Conspiracies in Isolation

Conspiracies in Isolation. Saskatoon: PAVED Arts, 2021.

Conspiracies in Isolation is a PAVED-commissioned artist book. This short artist book is available online and is compiled from a series of thoughts and ideas related to QAnon. The book was developed under lockdown and contains personal reflections, observations, snapshots, and a few images found on the Internet while attempting to decipher the secrets behind the secrets.

Statement From PAVED Arts:

Due to the content of this work, we are hesitant to state the name of the conspiracy group that the artist is critiquing in their publication, Conspiracies in Isolation. After we shared a Facebook event with the above text, our PAVED Arts Facebook page and all Admin’s personal accounts, were disabled immediately, without warning or reason given. All appeals to reinstate, so far, have been denied.  The only conclusion that we could come to, was that stating the organization’s name on Facebook, seems to have contravened their Community Standards policy, resulting in a permanent ban.

Addendum due to the Facebook controversy.

Critical Discourse

Facebook Fatigue: Conspiracies, Digitally-Born Photography and How to Violate Community Standards

A conversation between artists Clint Enns and Mike Hoolboom regarding PAVED Arts recent exhibition Internet Vernacular // Conspiracies in Isolation and some of the controversy surrounding it.

Topics covered include:
– Contemporary found image practices (i.e. the art stealing/borrowing digital-born images).
– Screen culture during the pandemic (i.e. internet/image fatigue and mediated realities).
– Artist-run culture, corporate censorship and pushing/testing/breaking boundaries through art making (i.e. PAVED Arts recent Facebook ban).

Saskatoon Arts Organization Banned from Facebook

Sasksatoon Arts Organization Banned from Facebook,” CBC News (January 19, 2021).

A Saskatoon non-profit arts organization says its efforts to promote an upcoming exhibit that critiques social media and QAnon has turned into a Facebook ban.

On Jan. 6, the same day that rioters were invading the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Saskatoon’s Paved Arts posted a news release about an exhibit by Montreal artist Clint Enns called Conspiracies in Isolation.

The exhibit is about “thinking through this idea of misinformation, which I think is like the new form of propaganda,” Enns said.

It includes a book made up of images Enns found online.

“The images were meant to complement the writing in kind of a humorous way and focuses on the QAnon phenomenon, given its current popularity and the absurdity of their beliefs,” he said.

The Paved Arts Facebook post used words like “QAnon” and “conspiracy theory” and used one of the images from the exhibit, said David Lariviere, the organization’s artistic director.

As soon as the post went up, Facebook banned the page, along with the accounts of Paved Arts five administrators.

“In my estimation, it was kind of an innocuous communication about the exhibition,” Lariviere said. “It delivered information about what Clint’s art project is concerned with. It didn’t go into great detail. It certainly in no way signaled any kind of political alliance on the part of Paved Arts.”

The staff members whose accounts were affected have tried going through Facebook’s appeal process, Lariviere says, but that led to a “dead end pop-up” stating they had violated the company’s community standards.

Paved Arts has sent messages to Facebook’s reporting system with requests for a review, he said, but hasn’t yet received a reply.

Lariviere said Paved Arts hasn’t been told why it was banned other than for contravening community standards.

“To the best of our estimation, some kind of algorithmic bot flagged us because it picked up on that key term — Q-Anon,” Lariviere said.

He said such bots aren’t able to differentiate between art and actual conspiracy groups.

“Getting into the weeds and trying to understand the nuance of critique is just not within its capacity. It only has the means to … identify, flag, and then whatever kind of process that’s triggered from there,” Lariviere said.

“We were never given any sort of actual reason for why [they were banned].”

Social media companies under pressure

Alec Couros, professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina, said Facebook is unable to appropriately distinguish how “something like an art critique can be seen differently than some QAnon-loving group.”

Couros said Facebook and other social media companies are under pressure to start cracking down on accounts that spew misinformation and lies.

“From what I understand, keywords certainly would have been one part of the detection algorithm [that got Paved Arts banned],” he said.

“But also, even if a photo is shared, there’s a hash or a fingerprint of that photo which would identify that photo in context.

“So it’s very difficult from an algorithm’s perspective, since there’s probably not humans involved in this decision to pick it out differently.”

Couros said there is also political pressure, as Democrats in the U.S. are threatening to split up mega-companies like Facebook.

“So obviously, they’ve stepped up their game. Twitter’s done the same. They’ve banned 70,000 QAnon accounts and Facebook has done the same on its platforms.”

QAnon refers to a baseless, wide-ranging, far-right conspiracy theory that asserts outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump is fighting a cabal of child-sex predators that includes powerful elites.

Facebook ‘an unwieldy platform’

Lariviere said in hindsight, Paved Arts might have made it more explicit in the release that the show is critical of QAnon. 

“But then again, we also think as a media arts organization, that the nuanced critique contained in Clint Enns’s work, as an example, is something that demands a kind of attention and care that an unwieldy platform like Facebook just cannot afford to give.”

Lariviere said they must now find other methods to communicate with its members and the general public.

“I think we spent about 1,600 bucks on promoting posts on Facebook, because that really was one of the main conduits of communicating our programs,” he said.

Some have suggested just starting a new Facebook page, but Lariviere isn’t sure that’s the answer.

“You know, we’re quite critical of what has happened, and so maybe we need to do some soul searching and think about parting ways with Facebook as well.”

Couros said that’s difficult, though, because we have become so dependent on social media for promoting events.

“It’s a bit of a Faustian bargain,” Couros said. “You get the followership. You get the ability to produce ads and get people to your page, which would be much more difficult in a web page environment that we had in the ’90s and the 2000s. And so for that bargain, you know, you’re giving up a lot of control.”

For Enns, the ban relates back to what his exhibit is all about.

“The banning of Paved Arts from Facebook is sort of a practical example of many of the concepts that were explored in the book. For instance, it raises questions like what constitutes reliable information and who controls the information that we have access to.”