Local theater company got caught in Facebook’s sweep of QAnon

The tiny Paper Doll Ensemble used Facebook to promote an anti-Trump discussion event, triggering an automated ban from the platform.

Grayce Hoffman, Sara Vanasse, and Taiwo Sokan perform in the Paper Doll Ensemble's production of “Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary.

From left to right, Grayce Hoffman, Sara Vanasse, and Taiwo Sokan perform in the Paper Doll Ensemble's production of “Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary." (Photo by Glass Canary Photography)

On Tuesday, Grayce Hoffman tried to log onto her Facebook page and discovered it was no longer there.

Not only her personal page, but also the pages for a small jewelry business and the theater company she co-founded, Paper Doll Ensemble. Hoffman reached out to the other co-founders, Amanda Jensen and Sara Vanasse, and learned they had also been scrubbed from the social media platform.

“I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence that all Paper Doll administrators had their personal accounts disabled,” said Hoffman. “Amanda suggested it may have been because we hosted this event about Trump and QAnon.”

(Courtesy of Paper Doll Ensemble via Facebook)

In December, Paper Doll Ensemble hosted an online Zoom forum on the subject of “The Cult of Trump,” a book by Steven Hassan that traces similarities between the president and known cult leaders. Paper Doll used Facebook to promote the event online:

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“Our chat on Monday, Dec. 14th from 5:30 – 7:00pm will center around the ‘Trust Me’ podcast episode: #5 – Steve Hassan – The Moonies, Trump, and QAnon

How do we begin understanding supporters of Trump and the far-right, and move forward after these last four years? Does Trump have remarkable similarities to leaders of cults?”

Since the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol last week, and in the run-up to the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, Facebook announced it would step up its efforts to block websites that peddle misinformation about the election and advocate political violence.

“We are treating the next two weeks as a major civic event,” Facebook announced on its website on Jan. 11. “We’re taking additional steps and using the same teams and technologies we used during the general election to stop misinformation and content that could incite further violence during these next few weeks.”

To help prevent violence on Inauguration Day, the social media platform is targeting specific phrases like “QAnon” and “Stop the Steal” and shutting down associated pages.

Hoffman assumes her event posting, featuring keywords “QAnon,” “Trump,” “cult,” and “far-right,” triggered Facebook to eliminate the Paper Doll page. She attempted to contact Facebook for an explanation and received an automated response: “Your Facebook account was disabled because it did not follow our Community Standards. This decision can’t be reversed.”

“That’s when I started to panic,” she said. “How do I get an appeal? How do I contact anyone? Someone? A human being? If they looked at our page for 30 seconds they would know we are the exact opposite of what I think they thought our account was.”

Paper Doll Ensemble was created in 2017 as a women-centered company creating devised theater, meaning the characters and stories it performs are invented by the performers.

“We set out to create this company in order to create theater that was by women, for women, and about women that were not stereotypes or written under the male gaze,” said Hoffman.

The company is small, with a $12,000 annual budget and just one theatrical production a year. Last February, right before the pandemic shut down all theaters, Paper Doll devised and performed “Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary,” a parody of the TV show “The Bachelor.” It was created without a bachelor and billed as an “absurdist tragicomedy.”

Unlike many mid- and large-sized theater companies, Paper Doll is organized as a limited liability corporation (LLC) instead of a tax-exempt nonprofit. Hoffman said that status allows the company to express political views more explicitly.

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“A lot of the beliefs and tenets of the organization are political. Supporting a woman’s right to choose, for example. That is an overtly political statement, and we are not afraid to say that,” said Hoffman. “We want people to respect women’s bodies, which apparently is a political statement.”

In March, the coronavirus pandemic put Paper Doll on pause. Then the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement created a new sense of urgency for the theater company.

“Over the summer, in light of the murders of George Floyd and too many others and the Black Lives Matter movement, we knew we couldn’t be silent,” said Hoffman. “As a white female-led organization, we were very aware of our privilege. What steps could we take to be actively anti-racist, and foster anti-racist movement in our community?”

The founders of Paper Doll created a monthly online forum called Paper Doll Clubhouse, where they would suggest reading material or a podcast about politics, race, or gender, and gather on Zoom to talk about it. Hoffman said about a dozen people participated in the December discussion, most of them performers who had worked with Paper Doll, board members, donors, and previous audience members.

Hoffman said the company’s original productions, as well as its offstage forums, are intended to foment discussion, not indoctrination.

“We’re trying to use theater as a tool for empathy and to be able to understand other people’s perspectives,” she said.

After Paper Doll and the personal accounts of its founders were scrubbed from Facebook, Hoffman turned to Twitter and Instagram to rally supporters, and created a new personal Facebook account to rebuild her network. She also reached out to press.

At least two reporters — including this one — reached out to Facebook’s press department to request information related to the elimination of Paper Doll Ensemble’s page. After a brief exchange of emails on Thursday evening, the accounts were reinstated without explanation or notification.

Hoffman only learned her original page was back online when Facebook suggested she like herself.

“Around 11 p.m. I received notification on my new Facebook page that my old profile was a suggested friend,” said Hoffman on Friday morning. “Someone I might know because — no surprise — we had many mutual friends.”

Hoffman, along with Jensen and Vanasse, discovered all their personal and business pages had been restored. In an email, a Facebook spokesperson wrote, “We removed the page in error and have since restored the page as well as associated accounts. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The incident has made Hoffman think twice about using Facebook to post events, out of fear that the political nature of Paper Doll Clubhouse’s online discussions may trigger another shutdown.

She also keeps the incident in perspective.

“Ultimately, for some small fish to get caught in this wide net of violent insurrectionists, it’s worth it if we can prevent loss of life,” said Hoffman. “Our Facebook page is not more important than a real human being’s life.”

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