According to people familiar with the matter, 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 three people with knowledge of the discussions, federal prosecutors debated for years whether and how to pursue criminal cases against Americans suspected of disseminating false voting instructions in order to manipulate the election.
While some officials wanted to file a slew of charges, others believed that bringing a voter suppression case based on online messaging would be too difficult, according to the sources. The obstacles include free speech rights, the difficulty of establishing intent, and the difficulty of proving that anyone did not vote because they were misled by a specific person.
However, following the resignation of former Attorney General William Barr in December, a compromise emerged: one charge to begin, against a demonstrably influential person, where evidence pointed to a real impact. The first target for the Department is Douglass Mackey, who was identified in 2018 as the man behind the Twitter handle ‘Ricky Vaughn.’ Authorities arrested him in January on a rare charge of “conspiracy against rights” for falsely claiming that people could vote by text message.
As Vaughn, Mackey was one of the most vocal supporters of the @TEN GOP Twitter handle, which was actually controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian government contractor later indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Tor Ekeland, Mackey’s attorney, said neither he nor his client would comment on the case.
According to people familiar with the new Justice Department strategy, prosecutors intend to pursue even higher-profile offenders, potentially including some of Mackey’s four alleged co-conspirators, who have not been charged and are only identified by their Twitter user names.
Thornley, a lawyer for one of the alleged co-conspirators, Tim Gionet, said Gionet was innocent and that the details in the FBI complaint reinforced his belief that the FBI was hoping to turn members of the group against each other.
Thornley claimed that his client’s Twitter actions were protected free speech. And, with new voting rights laws a major political issue, he questioned why the criminal case was pursued only after the Biden Administration took over. The FBI has been trying to learn if the apparent attempt at suppressing votes came from within that Twitter group, or whether it may have been seeded by Russian actors or others, the people familiar with the probe said.
Another alleged co-conspirator, known as MicroChip, may hold the key to unlocking the mystery. The true identity of MicroChip has not been revealed. Though little known to the general public, MicroChip was a powerful figure behind the scenes who was closely followed by many ardent Trump supporters. Many of MicroChip’s accounts spewed racist remarks and promoted a constantly changing slate of divisive stories on topics that Russian government contractors also supported. “There was definitely some overlap with his trends and IRA trends,” DiResta said of the Internet Research Agency.
According to the archives, the Russian accounts frequently mentioned and tweeted about MicroChip accounts. According to a tally by researcher Chris Scott, during the 2016 election season, when Russian troll activity was at its peak, they cited MicroChip as many as 35 times per day.