A notorious alt-right operative, Douglass Mackey, whom HuffPost unmasked in 2018 as Donald Trump’s most influential white nationalist Twitter troll, “Ricky Vaughn,” was arrested in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Wednesday on federal election interference charges related to a disinformation campaign during the 2016 election.
The charges demonstrate federal prosecutors’ newfound focus on the use of Twitter and other social media platforms to undermine elections and suppress the vote.
Mackey allegedly conspired with four unnamed Twitter users to create and disseminate “memes” designed to dupe people, particularly Black and Latinx voters, into casting invalid votes by posting on Facebook or Twitter or sending a text message to a specified text code, according to the recently unsealed federal complaint.
The complaint lists four co-conspirators referred to only by Twitter “user IDs,” a unique string of numbers assigned to each Twitter account. HuffPost can report that one co-conspirator is a prominent alt-right botmaster who goes by “Microchip” and was instrumental in making pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton hashtags and content go viral on Twitter during the 2016 election. A fascist accelerationist who has expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and Nazism, Microchip claims to have been involved in the early spread of the QAnon conspiracy cult and repeatedly told this reporter that his goal was to destroy the United States.
Another of Mackey’s co-conspirators is Anthime “Baked Alaska” Gionet, a pro-Trump white nationalist who was arrested on Jan. 16 for his involvement in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. Gionet also participated in the deadly white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. (A New York Times story reported Wednesday afternoon that Gionet was a co-conspirator, citing a source close to the investigation, and HuffPost can confirm that reporting based on the Twitter ID cited in the complaint.)
HuffPost was able to link the Twitter IDs in the complaint to Gionet and Microchip through previously collected Twitter data, interviews and evidence left by both extremists on other websites. In direct messages with this reporter last year, Microchip also confirmed that he was using the Twitter account associated with the user ID listed in the complaint.
The user ID for a third co-conspirator belongs to a pro-Trump far-right activist who goes by “Nia” and has a long history of spreading disinformation on Twitter. HuffPost has not yet been able to identify the fourth co-conspirator.
Mackey, his co-conspirators and dozens of other collaborators allegedly used private direct message rooms on Twitter to refine memes and plot ways to influence the election and run “psyops” on voters, according to the complaint. Microchip described the operation to BuzzFeed as a massive, honeycombed propaganda machine. Countless users reported the far-right extremists to Twitter for abusive and racist behavior, but the platform took ineffective action to curtail their group’s anti-democratic activities.
During the 2016 election, Mackey had tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and was able to straddle the worlds of white nationalist extremism ― he was an advocate for “global white supremacy” ― and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. Mackey was so effective at spreading pro-Trump and anti-Semitic propaganda to a radicalizing Republican base that MIT Media Lab put his Twitter account on a list of top influencers on the election, ahead of NBC News and the Drudge Report.
“He did this thing that people connected to organized white nationalism have not been able to do ― walk both sides of the extremist line in the sand,” Keegan Hankes, a data intelligence expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told HuffPost in 2018.
One Mackey-led disinformation scheme cited in the federal complaint described a “Draft our Daughters” meme the white nationalist and his co-conspirators created to falsely suggest that Hillary Clinton planned to start a war and make women eligible for the draft.
In September 2016, Mackey and his accomplices also allegedly began creating memes to fool liberals into casting votes through social media or by text message. Mackey made it clear on Twitter that his agenda was to “limit black turnout,” according to the complaint. Federal investigators determined that more than 4,900 telephone numbers texted their votes to text codes Mackey and his group advertised. Approximately 99% of the texts came in after Mackey first tweeted a deceptive text code.
“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” acting United States Attorney Seth D. DuCharme said on Wednesday. “With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes. They will be investigated, caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Federal prosecutors charged Mackey under a “civil rights conspiracy statute,” possibly indicating that investigators are looking into a broader network of bad actors.
Mackey and the three co-conspirators that HuffPost was able to identify are closely associated with a group of high-level pro-Trump political saboteurs known as “MAGA3X” that had ties to the Trump campaign and Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Presided over by far-right Twitter influencer Mike Cernovich, white nationalist funder Jeff Giesea, who is a disciple of billionaire Peter Thiel, and neo-Nazi collaborator Jack Posobiec, who counts Roger Stone as a mentor, MAGA3X spearheaded the Pizzagate disinformation campaign on social media that targeted Hillary Clinton in the weeks before the 2016 election.
For two more years, the identity of “Ricky Vaughn” remained a tightly held secret in the white nationalist community. But in April 2018, Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist Republican candidate for Congress in Wisconsin, posted Mackey’s name on Gab, a social media platform popular among far-right extremists. Nehlen and Mackey had had a falling-out over a business proposal Mackey pitched to boost the Nehlen campaign’s social media reach through a mysterious data company called Smartcheckr, the precursor name for what would become Clearview AI, a shadowy Thiel-backed facial recognition company.
A HuffPost investigation last year revealed that Cleaview, which was co-founded by a former top aide to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and in wide use at police departments around the country, had deep, longstanding ties to far-right extremists. One of them was Chuck Johnson, an influential Holocaust denier who has collaborated closely with Cernovich and Giesea. Johnson helped Giesea and Thiel vet candidates for the Trump transition team. He was also connected to Mackey, who was shopping Smartcheckr to potential clients. (Several of the extremists identified by HuffPost last year were working at Clearview until the publication of HuffPost’s investigation in April.)
Within days of Nehlen releasing Mackey’s name, HuffPost had confirmed his online identity as “Ricky Vaughn,” in part with the help of Loren Feldman, a filmmaker who had interviewed Mackey for “Silenced,” a documentary about free speech that Feldman co-produced with Cernovich in 2016. In the film, Mackey appeared under his troll pseudonym. Feldman didn’t know his real name but said Mackey and Cernovich clearly knew each other. HuffPost showed Feldman photographs of Mackey without providing any further context and asked if he recognized the man. Feldman immediately identified the person in the photos as “Ricky Vaughn.”
After HuffPost’s story about Mackey ran in April 2018, Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, an infamous neo-Nazi who helps run The Daily Stormer, a pro-Trump neo-Nazi website, wrote in his website’s forum of Mackey that “[O]ne of my closest pals just got his life ruined.”
Auernheimer had also appeared in “Silenced.” He also knew Cernovich, Johnson and Giesea.
And he contacted Feldman, with whom he had a combative online relationship, to complain about the outing of Mackey.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Auernheimer reportedly said. “You gotta make this right.”
“Fuck you,” Feldman replied. “I can only tolerate so much Nazi fuckery.”
Last October, the FBI appears to have stepped up its investigation of Mackey and his co-conspirators. That month, FBI agents interviewed Nehlen, according to the complaint filed on Wednesday. Nehlen confirmed that Mackey was “Ricky Vaughn.” The FBI then interviewed Feldman, who confirmed that he’d identified “Ricky Vaughn” from the photographs of Mackey HuffPost showed him.
Feldman told HuffPost on Wednesday that the agents didn’t just ask him about Mackey.
“They rattled off 15 to 20 names,” Feldman said. “The people they were most interested in were Ricky, Microchip, Baked Alaska, and certainly Cernovich.”