A man known as a far-right Twitter troll was arrested on Wednesday and charged with disseminating disinformation online that led Democratic voters to vote by phone in 2016 instead of going to the polls.
Federal prosecutors accused 31-year-old Douglass Mackey of coordinating with co-conspirators to distribute memes on Twitter, falsely claiming that Hillary Clinton’s supporters could vote by texting a specific phone number.
The co-conspirators were not named in the complaint, but one of them was Anthime Gionet, a far-right media personality named “Baked Alaska” who was arrested at the US Capitol after participating in the January 6 riot, a person who was involved in the investigation was informed and spoke about an ongoing investigation on condition of anonymity.
As a result of the misinformation campaign, prosecutors said at least 4,900 unique phone numbers texted them to cast votes for Ms. Clinton.
Mr. Mackey was arrested Wednesday morning in West Palm Beach, Florida on what appeared to be the first criminal case in the country involving the suppression of voters through the spread of disinformation on Twitter.
“With Mackey’s arrest, we are realizing that those who would undermine the democratic process in this way cannot rely on the cloak of internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes,” said Seth DuCharme, incumbent United States attorney in Brooklyn whose office is prosecuting the case.
Ms. Clinton was not named in the complaint, but one person who was informed of the investigation confirmed that she was the presidential candidate described in the charges.
One of Mr. Mackey’s attorneys declined to comment.
Mr. Mackey, who was released Wednesday on Wednesday for a $ 50,000 bond, faces an unusual charge: conspiracy to violate rights that makes it illegal for people to conspire over someone from the practice of one To “suppress” or intimidate constitutional law as a vote. The indictment provides for a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The case will test the novel use of federal civil rights laws as a tool to hold people accountable for misinformation campaigns designed to disrupt elections. This issue has recently become a pressing priority for social media platforms and law enforcement officers.
For law enforcement officers like Mr. Mackey, who prosecutors say would just open new Twitter accounts after his old ones were suspended, this has become a slap in the mouth. Mr. Mackey used four different Twitter accounts from 2014 to 2018 to hide his real identity from the public.
The goal of Mr. Mackey’s campaign, according to prosecutors, was to get people to vote “legally invalid”.
In 2018, Mr. Mackey was revealed himself to be the operator a Twitter account under the pseudonym Ricky Vaughn, which strengthened former President Donald J. Trump and at the same time spread anti-Semitic and white nationalist propaganda.
Mr. Mackey’s account had such a large following that the M.I.T. Media Labs list of Top 150 influencers in the 2016 electionsRanked ahead of Twitter accounts for NBC News, Drudge Report, and CBS News.
Twitter closed the account in 2016, one month before the election, for violating company rules by “participating in targeted abuse”. At that time, the account had around 58,000 followers. Three days later, an employee of Mr. Mackey opened a new account for him, prosecutors said, and it was also quickly suspended.
It wasn’t clear how Mr. Mackey was connected to Mr. Gionet or “Baked Alaska” who was a popular social media figure even among white nationalists and far-right activists. A lawyer for Mr. Gionet declined to comment.
Mr. Mackey is from Vermont graduated from Middlebury College. He spent five years as an economist with a Brooklyn-based research firm, John Dunham & Associates, until he was fired in the summer of 2016, a company official said.
The complaint demonstrated a surgical precision in the disinformation campaign by Mr. Mackey and his four co-conspirators. In private group conversations on Twitter, they discussed how to insert their memes into trending conversations online and analyzed changes in wording and colors to make their messages more effective.
Mr. Mackey was obsessed with making his posts go viral. The complaint once said when he told his staff: “The memes are spreading.” He and his co-conspirators joked about outsmarting “stupid” liberals.
Their efforts to misinform voters began after the group saw a similar campaign designed to mislead voters in the UK’s 2016 referendum about leaving the European Union, also known as Brexit.
Mr. Mackey and his staff made their own version and shared photos inviting Ms. Clinton’s supporters to vote for them using a hashtag on Twitter or Facebook on election day. To make the images look more legitimate, they added their campaign logo and linked it to their website.
Some of their memes appeared to be aimed at black and Latin American voters. In one picture, a black woman was standing in front of a sign supporting Mrs. Clinton and asking people to vote for Mrs. Clinton by writing a specific number. Mr Mackey shared a similar picture in Spanish, prosecutors said.
Less than a week before election day, the complaint said, Mr. Mackey posted a message on Twitter: “Of course we can win Pennsylvania. The key is to increase the turnout with non-college whites and limit the turnout of blacks. “
Around this time, Twitter began removing the false information images and banning Mr. Mackey’s account. But the memes had already taken on a life of their own, prosecutors said as his staff continued to make them available to a wider audience.
Alan Feuer contributed to the coverage.