It's a fake news scandal -- that a prosecutor says is a crime.
Staten Island attorney Richard Luthmann was indicted last month on identity theft and other charges for impersonating local politicians on Facebook. It’s believed to be the first prosecution of its kind in the state.
"There has been a lot of essentially fraudulent material, pages that are created intentionally representing the views of a person or a party or whoever it is, and yet we haven't necessarily seen legal action on that. And that to me has been a curiosity,” says Susan McGregor, assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
“So to me this is a natural next step, because realistically what is happening is this person has published false information, misleading information.”
The Facebook pages Luthmann created and operated looked like pages the politicians they impersonated might have created themselves.
But Luthmann posted fake items that were politically harmful to those politicians, like one in which the politician voiced support for a local homeless shelter.
Luthmann's lawyer says it's simply a political dirty trick. But Berit Berger, a former prosecutor who heads the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia University's Law School, says the pages cross a line.
"This is not somebody who sets up a fake profile on a dating site because they're interested in making themselves sound cooler,” she says. “This is trying to sway people's votes by false means. And that's something that, in my mind, should be criminal."
With the proliferation of social media, experts say cases like this one will become more and more common. And, they warn that improvements in artificial intelligence and computer graphics will lead to even more advanced ways to deceive voters, by altering videos of politicians to have them appear to say things they did not actually say.
McGregor says the law has been slow to catch up with such crimes. She says knowingly posting or sharing false information should carry the same liability as deliberately publishing false information in a newspaper.
"It's time that we do start applying those same criteria that we use if we were speaking in a crowd of people or publishing a newspaper, that we start applying those standards to those platforms where, you know, the power of speech is enormous, right? And that's why it's in the First Amendment and that's also why it has to be used thoughtfully," she says.
All of which makes the charges against Luthmann something of a test case that will be closely watched.