Trump Supporter Convicted in 2016 Scheme to Suppress Votes for Clinton
Months before the 2016 presidential election, people intent on swaying the outcome were communicating in private Twitter groups with names like “War Room” and “Infowars Madman.”
The participants included obscure figures and notorious online trolls, many of whom concealed their real identities. There were fans of Donald J. Trump and avowed haters of Hillary Clinton, all working toward a Republican victory while celebrating the “meme magic” they employed to circulate lies and attacks.
According to federal prosecutors, one man, Douglass Mackey, crossed a line from political speech to criminal conduct when he posted images to Twitter that resembled campaign ads for Mrs. Clinton and falsely stated that people could vote simply by texting “Hillary” to a certain phone number.
On Friday, after just over four days of deliberation, a jury in Brooklyn found Mr. Mackey guilty of conspiring to deprive others of their right to vote. He is scheduled to be sentenced in August and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Mr. Mackey, wearing a gray suit, white shirt and pink tie, was stoic as the verdict was read. His lawyer, Andrew J. Frisch, suggested that his client would appeal.
“This case presents an unusual array of appellate issues that are exceptionally strong,” Mr. Frisch said, adding: “I’m confident about the way forward.”
Breon Peace, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, said in a statement that by convicting Mr. Mackey the jury had rejected “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.”
Mr. Mackey posted one image showing a Black woman and a sign reading “African Americans for Hillary” a day after writing on Twitter about limiting turnout among Black voters. Another image, in Spanish, showed a woman looking at her phone.
Both images, posted a week before the election, were accompanied by the hashtag #ImWithHer, which was used by the Clinton campaign. Both also included logos that looked like the campaign’s, and fine print saying they had been paid for by “Hillary for President.”
Prosecutors said about 5,000 people sent texts to the number shown in the deceptive images.
Mr. Mackey, 33, who grew up in Vermont, attended Middlebury College and once lived in Manhattan, testified in his own defense. He said he was in dozens of private online groups before the election but did not pay close attention to everything discussed in them.
While testifying, Mr. Mackey said he found the vote-by-text images on an online message board and posted them with little thought. He added that he had not meant to trick anyone but wanted to “see what happens.”
“Maybe even the media will pick it up, the Clinton campaign,” he testified, adding that the images might “rile them up, get under their skin, get them off their message that they wanted to push.”
Mr. Mackey was seen, according to evidence, as someone who could marshal followers and move the national conversation. He used the pseudonym “Ricky Vaughn,” the name of a character in the movie “Major League.”
In early 2016, the Ricky Vaughn account was included on a list of the top 150 election influencers compiled by a research group with the M.I.T. Media Lab, ranking ahead of NBC News, Drudge Report and Glenn Beck.
As Mr. Mackey’s trial approached, people sympathetic to him claimed that he was being prosecuted unfairly. The defense sought to have his case dismissed, saying that the voting memes were protected by the First Amendment. But a judge denied that request, writing that the case was about conspiracy and injury, not speech.
The star prosecution witness, a Twitter user known as Microchip, helped direct online attacks against Mrs. Clinton in 2016, but began cooperating with the F.B.I. two years later. He testified that the private groups that he and Mr. Mackey took part in had the goal of “destroying Hillary Clinton.”
Communications from the groups provided a glimpse into a shadowy world of crass motives and dirty tricks in which anti-Clinton activists developed propaganda, spread falsehoods and exulted in their impact.
Evidence showed that participants had shared memes about voting by social media, tried to figure out what font a Clinton ad used and circulated hashtags. One, #DraftOurDaughters, was posted on Twitter along with images suggesting that Mrs. Clinton would start wars and conscript women to fight them. Mr. Mackey advanced another, #NeverVote, that he wrote was meant to be spread in “Black social spaces.”
During the trial, Mr. Frisch described his client’s posts as part of a rambunctious online discourse.
“Speech regulates itself,” Mr. Frisch told jurors in his summation. “These memes were a bad idea and the marketplace of ideas killed them almost immediately.”
Prosecutors countered that the false-voting images were part of an orchestrated effort to affect the election through deceit, adding that criminal activity cannot hide behind the First Amendment.
“You can’t use speech to trick people out of their sacred right to vote,” one prosecutor, William J. Gullotta, told jurors.
Prosecutors drew upon statements by Mr. Mackey, who wrote that the 2016 election was on “a knife’s edge,” to argue that he had tried to help Mr. Trump by suppressing votes.
“Trump should write off the Black vote,” Mr. Mackey wrote at one point. “And just focus on depressing their turnout.”
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