Neanderthal caveman, you will see that none of it is proof of a criminal conspiracy,” Frisch said.
To prove conspiracy the government need not show that anyone was in fact tricked by the posts. Prosecutors plan to call a cooperating witness and alleged co-conspirator who will be identified only by his Twitter pseudonym “Microchip,” a man whom Frisch referred to as “Mr. Microchip,” and said his interactions with Mackey never left the internet.
The government will also show private messages from online forums joined by Mackey, which include discussions about content geared toward getting Trump elected.
The phone number Mackey shared received 4,900 texts, but Frisch noted that the vast majority of these came in after the tweets about fake voting hotlines became national news.
Some phone numbers ‘voted’ twice; one sent 12 messages; two texts simply said “Hillary for prison,” according to Frisch.
As for the government’s argument that there would be no time for people to debunk Mackey's misinformation before Election Day, the lawyer noting that Mackey sent the tweets on November 1 and 3, and the election was on November 8.
U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly has been presiding over the case only since Sunday, after her colleague, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, tested positive for Covid.
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