Jury selection started today in the trial of 33-year-old Douglass Mackey, a man who prolifically spread hate and politically charged disinformation under the pseudonym “Ricky Vaughn” during Donald Trump’s political rise.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Mackey with election interference in January 2021, accusing him of a conspiracy to spread “misinformation designed to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote.” The DOJ leveled these charges in connection with a November 2016 stunt in which Mackey encouraged people to vote for Hillary Clinton by text message by disseminating an online flyer.
The online flyer Mackey distributed featured images of a Black person in front of an “African Americans for [Hillary Clinton]” sign, urging voters to text in their votes. Nearly 5,000 people fell for Mackey’s detailed ploy, according to the DOJ’s press release. An unnamed co-conspirator who operated in Mackey’s online circles in 2016 has cooperated with the investigation, according to court records.
A pseudonymous star of the “alt-right” era
As his Twitter and Gab-based pseudonym Ricky Vaughn, which borrows Charlie Sheen’s character name from the 1989 film Major League, Mackey proved to be an influential figure in the so-called alt-right movement. Mackey’s posts helped launder overt white supremacist talking points into the mainstream of the conservative movement. MIT Media Lab listed him as the 107th most influential social media personality during the 2016 election.
On Twitter in 2016, Twitter users interested in politics commonly stumbled across Mackey’s Ricky Vaughn account. He posted rapidly and at a high volume. Archives show that Mackey averaged over 100 tweets and retweets per day between 2014 and 2016. He mixed more benign news articles with more sinister fare, including links to the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer and racist and antisemitic memes.
As Ricky Vaughn, Mackey messaged this Hatewatch reporter in 2017 over Gab to express racist, unscientific views about how people of different racial backgrounds produced inferior children. Around that time, he networked with a who’s who of white supremacists, including Andrew Anglin of Daily Stormer, Mike Peinovich, now of National Justice Party, and disgraced former Department of State official Matt Gebert. Mackey also became central to a debate in the white supremacist movement over “optics,” or how the movement should market itself. Mackey held that the movement should eschew heavy-handedness, like flags with hate symbols and the SS costumes favored by groups like the National Socialist Movement, and focus instead on blending in with mainstream conservatives.
From disappearance to cause célèbre
Reporter Luke O’Brien identified Mackey in a HuffPost story published on April 9, 2018, and around that time, Mackey called this Hatewatch reporter on the phone. In an hour-long conversation, Mackey confessed that his parents had become displeased with him and that they wanted him to seek help for internet addiction. Mackey never contacted this reporter again.
Mackey’s Ricky Vaughn persona seemed to disappear from the web until the DOJ produced these charges in January 2021. After the DOJ charged Mackey, he emerged as a cause célèbre among anti-democracy, radical-right figures, who have depicted him as a victim of state oppression. Daily Stormer and other racist websites raised money for his defense. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson inaccurately described Mackey as a “conservative journalist” on his show in January 2021. Following Carlson’s segment, an anonymous person dropped $60,000 to Mackey in Bitcoin, buoying his defense, as Hatewatch previously reported.
Mackey’s trial will be held at the Theodore Roosevelt Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York.
Editor's note: Following four days of deliberation, a jury reached a verdict.
Photo illustration by SPLC.