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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 J. Trump, not Hillary Clinton. The goal, federal prosecutors said, was to suppress votes for Ms. Clinton by persuading her supporters to falsely believe they could cast presidential ballots by text message.

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 Federal District Court in 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 Mr. Mackey were announced.

Prosecutors have said that Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Mackey tweeted an image showing a Black woman in front of a sign supporting Ms. Clinton. That tweet told viewers they could vote for Ms. 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.

Mr. Mackey’s trial is expected to provide a window into a small part of what the 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Mackey from prominent figures have included apocalyptic-sounding language. The 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump and that Ms. Clinton would start wars and draft women to fight them.

One exchange in the Madman group centered on an image that falsely told opponents of Brexit that they could vote “remain” in that British referendum through Facebook or Twitter, according to investigators. One participant in the group asked whether they could make something similar for Ms. Clinton, investigators wrote, adding that another replied: “Typical that all the dopey minorities fell for it.”

Last summer, defense lawyers asked that Mr. Mackey’s case be dismissed, referring to Twitter as a “no-holds-barred-free-for-all” and saying “the allegedly deceptive memes” had been protected by the First Amendment as satirical speech.

They wrote to the court that it was “highly unlikely” that the memes had fooled any voters and added that any harm was in any event “far outweighed by the chilling of the marketplace of ideas where consumers can assess the value of political expression as provocation, satire, commentary, or otherwise.”

Prosecutors countered that illegal conduct is not protected by the First Amendment merely because it is carried out by language and added that the charge against Mr. Mackey was not based on his political viewpoint or advocacy. Rather, they wrote, it was focused on “intentional spreading of false information calculated to mislead and misinform voters about how, where and when to cast a vote in a federal election.”

Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis ruled that the case should continue, saying it was “about conspiracy and injury, not speech” and adding that Mr. Mackey’s contention that his speech was protected as satire was “a question of fact reserved for the jury.”

The prosecution’s star witness is likely to be a man known as Microchip, a shadowy online figure who spread misinformation about the 2016 election, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Microchip was a prominent player in alt-right Twitter around the time of the election, and Judge Garaufis allowed him to testify under his online handle in part because prosecutors say he is helping the F.B.I. with several other covert investigations. Sunday, the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly.

In court papers filed last month, prosecutors said they intended to ask the witness to explain to the jury how Mr. Mackey and his allies used Twitter direct messaging groups to come up with “deceptive images discussing the time, place, and manner of voting.”

One of the people whom Microchip might mention from the stand is Anthime Gionet, better known by his Twitter name, Baked Alaska; he attended the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. He was barred from the DeploraBall after sending a tweet that included stereotypes about Jews and Black people.

In January, Mr. Gionet was sentenced to two months in prison for his role in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. New York Times

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