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In March, a federal jury convicted Douglass Mackey, a social media influencer from West Palm Beach, Florida, for participating in a conspiracy to deprive people of their constitutional right to vote.
The conviction was linked to memes he shared online before the 2016 presidential election that encouraged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s supporters to "vote" by text message or social media, which are not legal ways to cast a vote.
A Florida man who in 2016 used memes to spread false information about voting has become a talking point in the wake of charges against former President Donald Trump.
"There was a test case," said Charlie Kirk, founder and president of the conservative group Turning Point USA. "Douglass Mackey. Does that name ring a bell? … He’s been convicted, awaiting sentencing, because he made a meme in the 2016 election. Remember that? Because he made a meme making fun of Hillary Clinton, the Biden DOJ goes and says, ‘We’re going to put you in federal prison.’"
A clip of the Aug. 2 episode of Kirk’s radio show, "The Charlie Kirk Show," was posted Aug. 5 on Facebook. The post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
In March, a federal jury convicted Mackey, also known as Ricky Vaughn, for participating in a conspiracy to deprive people of their constitutional right to vote. The conviction was linked to memes he shared online before the 2016 presidential election that encouraged supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to "vote" by text message or social media, which are not legal ways to cast a vote.
By omitting that critical context, Kirk’s claim misrepresented Mackey’s actions.
In a statement to PolitiFact, Kirk’s spokesperson cited the federal government’s criminal complaint against Mackey, which mentions memes beginning on Page 3.
Mackey, 33, of West Palm Beach, Florida, is a social media influencer who prosecutors said "made coordinated use of social media to spread disinformation relevant to the impending 2016 Presidential Election." This disinformation "often took the form of ‘memes,’" according to the complaint.
In 2016, Mackey had an audience of nearly 60,000 followers on Twitter, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A 2016 MIT Media Lab analysis named him the 107th most important influencer ahead of the 2016 election.
During a weeklong trial, prosecutors made the case that from September to November 2016, Mackey "conspired with other influential Twitter users and with members of private online groups to use social media platforms, including Twitter, to disseminate fraudulent messages that encouraged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s supporters to ‘vote’ via text message or social media which, in reality, was legally invalid."
In its complaint against Mackey, the government identified examples of the memes Mackey shared that mimicked the design, language and style of Clinton’s campaign and claimed her supporters could vote by text.
Mackey "tweeted an image depicting an African American woman standing in front of an ‘African Americans for Hillary’ sign," according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. "The ad stated: ‘Avoid the Line. Vote from Home,’ ‘Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925,’ and ‘Vote for Hillary and be a part of history.’"
He also shared a meme with similar messages written in Spanish; it used "the same distinctive font employed by the campaign of the Candidate," "included a copy of the logo of the Candidate’s campaign" and had a link to the campaign’s website, according to the arrest warrant request.
— Robert McNees (@mcnees everywhere else) (@mcnees) November 2, 2016
By Nov. 8, 2016, Election Day, nearly 5,000 unique phone numbers "texted ‘Hillary’ or some derivative" to 59925, the text number that was "used in multiple deceptive campaign images tweeted by Mackey and his co-conspirators," the Justice Department said.
When requesting an arrest warrant, the FBI’s investigator said Mackey "began discussing designing and circulating memes related to the time, place and manner of voting," with co-conspirators in September 2016. Those communications showed the deceptive memes’ goal "was to influence viewers … to vote in a legally invalid manner," the investigator said.
Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the verdict "proves that the defendant’s fraudulent actions crossed a line into criminality and flatly rejects his cynical attempt to use the constitutional right of free speech as a shield for his scheme to subvert the ballot box and suppress the vote."
As of March 31, Mackey’s sentencing was set for Aug. 16; he faces up to 10 years in prison. His lawyer, Andrew Frisch, said Mackey planned to appeal, The Associated Press reported March 31. We contacted Frisch for comment but received no reply.
Mackey was convicted on a charge of conspiracy against constitutional or statutory rights (18 U.S. Code § 241) — one of the same charges Trump now faces for his actions related to Jan. 6, 2021. In the footage shared on Facebook, Kirk referred to the law as "the KKK act" and said it is used infrequently.
"This is a well-orchestrated legal trial and error," Kirk said. "They tried it on Douglass Mackey to be able to use it against Donald Trump."
The law has been used to prosecute Ku Klux Klan violence and police brutality, but the conspiracy against constitutional rights provision has also been used for decades in election-related cases. Mackey was not "patient zero of the dusting off of 18 U.S.C. 241 conspiracy against rights" as Kirk claimed.
Section 241 "prohibits only conspiracies to interfere with rights flowing directly from the Constitution or federal statutes," according to the Justice Department’s manual for prosecuting election offenses. The Supreme Court has long held that the right to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution, and the manual instructs prosecutors to consider using the law "when addressing schemes to thwart voting in federal elections."
Mackey’s conviction is one of the most recent times Section 241 was used for election crimes, but it was also used in 2014. Two people were convicted for conspiracy to violate civil rights under the provision in a voter intimidation and vote-buying case.
Kirk claimed Mackey was convicted "because he made a meme in the 2016 election."
Mackey was convicted for participating in a conspiracy to deprive people of their constitutional right to vote. The memes he shared online before the 2016 presidential election encouraged Clinton supporters to "vote" by text message or social media, which are not legal ways to cast a vote. Nearly 5,000 unique phone numbers sent texts to the numbers included in the memes.
The claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
The Charlie Kirk Show, It’s One Big Conspiracy Theory: Analyzing Contents Of Ridiculous Trump Indictment, Aug. 2, 2023
Facebook post, Aug. 5, 2023
Court Listener, United States v. Mackey (1:21-cr-00080), accessed Aug. 8, 2023
The Associated Press, Far-right influencer convicted in 2016 voter suppression scheme, March 31, 2023
The Rolling Stone, Douglass Mackey Found Guilty of Violating Rights With 2016 Memes Telling Hillary Fans to Vote By Text, March 31, 2023
The New York Times, Online Troll Named Microchip Tells of Sowing ‘Chaos’ in 2016 Election, March 22, 2023
United States Attorney’s Office, Social Media Influencer Douglass Mackey Convicted of Election Interference in 2016 Presidential Race, March 31, 2023
Office of Public Affairs U.S. Department of Justice, Social Media Influencer Charged with Election Interference Stemming from Voter Disinformation Campaign, Jan. 27, 2021
Buzzfeed News, Twitter Finally Blocks Attempt To Disenfranchise Voters, Nov. 2, 2016
Office of Public Affairs U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. v. Douglass Mackey also known as "Ricky Vaughn" Complaint and Affidavit in Support of an Arrest Warrant, accessed Aug. 8, 2023
MIT Media Lab on Medium, Who’s Influencing Election 2016? Feb. 23, 2016
Justice Department, Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses, Eighth Edition, December 2017
Oyez, Anderson v. United States (1974)
Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, 18 U.S. Code § 241, accessed Aug. 8, 2023
Justia, USA v. Ruth Robinson, accessed Aug. 8, 2023
The Washington Post, Trump is charged under civil rights law used to prosecute KKK violence, Aug. 1, 2023
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Kentucky, Former Mayor Of Martin Sentenced To 90 Months For Civil Rights Offenses, Fraud, Vote Buying And Identity Theft, Dec. 16, 2014
ABC News, How 6 Mississippi officers tried to cover up their torture of 2 Black men, Aug. 4, 2023
The New York Times, Three Florida Police Officers Are Sent to Prison for False Arrests, Oct. 19, 2018
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Florida, Former Police Officer Pleads Guilty in Federal Court to Conspiracy to Deprive Civil Rights and Deprivation of Civil Rights, July 26, 2018
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Florida, Three Former Biscayne Park Patrol Officers Sentenced for Deprivation of Civil Rights by Intentionally Making False Arrests, Oct. 18, 2018
PolitiFact, Which charges could be in a Jan. 6 indictment of Donald Trump? July 26, 2023
Office of Public Affairs U.S. Department of Justice, Defendant Unlawfully Used Social Media to Deprive Individuals of Their Right to Vote, Jan. 27, 2021
Emailed statement from Andrew Kolvet, Charlie Kirk’s spokesperson, Aug. 8, 2023
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