Social media 'influencer' charged with spreading 2016 election disinformation

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A Florida man with a big social media following was arrested on federal charges Wednesday on accusations that he used platforms such as Twitter to conduct a targeted voter suppression campaign in 2016, including with tweets urging people to “Avoid the Line. Vote from Home.”

The significance: The arrest marks a rare instance of an individual facing criminal charges over a disinformation campaign carried out on prominent social media platforms.

The charges: The FBI arrested Douglass Mackey, known as “Ricky Vaughn,” on accusations of conspiring to deprive individuals of their right to vote through “coordinated use of social media to spread disinformation,” according to a complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York.

Mackey, according to a 2018 HuffPost report, is a prominent pro-Trump online troll with ties to the white nationalist movement.

How the lies spread: According to the complaint, Mackey and several unnamed co-conspirators sought to stoke confusion about the voting process by claiming on social media that supporters of one of the two major presidential candidates could vote by posting online or texting.

Mackey used at least four Twitter accounts in his targeted misinformation campaigns, with the first reaching over 58,000 followers, the complaint said. One independent analysis at the time ranked his account as among the 110 most influential toward the upcoming election, beating out prominent outlets and figures such as NBC News and late-night host Stephen Colbert. All four accounts have either been suspended or deleted.

“According to the allegations in the indictment, the defendant exploited a social media platform to infringe one the of most basic and sacred rights guaranteed by the Constitution: the right to vote,” Nicholas McQuaid, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said in a statement.

The background: Then-special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s office brought a slew of federal indictments in 2018 against individuals and organizations in Russia that had sought to stoke divisions around the 2016 presidential elections, an effort that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded was aimed at helping Donald Trump. But those defendants have never been taken into custody in the U.S., and high-profile charges in election misinformation cases are rare.

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