This week the Democrats reminded us that all their pious concerns for government overreach and the importance of civil liberties are just talk. When they were out of power, we heard calls for defunding the police. Similarly, they pilloried ICE’s enforcement of immigration laws as modern day Gestapo tactics. Donald Trump, we were warned, would usher in fascism and put people in camps.
Biden’s Department of Justice is now prosecuting formerly prolific, online personality, Ricky Vaughn (A.K.A. Douglass Mackey) for illegal memes. This is a hammer blow to the First Amendment and a blatantly political prosecution.
The Alleged Online Threat
Before the recent wave of coordinated tech censorship, the online world was unruly and unregulated. The watchword of the internet users and companies was freedom, particularly from government control.
Then the election of 2016 happened. It was a wake up call to the tech world’s emerging establishment. The 2016 election’s surprising outcome particularly traumatized those who thought Obama’s victory foretold the permanent elevation of his politics and his style, as well as the “emerging majority” that brought him to power.
As they previously have done in talk radio, the right wing has shown acumen and effectiveness on social media. Twitter was a great equalizer. Whether you were the president or a NEET in your pajamas, the accounts looked the same. The platform was soon overrun by a highly motivated army of right-leaning critics and trolls, hilarious anonymous memes, Pepe the Frog, Trump’s Taco Bowl, and, ultimately, their collective efforts contributed to the 2016 election result.
Before he was banned in October 2016, Ricky Vaughn had a significant following; he was funny, smart, offensive, edgy, and effective. As outlined in the indictment, a particular—and obviously trolling—meme is at the heart of the prosecution. According to the Department of Justice’s press release, “Mackey [i.e., Ricky Vaughn] conspired with others to use social media platforms, including Twitter, to disseminate fraudulent messages designed to encourage supporters of one of the presidential candidates (the ‘Candidate’) to ‘vote’ via text message or social media, a legally invalid method of voting.” The government framed its prosecution as a necessary measure to punish voter suppression.
More recently, online and right-wing voices have been tarred with supporting an insurrection and for their “chatter,” as if organizing to hold signs and criticize opponents is the same as organizing an act of terrorism. Thus, since 2016, we heard more and more about online threats, but the only real threat they pose is to traditional media gatekeepers and their control over the narrative.
The Disappearing Free Speech Consensus
Way back in the 1990s, the country was more united about free speech. The 1996 movie, “The People vs. Larry Flint,” explored a case arising from the obnoxious Hustler publisher’s distasteful satire suggesting that Flint’s nemesis, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, had committed incest. Flint’s challenge made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and free speech prevailed.
The court opined:
At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty—and thus a good unto itself—but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.
After describing the effectiveness of cartoons and caricatures, the court agreed that the parody involved, could not “reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about the respondent or actual events in which he participated.”
Those words and principles, once widely accepted across the political spectrum, are now in doubt. The Left, which used to be an antiauthoritarian “counter-culture,” is now in charge of the culture. Their culture is defined by a rigid set of moral absolutes, ranging from issues of race to the correct use of pronouns. Deviations have been labeled hate, conspiracies, and, now, crimes.
Social media is problematic to the Left’s cultural stranglehold because it empowered the little people, along with their devotion to the culture undone by the countercultural Left. These unestablished voices became as influential as the mainstream media, as if this were itself a problem.
The 2016 “Meme War” was a large, formless rebellion against the establishment, by trollish, young, and otherwise powerless people. While the Left has publicly and ridiculously whined about Russian interference during the Trump years, it seems they knew all along that a lot of their fellow Americans were the real problem.
This is why all of Biden’s talk about unity is coupled with contradictory talk of “dark forces” and right-wing conspiracies. The Left knows their biggest struggle and their biggest opponent are the American people, many of whom reject the system and its contradictions. These critics are encouraged and organized in back corners of the internet, where the Left’s control has been, until now, much less effective.
The statute under which Vaughn is being prosecuted—18 U.S.C. § 241—originally became law to allow the federal government to prosecute the KKK, which used violence and other forms of intimidation in the Reconstruction South to prevent former slaves from voting. The law says nothing about “illegal memes” or even “disinformation.”
There is a good reason for this.
Every election includes citizens sharing their thoughts and characterizing their opponents. Each side criticizes the other side, often sharply. These characterizations are based on inferences from their opponents’ remarks and records, refracted through competing views of the world.
By way of example, Democrats said Trump was a Russian puppet and that Bush “lied” to get us in the Iraq War. Republicans said Hillary was responsible for Benghazi, and that Obama was a socialist. The candidates and their proxies denied these charges. Lesser examples of such attacks and defenses abound. It would have a massive chilling effect upon free speech if such tough talk, the normal argot of politics, were somehow subject to criminal prosecution.
The Myth of Disinformation
In politics, there is a continuum from narrowly defined facts and value-laden opinions. Today, much of what used to be included in the range of reasonable disagreement is now being hammered into a narrow formula, where opinions out of the mainstream are sinisterly labeled disinformation and fraud—when mistakes or differences of opinion would be more accurate. The Left has now shown that they will criminalize dissent, as Ricky Vaughn is being prosecuted for “illegal memes.”
There is no proof his obviously fake “text to vote” meme stopped anyone from voting. Nor is it obvious why anyone dumb enough to fall for this joke should be voting.
The decision to prosecute a long-since-banned Twitter poster for his online activity in 2016 is a reminder that the Left is obsessed with power and revenge in a way the Right is not. Biden and his handlers showed up to the White House ready to rule. They fired Trump holdovers en masse and had dozens of executive orders ready to go.
By contrast, during the Trump years, the Republicans continued to defend the FBI, even as it became clear that it had become a partisan secret police outfit investigating and ginning up fake crimes against Trump and his campaign. Trump and the Republicans were not effective in cleaning house, nor did they apply similar pressure against their own opponents. Trump never fully controlled the executive branch.
The Left is powerful, in charge, and also completely paranoid. Biden’s talk of unity is completely irreconcilable with his party’s view of half of the country as racist, evil, subversive, and all the rest. The only unity they can promise is from submission and reeducation; the Left appears more than willing to harass and prosecute their opposition using all the weapons of state.
While this is all worrisome, compromise and moderation are false hopes, as evidenced by the second impeachment of now ex-President Trump, the ridiculous overreaction to the January 6 protest, and, now, the persecution of obscure political opponents for illegal memes.
America’s traditions of freedom are now in serious jeopardy from the political Left. And the fight is winner-take-all.