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The internet is real life
Ricky Vaughn's conviction proves it.
Alt-Right troll Douglass Mackey a/k/a Ricky Vaughn’s recent conviction on charges that he schemed to disenfranchise individuals of their constitutional right to vote has proven beyond any doubt that whatever barrier once separated the internet from real life is well and truly gone. These days, the internet is real life. Maybe you already believed this. Maybe it’s been true for longer than most of us realize. But with Mackey’s felony conviction, the idea of the internet being a safe haven in the name of sarcastic memes isn’t a defense anymore—at least not a legal one—and with that barrier brought down, the potential ramifications going forward seem endless.
We’ve seen sarcastic internet shitposting slowly shift into real world actions for years now. January 6th was planned almost entirely online. Movements like QAnon started on the popular internet trolling site 4chan. From there it spread to Trump supporters and others who are, for whatever reason, more prone to conspiracy minded thinking. The total number of QAnon followers at the height of the movement is unknown, but there were easily thousands if not tens of thousands of Americans eagerly awaiting the next “Q drop” at one point. The numbers of people who were at least QAnon-curious may have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. For its followers, the Q “movement” was not simply set of beliefs or ideas. It often took over their entire lives. There are entire communities and subreddits dedicated to QAnon followers losing friends, family members and ending marriages because those people reject their newfound set of beliefs. There were murders and children kidnapped based on information people believed came from Q. Those crimes, the ones that spilled out into real world violence, could and were of course prosecuted. All the while, Q kept posting and many continued to believe. There was no clear mechanism to prevent this. What law was “Q” actually breaking, and who could enforce it? Who would actually want to try? Most shrugged at what they perceived as “just some weird internet thing.”
Perhaps this has been building for longer than we realized. We’ve seen the internet spill out into the real world with swatting cases, which is the term for criminal harassment meant to deceive police that there is an imminent threat of violence at someone’s residence. The harasser’s goal is to have local law enforcement deploy their SWAT team to the home of the intended victim. Most of the time, swatting results in unwarranted arrests of innocent people. In the worst case scenarios, swatting has led to innocent people dying at the hands of police. The first time I heard about swatting, it happened after an internet beef started between two rival streamers online. The FBI first used the term swatting in 2008, and over the last fifteen years cases of swatting have increased. Even in the last decade, swatting cases have gone unpunished because in many jurisdictions, there were no laws on the books which made swatting a crime. In other cases, law enforcement lacked the knowledge or resources to track down and prosecute the perpetrators.
The world is slowly catching up
People make a living on the internet and make more money than we ever thought possible, entirely by existing online. We have Instagram Moms and TikTok influencers. We have Twitch streamers who play video games for a living. We have YouTubers who rake in tens of millions (or more) a year. We have anti-vaxxers who pull in over $40,000 a month from Substack subscriptions. We have alleged sex traffickers running pyramid schemes from victims recruited almost entirely on social media. Those people make real money and have considerable incomes from their work online. My job on this newsletter and our podcast is, as plenty of jobs are these days, to decipher many events that happen strictly online, or the online coverage of events in the physical world. While I do my best to make a habit of touching grass and feeling the sun on my face for an hour or two every day, I am self-admittedly terminally online, and I would say most of the people I talk to and work with are just like me.
What used to really separate “real life” from the internet for the longest time was the discrepancy between the obvious consequences we suffered. This was true in a strictly legal sense but social consequences play a factor too. In the real world, if you pick a fight with a bully, you can expect him to punch you in the face. If you steal something, you can get caught and sent to jail. If you drive at reckless speeds while drunk, you’re about as likely to end up in a ditch as you are to end up in the back of a police car. At the same time, saying hateful or patently false things in public used to get you mocked, shouted down or condemned. On the internet, there’s always someone who’s going to agree with you. There’s always a community willing to accept your false sense of reality. Sure, you might get called names in public, but your private DM room or discord server always had your back.
For far too long, it’s been much easier to avoid the sort of shame and legal problems you’d have to deal with if you treated people on the street corner the same way you do the people you hate on the internet. On the internet, you can pretend to be an expert on anything, and if you pretend long enough, you’ll find others who believe you. You can shitpost and harass people from behind an anonymous account and guess what? There’s not much anyone can do about it. It’s this Cloak of No Consequences which has aided the spread of anti-vaccine content, QAnon memes, anti-democratic rhetoric and fascist strongarm tactics to become a feature, not a bug, of Republican politics. Spreading false information—intentionally or not—can lead to six or seven figure paydays if you’re good enough at it and you know how to slap together a decent YouTube thumbnail. So, people do it, and they don’t care who gets hurt along the way, and if they do eventually care and stop pumping tainted informational sludge day after day, guess what? There are a thousand other guys who can take their spot.
But make these purveyors of bullshit and hate worry they might become the next Alex Jones (with his $1.5 billion owed as a result of defamation lawsuits) or a convicted felon like Douglass Mackey? Then just maybe they’ll think twice about their behavior online. Does having them take their foot off the gas solve all of society’s problems? Not by a long shot, but it’s a start.
What comes next
Douglass Mackey was not convicted of “posting a meme” or “criticizing Hillary Clinton”. He was convicted of carrying out a scheme to disenfranchise American citizens, particularly targeting minority voters who wanted to elect Hillary Clinton. Mackey’s conviction suggests what he did with an internet meme was done with the same motivation as white Klansmen who used intimidation, threats of violence and even lynchings to intimidate Black voters and sympathetic white voters away from the polls during Reconstruction after the American Civil War. No, Mackey committed no violence here, nor was that ever suggested, but he didn’t need to. The intent was the same—the goal was to take away the vote from minority groups—and Mackey, as Ricky Vaughn, admitted in court that at the time he carried out this scheme, he did not believe Black people should be allowed to vote. He found a way to prevent Black people from voting, and thanks to social media, he could do this anonymously with the click of his mouse.
As I write this, there’s an army of people online who are selling digital snake oil, day after day, post after post. They’ve figured out a way to sell that snake oil as right-wing politics, and their goal is to obtain wealth and power at your expense, at your kid’s expense, and at our nation’s expense. Many of them—like the entire cast of characters in the Douglass Mackey trial—support Donald Trump as a means to whatever nefarious end they’re after. Which one? Take your pick. Profit, power, or the legitimate desire to upend the state and replace it with something else—ask Steve Bannon for the details. It matters less why than the fact that it will continue unchecked as long as we allow it to happen, and maybe you think it won’t affect you and yours, but it will. It’s coming for you too, and I don’t care what name you call me or how cringe you think I am for wanting to do something about it. Prosecute every illegal meme. Treat the internet like real life.
I want to live in our imperfect Republic a hell of a lot more than I want a piece of the fascist pie served up bigots behind a computer screen. The right is going to whine and complain and bitch and tell their audience that Mackey’s conviction is akin to a new age of Transtifa Stalinism. Free speech is dead! Gulags are next! Sure. Whatever. Let them. Let them mock you and call you cringe and say democracy is for shitlibs and boomers. That’s fine. Embrace it.
Let them rage.