A federal complaint unsealed Wednesday connects the local alt-right troll, whose real name is Anthime Joseph Gionet, to a 2016 scheme that sought to disenfranchise Clinton voters by making them think they could vote via text message or social media.
The effort consisted of a series of fake ads that were branded to look like they were produced by the Clinton campaign. Based on similar ads circulated during the U.K.'s Brexit campaign that year, the ads told voters they could "avoid the line" and vote from home simply by texting "Hillary" to a phone number. The idea to direct people to text a number, instead of posting a hashtag like in the Brexit version, was allegedly an innovation of Gionet's and prompted over 4,000 messages from people who may have believed it was authentic, according to the FBI.
The main coordinator of the effort is alleged to be white nationalist Douglas Mackey, who the complaint charges with election interference. It does not reference Gionet by name, but instead refers to a "Co-Conspirator 1" who helped develop and distribute the fake ads. The complaint also matches the label "Co-Conspirator 1" to a Twitter account, but doesn't state whose account it is. However, a unique ID number is listed with each Twitter account, and the one for "Co-Conspirator 1" is the same as Gionet's now-banned account.
Although his account is banned, Phoenix New Times was able to locate Gionet's ID number stored in the code of a copy of Gionet's Twitter page from 2014 saved in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
Gionet has been a longtime internet celebrity of the far right, first gaining a following as a BuzzFeed employee before diving into white nationalist politics. He marched with white supremacists at Charlottesville in 2017 but later tried to distance himself from white supremacists after he realized being associated with them was losing him money.
Nobody really bought his change of heart, and in recent years he's lurked on the alt-right dregs of the internet, banned from most mainstream sites and hoping to pull in cash by filming himself instigating escalating confrontations with service workers and people on the street.
Gionet drew renewed attention this month when he livestreamed himself breaking into the U.S. Capitol during the January 6 attempt to overturn the election over baseless claims of electoral misconduct.
Gionet's video captured him playing with a phone in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's office, and allowed the FBI to identify participants in the riot. He's now facing federal charges in connection to the incident.
Southern Poverty Law Center senior researcher Hannah Gais has monitored far-right extremism since 2016 and was one of the first to identify Gionet as "Co-Conspirator 1," publishing her findings on Twitter on Wednesday. She told New Times that Gionet's involvement with Mackey shows the degree to which alt-right trolls coordinated to spread propaganda as they tried rebrand white nationalist views and mix hateful material with more traditional conservative fare. She sees it as a precursor to the state of affairs that saw more traditional grassroot Republicans mix with people wearing neo-Nazi apparel at the Capitol riot.
Mackey is a good example of this strategy. Under the pseudonym Ricky Vaughn, he alternated pro-Trump content with white nationalist propaganda. An MIT analysis in 2016 found that Mackey was among the top 150 most influential accounts on Twitter related to the election.
“One link would be to the New York Post and the next would be to the (neo-Nazi message board) Daily Stormer,” Gais said.
Shortly before the election, Mackey began using his prominent following to post images designed to trick Clinton voters into thinking they could cast their vote electronically, with the goal of stopping them from casting real votes.
At the same time that Mackey was sharing the images, he was tweeting about the importance of limiting Black turnout, according to the complaint, and the misinformation appears to have targeted Spanish-speaking and Black voters.
The FBI investigation found that Mackey had used several group chats he was in to coordinate the misinformation scheme. The members discussed how to tweak and present the images and when best to share them, then posted them after Mackey was banned from Twitter.
According to the complaint, the idea to promote fake text-message voting came from a message the account associated with Gionet sent to a group chat called "Infowars Madman" on October 16, 2016. Also, on the same day that Mackey was suspended from Twitter for sharing the misleading ads, Gionet's account was among those who picked up the slack and started sharing the images that had been devised in the group chat.
"@RickyVaughn thanks for spreading the word! ... #Vote [Clinton] from home! Save time & Avoid the line," they captioned it, according to the complaint.
Messages in the "Infowars Madman" group chat show the members hoped to trick voters and discussed the timing and color scheme to use to make them most believable, according to the complaint.
There is some evidence the images had an impact. The complaint says that at least 4,900 people texted the number listed on the fake images around Election Day.
Federal law enforcement officials argue that this misinformation scheme constitutes a criminal conspiracy to infringe on the right to vote. Mackey faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
“What Mackey allegedly did to interfere with this process – by soliciting voters to cast their ballots via text – amounted to nothing short of vote theft," said William Sweeney Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office in a press release. "It is illegal behavior and contributes to the erosion of the public’s trust in our electoral processes. [Mackey] may have been a powerful social media influencer at the time, but a quick Internet search of his name today will reveal an entirely different story.”
Gionet, meanwhile, can ill-afford another criminal case. Beside his federal charges connected to the Capitol riot, he is also facing local charges in connection to pepper-spraying a Scottsdale bouncer in December. Gionet claimed he sprayed the bouncer in self-defense, but video shows him taking the time to take his spray canister out of a pouch, step back towards the stationary bouncer who is arguing with Gionet's companions, and then extend his arm and deploy the Mace from around five feet away.
Gionet's attorney, Zach Thornley of MayesTelles PLLC, told New Times Thursday that he was aware of the case against Mackey, but couldn't say much more than that.
Thornley, who is handling the federal and local charges for Gionet, said that based on his conversations with Gionet he doesn't think he's the alt-right troll he's presented as.
“My personal thought is that he’s been painted into being that figure," he said. "And I don’t really think he is that figure that’s in every headline.”
Gais has a different view. She sees him as an example of someone who started with internet-based trolling and moved into darker parts of white supremacist movements.
“And then you end up with him in Charlottesville. You end up with him in the Capitol with his fans on (streaming service) DLive referencing (neo-Nazi classic) The Turner Diaries,” she said.
Court records show that Gionet is currently living at a Queen Creek house owned by his parents, making him the second person in the last year tied to election misinformation with a connection to the town.
The other, state Representative Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek, drew national attention last year after his marketing company Rally Forge was implicated in running a ring of local teenagers who spammed social media with misinformation in support of former President Donald Trump.
Like Gionet, Hoffman is suspended from Twitter. And like Gionet, he signed on to the conspiracy theory that sought to subvert the results of the presidential election. However, unlike Gionet, Hoffman is helping to lead the Arizona state House committee that oversees elections.