NEW YORK (AP) — A self-styled far-right propagandist was arrested in Florida on Wednesday on charges he used social media to try to suppress votes for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
A criminal complaint accused 31-year-old Douglass Mackey — known on the internet as “Ricky Vaughn” — of anonymously conspiring with others in late 2016 to use Twitter and other social media to try to trick Clinton supporters to vote via text instead of casting an actual ballot.
The alleged scheme “amounted to nothing short of vote theft,” said William Sweeney, head of the FBI office in New York City, where the charges were filed. “It is illegal behavior and contributes to the erosion of the public’s trust in our electoral processes.”
Mackey was expected to be released on $50,000 bond following an initial court appearance in West Palm Beach, prosecutors said. A message seeking comment was left with his defense attorney.
At the time of the alleged fraud, Mackey had 58,000 followers on Twitter and was considered an “important influencer” in the upcoming election won by former President Donald Trump, prosecutors said. He had described himself as an “American nationalist” who regularly retweeted Trump and promoted conspiracy theories about voter fraud by Democrats.
The complaint accused Mackey of working with four unnamed co-conspirators to spread disinformation claiming that people could vote for Clinton by posting a specific hashtag on Twitter or Facebook, or by texting Clinton’s name to a fake text code. One tweet he sent showed a photo of a Black woman with a campaign Clinton sign, encouraging people to “avoid the line” and “vote from home,” it said.
Prosecutors said records show the post was retweeted 175 times, and that there were at least 4,900 responses from phone numbers using the the fake text code, including some from people in New York.
In October 2016, Twitter suspended Mackey’s account for “participating in targeted abuse,” the court papers said. Using another social-messaging network, he wrote, “Don’t worry, I will return to twitter soon,” and used an associate to establish another account, the papers said.
Twitter worked “closely with appropriate authorities on the issue,” the company said in a statement.
If convicted of conspiracy charges, Mackey could face up to 10 years in prison.
Associated Press writer Amanda Seitz contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the spelling of Mackey’s first name is Douglass, not Douglas.