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How a real Trump supporter unknowingly became the face of a fake liberal Twitter account

KIFI

By Isabel Rosales and Jaide Timm-Garcia, CNN

(CNN) — Erica Marsh quickly rose to fame earlier this year as a viral left-wing voice on social media. Her incendiary tweets, often ultra-liberal and hyper-political, drew millions of views and the ire of conservatives, who pointed to her outlandish comments comparing Republicans to pedophiles and conservative Supreme Court justices to Nazis as examples of extreme liberalism run amok.

Marsh’s top tweet, viewed more than 27 million times, claimed that “No black person will be able to succeed in a merit-based system,” after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in June.

The tweet generated a firestorm of controversy and drew attention beyond the account’s 130,000 followers, including a public reply from Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who tweeted, “I strongly disagree with this racist allegation.”

Twitter, which has rebranded as X, suspended and eventually removed the Erica Marsh account following reports last month that it was a fake. But the face behind the account is real— and belongs to a Republican Trump voter from Florida.

The photo of a smiling young woman with blond hair that topped Erica Marsh’s Twitter account is actually a picture of Courtney Ballesteros, a 26-year-old wife and mother of two living in Ruskin, Florida, a rural town south of Tampa.

Ballesteros first heard about Erica Marsh in March, when her friends brought it to her attention. Ballesteros immediately recognized the pictures as ones she had taken of herself nearly a decade ago and had posted to her public Facebook page. As she read through many of Marsh’s inflammatory posts, Ballesteros, a registered Republican, was speechless.

“I could not believe what I saw,” she told CNN. “I knew it was nothing that I would ever say.”

“I was just shocked that my face was behind the words,” she added.

A few other Twitter accounts using Bellesteros’ face remain active but with far fewer followers.

Mystery remains behind fake account

It’s unclear exactly who, or what, was behind the Erica Marsh account, or for what purpose it was created. But disinformation experts who spoke to CNN say it’s a classic example of a problematic trend on social media where fake accounts are created in order to subvert the very positions or politics they appear to be supporting.

Darren Linvill, a disinformation expert and co-director of the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University says the array of possibilities for reasons behind an account like Marsh’s range from marketing purposes to a foreign state-led disinformation campaign.

“Whoever’s running this account knows what people like and knows how to get attention,” said Linvill, adding that to a trained eye, the account gave itself away as a fake.

“She wasn’t sharing anything personal about her life. It was all attention grabbing, national politics conversations,” said Linvill. “Also her rate of posting. She posted in spurts. She repeated content and a fair amount of her content was stolen from other users.”

But the most telling sign, according to Linvill, were the photos.

“A lot of those suggested to me that she wasn’t a real person. Because the images that were shared of Erica Marsh were all these lovely 20-something girl next door photos that are the very sorts of images used by fake accounts because those are the sorts of people other real people want to follow,” he said.

Fake account, real pictures

Following online speculation that Marsh’s photos were digitally altered, or possibly created using artificial intelligence, Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert and professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, reviewed the photos and found no evidence they were manipulated or generated by AI.

“I would say that there were no obvious signs that it was AI generated,” said Farid. “I would say there were signs that it was probably a real photo.”

Ballesteros knows the photos were real and remembers taking them years ago outside her church and in her grandmother’s yard.

The irony of her being the face of a supposedly hyper-partisan liberal isn’t lost on Ballesteros, who told CNN she’s not involved in politics but that she did vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Marsh’s account professed that she was a former field organizer for President Biden’s campaign and a volunteer for the Obama Foundation. Representatives from both entities confirmed to CNN they have no record of a woman named Erica Marsh having worked with them.

Linvill has spent time analyzing the fake accounts created by the Russian Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed troll farm that actively spread disinformation during the 2016 and 2020 elections.

“They were just trying to make us more angry at one another. They were trying to divide us more. They were trying to make it harder for the United States to govern itself,” Linvill said.

Disinformation concerns ahead of 2024

Part of the broader concern is how easily the Erica Marsh account was able to fool the vast number of people who followed and interacted with it.

The account had a blue check mark to supposedly indicate that it was verified, but under Musk, that verification can now be purchased for $8 a month.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Farid warns. “You’re seeing people make mistakes on both sides. They think fake things are real and real things are fake, and they both have really interesting but different consequences too.”

Farid said he is worried that the problem will only get worse ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“We know it’s coming,” he said. “We’re going to see it from the campaigns. We’re going to see it from trolls. We’re going to see it from state-sponsored actors.”

Farid said the notion of a shared set of facts and realities has been significantly weakened, thanks in no small part to the rise of disinformation online.

“Since 2016, we’ve been walking down this road of multiple perceived realities where the left believes what they believe, the right believes what they believe, and the middle believes what they believe. And you can’t have a functioning society,” Farid said. “I am concerned about society and democracy if we don’t have a shared sense of reality.”

Linvill told CNN that because social media giants like Twitter and Facebook have cut back on staff, reducing the teams that were assembled to tackle disinformation, it leaves the run-up to the elections wide open for more fake accounts like Erica Marsh to populate.

For Ballesteros, even though the Erica Marsh account is no longer active, she worries about the impact it could have on her personal life, particularly if someone recognizes her in public.

“I started thinking about it, and the safety of myself, my family, and my face,” she said. “Who knows what someone would do who didn’t agree with what Erica Marsh… I don’t want to be approached by someone being assertive with something that’s not true, and I would have no way to back myself up. What, do I show them a picture of myself?”

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