The supposedly “proud Democrat” that had become a favorite punching bag for right-wingers on Twitter is probably a fake account.
The account, “@ericareport” or “Erica Marsh,” which described itself as a “proud Democrat” in its bio and had racked up more than 130,000 followers, was suspended on Twitter recently amid suspicions about its authenticity.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that no records of Marsh could be found, including at the Biden presidential campaign and the Obama Foundation, despite the account’s claims to have worked and volunteered at the organizations, respectively.
The Biden campaign confirmed to HuffPost Wednesday that the organization had no employment records for Erica Marsh; the Obama Foundation similarly confirmed they had no record of an Erica Marsh serving as a volunteer.
Other clues were a little more obvious, like the account’s name ― also the name of a character on the television show “One Tree Hill.”
“I strongly suspect that this person doesn’t exist,” disinformation researcher John Scott-Railton told The Washington Post. “It’s as if she dropped from the moon and arrived fully formed with this narrative that makes liberals look like idiots.”
The Marsh account appeared to be a classic “rage baiting” Twitter troll, publishing claims so outrageous that conservative accounts essentially lined up to promote ― and disparage ― its arguments as representatives of Democrats’ views more broadly.
After the Supreme Court ruled affirmative action unconstitutional last week, for example, @ericareport called the decision a “travesty,” tweeting that “No Black person will be able to succeed in a merit-based system.” According to Twitter’s public-facing metrics, the post was viewed millions of times.
Right-wing media personalities pounced on the affirmative action comment, as they did many of @ericareport’s tweets.
“Joe Biden’s former staffer Erica Marsh says the very racist quiet part out loud,” wrote the podcaster Kyle Becker.
In a video responding to the tweet, pro-Trump commentator Silk said Democrats “are the party of racism, they are the party of segregation, they are the party of Jim Crow, they are the party of the KKK and white supremacists.”
Matt Wolking, a former Trump campaign spokesperson now working as the director of strategic communications for a key pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC, exclaimed, “Holy cow, it’s real, and she’s leaning in.”
The Post reported that Twitter suspended the account after the paper raised questions about it; Twitter didn’t respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the matter. Railton told the Post that photos shared by the account appeared to be stock images, photos of someone else or photos that had otherwise been altered by the account holder.
Using offensive social media posts to encourage political division online is a years-old tactic, notably employed by paid Russian troll farm employees ahead of the 2016 presidential election to boost Donald Trump’s chances.
Still, without more information from Twitter, it’s difficult to say who or what was behind the suspended Marsh account. Renée DiResta, research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, told HuffPost that she hadn’t seen any indication that the account was state-linked when she looked at it back in March, noting that individuals can also make troll accounts just because.
“It’s very hard to make any kind of attribution from the outside as to what it is, and these types of calls are dependent on Twitter’s Trust and Safety team for a final determination,” DiResta said.
With the advent of widely available artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, some observers are worried that propaganda efforts will become cheaper and more widespread. Artificial intelligence “has the capacity to democratize the troll farm, democratize the content farm, to make it extremely easy for bad actors and misinformers to have the power of hundreds if not thousands of writers at their disposal,” Jack Brewster, enterprise editor at NewsGuard, which tracks the credibility of online news sites, told HuffPost recently.
Troll accounts ― whether individuals or orchestrated propaganda efforts ― can have a real impact on politics. In 2021, a well-known right-wing Twitter troll was arrested over an alleged 2016 effort to trick Democrats into casting their votes by phone ― which is not legally valid in the United States. More than 4,900 unique phone numbers texted the troll’s phone number, prosecutors said. The man behind the account, Douglass Mackey, was convicted by a federal jury in April of a “conspiracy against rights” charge and is scheduled to be sentenced in August. His lawyer has said he intends to appeal his conviction.
Fake accounts are a dime a dozen on Twitter. However, they’ve been harder to spot since owner Elon Musk started selling the blue checkmark badges that, under previous management, had indicated that a high-profile account had been verified by Twitter staff.
Now, blue checkmark accounts ― including @ericareport ― can be operated by anyone with an email address and a few bucks to spare, despite Musk’s previous pledges that such accounts would be “manually authenticated.”
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