McDowell County Commissioner Brenda Vaughn has a tendency to spread conspiracy theories and hoaxes on her public Facebook profile while simultaneously using that profile to campaign for re-election.
In April 2018, shortly after Vaughn was sworn in as commissioner, two of her posts caught my eye.
The first was a picture of President Clinton next to some text which suggested Clinton helped cover up the death of Vince Foster. (her post has since been deleted) (here is an article that explains this conspiracy theory)
The second, which was much less shocking but points to a broader issue of Commissioner Vaughn having difficulty discerning what is and is not factual, was a hoax image claiming that Starbucks refused to serve Iraq veterans (this post was also deleted).
To be clear: the posts did not originate from Vaughn, she simply chose to share them on her account.
I emailed the McDowell News shortly after because it seemed noteworthy that a public official was using their platform in this way. The McDowell News did not respond until I emailed them again five months later in late September 2018.
On September 27, 2018, Vaughn posted a story from FrontPage Magazine, which was founded by David Horowitz and peddles conspiracy theories and half-truths. (her post is still up as of today, 10/27/2018) (saved screenshot)
The story’s headline: “Kavanaugh Accuser’s Lawyer is Vice Chair of Soros Funded Org Opposing Kavanaugh.”
The frequently-referenced boogeyman of the right, George Soros, has now been referenced by a local county commissioner. (Here is an article by Talia Lavin which helps lay out why these posts about Soros are anti-Semitic.)
When I saw that Vaughn posted the story, this again seemed noteworthy, so I emailed the McDowell News again. The editor of the McDowell News responded this time, and he stated they would print a letter to the editor “about my concerns” if I wanted to submit one. I appreciated the offer, but I chose not to do so. To be frank, since their guidelines required the publication of my first and last name and a partial address, I did not feel safe or secure in doing that and I did not feel as though I could adequately explain or describe the issue within their word limit.
Given the anti-Semitic implications of referencing George Soros, I thought it might make sense if the McDowell News questioned Vaughn, but I suppose they did not want to go down that route.
Although Vaughn does not have the broad reach of a federal or state representative, she does have some reach locally and she is choosing to use her Facebook account, which she also uses to campaign and speak as a county commissioner, as a way to spread those conspiracies. (saved screenshot)
On October 23, 2018, it was reported that an explosive device was found at Soros’ home. Throughout the week, other prominent Democratic leaders were targeted with similar devices.
On October 26, 2018, the alleged mail bomber was arrested. He apparently shared and bought into conspiracy theories related to George Soros.
That is ultimately why I contacted the McDowell News: because what Commissioner Vaughn is doing is dangerous and reckless. Spreading conspiracy theories, particularly those that revolve around specific people or groups of people, will feed into a broader hysteria which can have real consequences.
Even if it is in on a local, small scale, Vaughn helped stoke conspiratorial thinking and fear by posting that article. If she did so unintentionally, she is incapable of scrutinizing what she reads on the internet. If she did so intentionally, she is an enabler of anti-Semitism and dangerous conspiracy theories.
Public officials must be aware of what it is they share to the public, especially when they do not know who may be reading what they share.
The week of October 22, 2018 was a week of domestic terrorism which culminated in a shooting at a synagogue by someone who, based on initial reports, was fed a steady diet of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Much of what is mentioned above is specific to Vaughn sharing the Soros article since I thought it was especially thoughtless given the broader implications. Going forward I will catalogue additional posts/shares by Vaughn if there are any. I believe elected officials need to be held to account, and I will attempt to do so.
November 3, 2018: Vaughn shared a post that reads, “Tired of Trump haters blaming Trump for separating illegal families? THE LAW WAS PASSED IN 1997 by Bill Clinton.”
An inaccurate and misleading share by Vaughn. (saved screenshot)
November 6, 2018: Vaughn wins her election for McDowell County Commissioner, coming in at the number one spot out of five candidates on the ballot.
November 21, 2018: Vaughn decided to announce that she does not understand the function of the judicial branch of the government. Bonus: one of the comments on the post mentions Soros and Vaughn liked that comment. (saved screenshot) Quote below:
“Who, Other than myself is completely sick of the:
“A judge struck down”
Just who died and gave a judge the almighty power to over rule everything????????”
January 9, 2019: Vaughn shared an image stating Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) is not fit to represent Americans in Congress, apparently forgetting that New York’s representatives are not elected by gullible Facebook users in North Carolina. (saved screenshot)
January 24, 2019: Vaughn again decided to announce that she does not understand how another branch of the government works, this time the legislative branch, in the context of the government shutdown. (saved screenshot) Quote below:
How in the name of common sense did we get to a place in our country that allows the Speaker of the House to dictate directions that over ride the President of the United States? How is one party able to withhold food from its citizens table simply because they have a beef with the President. Especially when in the past they said we need exactly what the President is asking for. Is this democracy or the beginning of dictatorship ? WAKE UP AMERICA. OUR GOVERNMENT IS BEING CORRUPTED AT A NEW LEVEL. REPUBLICAN OR DEMOCRAT I DONT CARE THIS IS WRONG.
March 26, 2019: Vaughn shared an image which refers to “Spygate,” a conspiracy theory that claims the “deep state” was spying on and working to undermine Trump’s presidential campaign. (saved screenshot)
April 18, 2019: One minute after celebrating her one-year anniversary as county commissioner, Vaughn shared an image showing the second plane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11 with text above that reads, “Every time a Muslim stand up in Congress and tells us they are going to change the constitution, impeach our president, or vote for socialism, remember you swore you would never forget. They swore they would destroy us from within.” (saved screenshot) The Islamophobic image is presumably in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-5), who has been in the news recently. Omar was on a hit list compiled by white nationalist Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hassan. After Trump targeted Rep. Omar with an Islamophobic video of his own which selectively distorts her words, the congresswoman received more death threats.
April 18, 2019: Vaughn shared a vague, conspiratorial-sounding post which reads, “Many Americans have no idea how close they are to losing their country.” The post originated from a Facebook page titled “Rino Swamp.” The page is filled with hoaxes, conspiracies, misleading information, and outright lies. (saved screenshot)
May 6, 2019: Vaughn shared an image of Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-5) with text on the image that reads, “IMPEACH ILHAN OMAR. Who else isn’t afraid to repost this?” Bonus: someone left a comment which reads, in part, that Rep. Omar “is a threat to America” and Vaughn liked that comment. Without any specifics given as to why Rep. Omar should be impeached or how she is a “threat to America,” it seems reasonable to assume Vaughn is simply Islamophobic. (saved screenshot)
August 21, 2019: Vaughn posted a list of what she believes is taking place in her invented version of the United States: guns are/will be taken from law-abiding citizens, open borders are/will be established, and unborn children are/will be killed. (saved screenshot) Quote below:
Take law abiding citizens guns- with so called gun control!
Open our borders!
Kill our Unborn Children.
Lord … what has happened to the country that was founded on Biblical Principles???
August 31, 2019: Vaughn shared an article from 2016 from Life Site News which is an anti-choice website founded by the Campaign Life Coalition, a conservative Canadian lobbyist organization. The article’s story seems to be broadly based on real events but the quotes are suspect: they are nowhere to be found other than on similarly dubious websites. The subject matter is outdated and therefore decontextualized: Ireland overturned its abortion ban in 2018. (saved screenshot)
September 22, 2019: Vaughn shared an image expressing, again, her support for testing welfare recipients for drug use. The image specifically references Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri for being “the first states that will require drug testing when applying for welfare.” Drug testing in Florida lasted approximately four months. The results: only 2.6 percent tested positive and “the requirement cost more money to carry out than it saved.” Drug testing in Missouri produced similar results. Drug testing in Kentucky does not even appear to have made it past being a legislative proposal. (saved screenshot)
September 28, 2019: Vaughn shared an article from Life Site News titled “If Christians don’t personally engage in politics, it’s all over for America.” The anti-gay screed was written by Robert Marshall, a former Virginian politician. One of the tags on this article is “LGBT Tyranny.” The article is especially concerning in the context of Vaughn’s role as a public official who can create local policy and has some power when it comes to hiring and firing people, even if only partially or indirectly. (saved screenshot)