Last week, final votes, in this case “likes,” were cast in the 42 Murals Instagram contest to determine which three Deep Ellum murals get to stay up. The winners will be announced March 15, but some artists are already calling the judging process unfair for allowing contestants to purchase votes. Several murals received thousands of votes from accounts in China and Russia.
“This contest was a mirror of the times we live in,” participating artist Dan Colcer says. “When you have it up online, you can’t ignore the possibility of hacking. I am not going to point fingers, but it is obvious there has been a hack. In order to prove it, I imagine the admin of the 42 Murals [Instagram] account can investigate and figure that many of the likes on the winning pieces came all at once in packages of 1,000 and definitely in round numbers from fake accounts in countries that have probably never even heard of Deep Ellum.”
Scott Rohrman, creator of the 42 Murals contest and owner of 42 Real Estate, says his goal was to simply give artists a platform for legal street art across Deep Ellum. While the allegations of cheating have been brought to his attention, he says he has no way of distinguishing organic likes from paid ones.
“Now that the voting has ended, we are looking at the data and the winners will be announced on March 15,” Rohrman says. “Purchasing likes is not part of the spirit of this initiative in my opinion, but we never stated that buying likes was not allowed. It saddens me that people would buy likes to win rather than letting the public decide on an individual basis. If there are likes that are from people who have not seen the murals in person nor have looked at the pictures, then the spirit of the project was not experienced by everyone who voted.”
Instagram representative Kimmy Bettinger told the Observer that the company does not support like and follow exchange programs and encourages authentic interactions on the platform. She quotes a specific section of Instagram’s “community guidelines” which state: “Help us stay spam-free by not artificially collecting likes, followers, or shares, posting repetitive comments or content, or repeatedly contacting people for commercial purposes without their consent.”
Colcer thinks the likes from accounts in far-away countries accompanied by vague comments such as “awesome” and “great picture” were purchased. He even believes someone purchased votes for his entry, which experienced a 1,000-like jump overnight, as a decoy.
“[Colcer] reported the incident immediately and still has no idea why that happened,” muralist Steve Hunter says. “Was it a well-meaning friend trying to help him? Was it an accident by an artist that had decided to boost their numbers and chose his by accident? Was it a cynical attempt by another artist to deflect attention from their own artificial boosted numbers? Impossible to tell, but there’s definitely smoke there.”
Artist Michael McPheeters currently has the most votes — over 6,000 — for his mural “Deep Elm” and is denying any accusations of purchasing likes.
“I went through the likes on my pictures and there definitely seem to be a lot of fake accounts, so I can understand the concern,” McPheeters says. “But I also went through all the pictures of everyone’s murals and they all seem to have likes from fake accounts. These are the kind of issues that should’ve been expected when judging is done by likes on Instagram.
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“Nowadays you could have some kid who likes you and follows you, blow up your feed if they choose,” he continues. “But to answer your questions, I did not personally purchase any likes. When I did that mural, originally it was my gift to Dallas. It was very special to me to tell the history of Deep Ellum. Originally I was under the impression that it was going to become a permanent fixture of Dallas, but re-reading the rules, which I will add is absolutely confusing, that is not the case.”
Originally Rohrman says the idea was to have 42 Murals that changed every year or so. But he later decided it made sense to keep some favorites for a longer period of time and not paint over them in the next round. (Submissions for the second round of 42 Murals are also being taken through March 15.) But Rohrman can’t guarantee a mural to be permanent, as new building owners will have the freedom to change the exterior walls of their businesses.
“We will keep several of the murals,” he says. “But we wanted to also keep the top three favorites of the public for a time.”
As for the future of 42 Murals, McPheeters and Colcer both have suggestions for how the contest could run more smoothly. McPheeters says the contest should focus more on the local talent rather than first-time muralists while Colcer recommends the contest use a jury instead of relying completely on online voting.