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Douglass Mackey, a once well-known creator of memes on Twitter, has been sentenced to seven months in prison.
The conviction marks a dramatic escalation in how free speech is being handled in the United States. Rendered in the New York criminal court, Mackey was declared guilty of perpetrating a “conspiracy against rights”—the right to an unobstructed election being the one in focus here.
Mackey, who operated under the alias Ricky Vaughn, had made and shared memes critical of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Presidential race. His memes humorously suggested that Clinton supporters cast their ballots through text messages – a patently invalid method of voting.
Although such an improper method was clearly ineffective, Mackey was still convicted over the notion of election interference.
Quite interestingly, many have noted, other internet users who shared similar content regarding the option of text voting for Donald Trump were neither charged nor convicted.
The absence of evidence showing any voting attempt made following Mackey’s meme did not deter the US Department of Justice from declaring it an interference. Despite Mackey professing his mere intent of creating a viral meme, similar to those which his fellow Clinton detractors had created; he was singled out and penalized.
In 2021, the DOJ revealed the details of this premier case. It claimed Mackey, who had nearly 58,000 followers at the time, was purposely limiting the turnout from black voters. It argued that the meme in question was an image of a black woman standing in front of an “African Americans for Hillary” placard, with the caption “Avoid the Line. Vote from Home. Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925.”
The DOJ expressed concern over such light-hearted content, stressing on its phrasing, “The fine print at the bottom of the deceptive image stated: ‘Must be 18 or older to vote. One vote per person. Must be a legal citizen of the United States. Voting by text not available in Guam, Puerto Rico, Alaska or Hawaii. Paid for by Hillary For President 2016.’” The final element was the hashtag “#ImWithHer,” a slogan frequently used by Hillary Clinton.
This decision to penalize Mackey opens a Pandora’s Box in examining repercussions of online behavior. In an era increasingly shaped by social media, the contours of free speech and interference are blurred. Yet, it is imperative to remember that the blanket criminalization of online content may inadvertently lead to the suppression of opinion and curb the creative liberties of citizens.
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