Trial of 2016 Twitter troll to test limits of online speech
The images appeared on Twitter in late 2016 just as the presidential campaign was entering its final stretch. Some featured the message “vote for Hillary” and the phrases “avoid the line” and “vote from home.”
Aimed at Democratic voters, and sometimes singling out Black people, the messages were actually intended to help Donald Trump, not Hillary Rodham Clinton. The goal, federal prosecutors said, was to suppress votes for Clinton by persuading her supporters to falsely believe they could cast presidential ballots by text.
The misinformation campaign was carried out by a group of conspirators, prosecutors said, including a man in his 20s who called himself Ricky Vaughn.
On Monday, he will go on trial in U.S. District Court in the New York City borough of Brooklyn under his real name, Douglass Mackey, after being charged with conspiring to spread misinformation designed to deprive others of their right to vote.
“The defendant exploited a social media platform to infringe one of the most basic and sacred rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” Nicholas L. McQuaid, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said in 2021 when charges against Mackey were announced.
Prosecutors have said that Mackey, who went to Middlebury College in Vermont and said he lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, used hashtags and memes as part of his deception and outlined his strategies publicly on Twitter and with co-conspirators in private Twitter group chats.
“Obviously we can win Pennsylvania,” Mackey said on Twitter, using one of his pseudonymous accounts less than a week before the election, according to a complaint and affidavit. “The key is to drive up turnout with non-college whites, and limit black turnout.”
That tweet, court papers said, came a day after Mackey tweeted an image showing a Black woman in front of a sign supporting Clinton. That tweet told viewers they could vote for Clinton by text message.
Prosecutors said nearly 5,000 people texted the number shown in the deceptive images, adding that the images stated they had been paid for by the Clinton campaign and had been viewed by people in the New York City area.
Mackey’s trial is expected to provide a window into a small part of what authorities have described as broad efforts to sway the 2016 election through lies and disinformation. While some of those attempts were orchestrated by Russian security services, others were said to have emanated from American internet trolls.
People whose names may surface during the trial or who are expected to testify include a man who tweeted about Jews and Black people and was then disinvited from the DeploraBall, a far-right event in Washington, D.C., the night before Trump’s inauguration; a failed congressional candidate from Wisconsin; and an obscure federal cooperator who will be allowed to testify under a code name.
As the trial has approached, people sympathetic to Mackey have cast his case as part of a political and cultural war, a depiction driven in part by precisely the sort of partisan social media-fueled effort that he is accused of engineering.
Mackey’s fans have portrayed him as a harmless prankster who is being treated unfairly by the state for engaging in a form of free expression. That notion, perhaps predictably, has proliferated on Twitter, advanced by people using some of the same tools that prosecutors said Mackey used to disseminate lies.
Mackey supporters have referred to him on social media as a “meme martyr” and spread a meme showing him wearing a red MAGA hat and accompanied by the hashtag “#FreeRicky.”
Some tweets about Mackey from prominent figures have included apocalyptic-sounding language. Fox personality Tucker Carlson posted a video of himself on Twitter calling the trial “the single greatest assault on free speech and human rights in this country’s modern history.”
Joe Lonsdale, a founder of Palantir Technologies, retweeted an assertion that Mackey was being “persecuted by the Biden DOJ for posting memes” and added: “This sounds concerning.” Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Twitter, replied with a one word affirmation: “Yeah.”
Mackey is accused of participating in private direct message groups on Twitter called “Fed Free Hatechat,” “War Room” and “Infowars Madman” to discuss how to influence the election.
Prosecutors said people in those groups discussed sharing memes suggesting that celebrities were supporting Trump and that Clinton would start wars and draft women to fight them.