Home Tech News Twitter suspends Erica Marsh account after questions are raised

Twitter suspends Erica Marsh account after questions are raised

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In eight months, Erica Marsh has become one of the most consistently viral left-wing voices on Twitter, gaining more than 130,000 followers for her hyper-liberal, often melodramatic opinions on the biggest flash points in American news.

She’s been especially popular with conservatives, who promoted her as a perfect symbol of how overly theatrical and inane liberals can be — like when she attacked the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision last week by saying “no Black person will be able to succeed in a merit-based system.” The tweet was viewed more than 27 million times.

There’s just one problem: She’s probably a fake.

The “proud Democrat” in Washington, as she described herself on Twitter, doesn’t show up in any local phone or voting records. The Biden presidential campaign, where she said she worked as a field organizer, has no record of her; neither does the Obama Foundation, where she claimed to have volunteered.

Her only other known social media profile, on TikTok, posts copies of her tweets but has never included her speaking or showing her face. And a digital-imaging expert said that the three purported selfies she’s posted on Twitter — showing a young, smiling blond woman — bear the hallmarks of digital manipulation.

“I strongly suspect that this person doesn’t exist,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto who studies online disinformation. “It’s as if she dropped from the moon and arrived fully formed with this narrative that makes liberals look like idiots.”

After The Washington Post raised questions about the account with employees of Twitter’s trust and safety department, the account was suspended on Sunday for unknown reasons.

Twitter does not officially respond to requests for comment. Marsh’s account, which did not respond to requests for comment, has not tweeted since.

Months after Elon Musk took over Twitter with a scorched-earth playbook to eradicate scammers and spam, the internet’s long-established playbook for winning online engagement — known as “attention farming” — remains decisively in play.

Marsh’s account tended to post messages so polarizing and incendiary that readers couldn’t help but respond, boosting her public profile in the process — a tactic known as “rage baiting.”

The strategy was most infamously deployed by trolls linked to the Russian government to stir up angst and chaos during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. But it is also a common tool for domestic tricksters and opportunists seeking to ridicule their political opponents — or just benefit from the attention of a big, engaged follower base.

Maryland was never in play in 2016. The Russians targeted it anyway.

For months, Marsh’s account had raised suspicions among online misinformation experts due to her lack of a real-world footprint and her devotion to attention-grabbing viewpoints one called “cartoonishly liberal.”

Her account carried a blue “verified” check mark — an icon that once connoted that the person’s identity had been confirmed by Twitter but, since Elon Musk’s takeover last year, has come to mean only that the account had paid for the designation.

She waved off doubters by saying repeatedly that she was not a “parody,” “fake person or a robot,” but tweeted once that she wished she were, because “it would make navigating Twitter a lot easier.”

She declined to share details about herself by saying she had a “terrifying” stalker from social media, adding, “I’ve learned from mistakes in the past and choose not to share much of my personal life.” Last week, as people questioned her legitimacy, she asked her Twitter followers to recommend a defamation attorney to her.

When it came to political commentary, she seemed to regard every polarizing news story as an opportunity to offer her opinion and to solicit her fans to promote her to their own networks.

She started her account in September 2022, shortly before Musk’s takeover, with a rapid-fire series of left-leaning tweets and requests for people to retweet if they agreed. It worked: In November and December, she was gaining more than 1,000 followers a day, according to audience data from the social media analytics firm SocialBlade.

It’s unclear where the account’s photos came from. But Scott-Railton suspects they may be stock images, selfies taken from a woman not connected to the account, or images that were otherwise altered, perhaps to combine multiple photos into one. Each had a different background, though the facial features remained largely the same.

Some of her tweets were copied word for word from other big left-wing accounts or trending tweets, while others sometimes read like liberal caricatures; last month, she said she still wears “2 masks whenever I go out and support Ukraine.”

On Twitter, she became a subject of heavy doubt and fascination, with some theorizing that she was “a right-wing agitator or a foreign actor” or that she was “designed to collect as much data about Democratic voters as possible for God knows what.”

Amateur online sleuths noted that her name matched a character on the TV show “One Tree Hill” and said they’d found one of her profile photos on a German marketing website. (That last part could not be confirmed.)

The assertion she was phony, however, became just another way to build an audience. “A MAGA just told me that my PROUD DEMOCRAT followers are bots,” she tweeted last year. “Let’s prove him wrong — where are my allies at?”

Her most extreme and mean-spirited tweets, including her glee over the death of a Jan. 6 rioter, were often used by conservatives to criticize the Biden administration based on her assertion she’d been involved with his campaign.

Her tweet about the affirmative action decision, in which she said Black people would not succeed in a merit-based system, sparked a viral outcry of its own: One tweet, in which a correspondent for a news outlet covering U.S. Africa policy tweeted that a former Biden organizer had offered “the craziest and most disrespectful argument” he had ever read, has been viewed nearly 4 million times.

Marsh later defended her tweet, saying it “had been manipulated for propaganda and misinformation by ULTRA MAGA.” The Today News Africa correspondent, Simon Ateba, defended his tweet in an email to The Post. “There was no reason to doubt the authenticity of her Twitter account until it was suspended on Sunday,” he wrote. “It is natural for us to assume that the information people provide on their profiles is true.”

A former Twitter trust and safety employee who investigated accounts for impersonation and authentication, who left the company earlier this year after Musk’s takeover and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of harassment, said the company had seen a rush of accounts out of North Macedonia around October 2022 posing as pro-Trump influencers and offering up the same style of “over-the-top, clickbait tweets.”

Troll farms from the republic in Eastern Europe have in recent years run sensationalist websites and taken over Facebook pages in hopes of pulling in ad money from angry readers in the U.S., regardless of their political leanings.

Facebook page ‘Vets for Trump’ was hijacked by a North Macedonian businessman

It’s unclear whether Marsh’s account was part of that kind of campaign, the former Twitter employee said, but it shares many of the characteristics of the networks of fake political accounts created during the run-up to the 2022 midterms.

The accounts were often run from foreign countries and opined on divisive current events while posing as politically active Americans. They tended to use profile pictures taken from around the internet to create a persona that seemed relatable or engaging: young women, teachers and veterans. And they used exaggerated political stances to stir up controversy, draw readers’ ire and build an audience — either to score political points or monetize the account, maybe by changing its name and content in the months to come.

For some months, the Erica Marsh account profile included a link to a Venmo account, which would’ve allowed readers to send her money. Venmo didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

“You can go a long way with a reasonably consistent, one-dimensional identity online if it has certain features: smart strategies for posting content, an attractive profile picture, a degree of spice and sassiness,” Scott-Railton said. “Our online discourse is deeply vulnerable to this kind of character.”

Alice Crites and Jeremy B. Merrill contributed to this report.

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