Guilty verdict for pro-Trump troll who tried to trick voters out of casting Hillary Clinton ballots in 2016
A federal jury on Friday convicted pro-Trump troll Douglass Mackey of plotting to trick voters out of casting a ballot during the 2016 presidential election.
The case, which sought to address if any of the toxic stew of Internet disinformation during the 2016 election rose to the level of a crime, has been closely watched by both anti-extremist groups and right-wing politicians and pundits.
Mackey, 33, of West Palm Beach, Fla., who gained fame on the Internet as the Twitter user “Ricky Vaughn,” posted two images made to look like fake Hillary Clinton ads telling people they could vote by text instead of in-person.
Federal prosecutors called the images part of a plot to disenfranchise Black and women voters, but Mackey insisted that he was simply “s–tposting” and sharing ridiculous memes.
The verdict in Brooklyn Federal Court did not come easily.
The jury started deliberating Monday afternoon, but it soon became clear that it couldn’t reach a consensus on whether Mackey committed a federal crime.
By end-of-day Tuesday, the jurors wrote a note telling Judge Ann Donnelly they had “completed” their deliberations and couldn’t come to a unanimous decision, and similar notes followed by the end of Wednesday.
Donnelly told them to press on, though, and on Friday, the doubters had been convinced, voting Mackey guilty.
Prosecutors argued that Mackey posted the images to trick Black voters and women in particular, pointing to his past posts describing Black people as “gullible” and saying women shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
“The defendant did this for the most simple, straightforward and obvious reason of all, that he wanted people to fall for it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Turner Buford told the jury.
Mackey testified that he was only posting non-serious “memes” that he didn’t think anyone would take seriously. Even though he was a member of the group chats where the fake ads were workshopped, he claimed he “had the group on mute” and wasn’t paying attention to the stream of messages.
“It was no criminal conspiracy. It was the internet,” his lawyer, Andrew Frisch, said in his closing argument. He added that although roughly 4,900 people called the vote-by-text number, “No one was tricked.”
“If a single voter was tricked, the government would have called that person as their first witness,” he said.
Prosecutors presented a string of witnesses, including a Clinton staffer and the owner of a text message marketing company.
They showed pages of group chat logs where pro-Trump trolls discussed how to make the text-by-vote images look convincing. They also tested out ideas like photoshopping MAGA hats on celebrities like Ariana Grande, and posting fake Clinton ads with the logo “Draft our Daughters” to trick people into believing that Clinton wanted to send young women to war.
A key witness for the prosecution — a notorious troll with the screen name “Microchip” — was allowed to testify anonymously. He said the fake vote-by-text ads were designed to “defraud voters of their right to vote,” and described Mackey as a leader in the group chats, someone respected for his large following and his strategic use of memes.
Microchip, who testified he began working for the FBI in 2018, pleaded guilty to conspiracy against rights last year. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to testify against Mackey and help the FBI in several other cases.
Mackey was arrested in January 2021, and the charge brought against him, conspiracy against rights, carries a possible 10-year prison term.
The case has drawn the attention of anti-extremism groups who have been trying to catalogue and identify the anonymous trolls who spread racist, bullying messages online during the 2016 election and after.
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It has also become a lightning rod for conservative politicians and pundits, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who accuse the Biden administration and the Department of Justice of ignoring the First Amendment and targeting Mackey for his political beliefs.
Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement that the verdict proves “the defendant’s fraudulent actions crossed a line into criminality and flatly rejects his cynical attempt to use the constitutional right of free speech as a shield for his scheme to subvert the ballot box and suppress the vote.”
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