The complex relationship between free speech and election interference has been further complicated by a recent ruling from a federal court.
A federal appeals court has paused the prison sentence of Douglas Mackey, who was convicted of election interference via meme warfare in the 2016 election, citing 'substantial and debatable' legal issues in his appeal.
Douglas Mackey, better known by his pseudonym "Ricky Vaughn" on Twitter, gained notoriety for his memes mocking Hillary Clinton supporters during the 2016 Presidential Election.
His posts ingeniously instructed followers to "text 'Hillary' to 59925," implying they could vote by text.
The number, however, was a hoax; real voting options did not include text voting.
Despite the misleading nature of the posts, they proved persuasive to some, with approximately 4,900 people texting the bogus number.
In the aftermath, Mackey was sentenced in October 2022 to 7 months in prison, accompanied by a $15,000 fine and two years probation.
The prosecutors contended that Mackey's actions were a deliberate attempt to deprive people of their right to vote and to intimidate potential voters.
The sentence was viewed as a victory for those concerned about misinformation, but it was not to last unchallenged.
On December 5, an appeals court judge put a hold on Mackey's prison sentence pending his appeal.
The court found that Mackey's appeal raises significant legal questions that could potentially overturn his conviction if resolved favorably.
Douglas Mackey himself commented on the decision:
"This ruling is huge because it means that the appeals court decided that my appeal presents ‘substantial’ and ‘debatable’ issues of law that, if resolved in my favor, will result in my conviction being vacated."
The response to this development has been divided. Former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, who was directly impacted by the misinformation campaign, offered her perspective:
"So it went from speech to action meant to subvert the election because thousands of people who they targeted through their algorithms, ‘oh I could text my vote for Hillary Clinton.’"
Despite the setback, Mackey has made known his intention to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court if he loses the appeal in the Second Circuit.
This case has raised critical questions about the boundary between free speech and deliberate election interference. It also underscores the ongoing challenge of addressing misinformation in an increasingly digital age. As we await the outcome of Mackey's appeal, the eyes of the nation are fixed on the courts, with the future of election interference cases hanging in the balance.