The indictment of a far-right internet activist on charges of interfering with the 2016 U.S. election reflects a strategic shift by the Department of Justice and sets the stage for new cases against more prominent right-wing actors, according to people familiar with the matter.
Federal prosecutors debated for years whether and how to pursue criminal cases against Americans suspected of disseminating false voting instructions to manipulate the election, three people with knowledge of the discussions said.
While some officials wanted to bring a multitude of charges, others felt it would be too difficult to bring a voter-suppression case based on online messaging, the people said. The hurdles include free-speech rights, the difficulty in establishing intent and the challenge of showing that anyone failed to vote because a specific person misled them.
But after former President Trump’s Attorney General William Barr resigned in December, a compromise emerged: One charge to start, against a demonstrably influential person, where evidence pointed to a real impact, the sources told Reuters.
The Justice Department declined comment.
The Department’s first target is Douglass Mackey, who was identified in 2018 as the man behind the Twitter persona ‘Ricky Vaughn.’ Authorities arrested him in January on a rare charge of “conspiracy against rights” for falsely telling people they could vote by text.
As Vaughn, Mackey was one of the most prolific boosters of @TEN_GOP Twitter handle, a purported Tennessee Republican Party Twitter account actually controlled by the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian government contractor later indicted by Special counsel Robert Mueller.
Mackey’s own Twitter activities were so effective that one study ranked him as more influential than NBC and CBS. Phone records cited in the new court filings show that at least 4,900 people had texted the number he advertised.
Mackey’s attorney, Tor Ekeland, said neither he nor his client would comment on the case.
People familiar with the new Justice Department strategy said that the prosecutors aim to press on toward even higher-profile offenders, potentially including some of Mackey’s four alleged co-conspirators, who have not been indicted and are identified only by their Twitter user numbers.
Thornley, a lawyer for one of the alleged co-conspirators, Tim Gionet, told Reuters that Gionet was innocent, adding that the details about the four in the FBI complaint reinforced his belief that FBI was hoping to turn members of that group against each other.
Gionet, a banned YouTube prankster and former BuzzFeed social media strategist calling himself Baked Alaska, is well-known. A week before the vote-by-text complaint, Gionet was arrested for participating in the Jan. 6 riot inside the U.S. Capitol, where the FBI says video showed him refusing police orders.
Thornley said his client’s actions on Twitter were protected free speech. And with new laws around voting rights a major political issue, he said it was suspicious that the criminal case went forward only after the Biden Administration took over.