The Unlikely Frontrunner in Muffling Misinformation?


It's a problem that's stymied many social media platforms: quelling the spread of , and punishing the bad actors that contribute to its rise. Amidst high-profile efforts from Twitter and Facebook to suspend these account, and the consequences that YouTube currently faces for not doing so, Pinterest has quietly but effectively enacted a solution that seems to be working.

Currently viewed as a place to find inspiration for craft projects, fashion, and fitness, Pinterest finds itself plagued by a very specific type of misinformation: namely, those centered around anti-vaccination and other phony health claims. Information “pinned” at a point of origin can be searched, spread, and repinned en masse within a short period. But what if those in search of those sorts of information, couldn't find it?

As Fast Company reported, “the company now blocks anti-vaccination searches across the board, and it even deletes anti-vaccination content it detects that is uploaded to the site.” Their manager of public policy and social impact, Ifeoma Ozoma, has been unequivocal in her stance on why this is the right approach for them: “people come to our platform to find inspiration, and there's nothing inspiring about harmful content.” Their misinformation policy echoes this philosophy, reading:

We remove harmful advice, content that targets individuals or protected groups, and content created as part of disinformation campaigns.

It may raise questions about what role platforms should have in arbiting what precisely can be said on its site (in its reporting, the Wall Street Journal called it “the power of tech companies to censor discussion of hot-button issues”). But in making the decision to embrace this course of action, one they also recently undertook to reduce false health claims and false cancer cures, Pinterest decided that the harm these claims could cause was great enough to justify their course of action. It should be noted that individual users can still pin these articles, quotes, and other pieces to their own pages; they simply can't be spread beyond individual profiles. The approach is one The Verge's Casey Newton termed “freedom of speech, versus freedom of reach.” In that regard, it's not unlike the recent measures WhatsApp—a platform plagued by its own crisis of misinformation—took to limit a message's forwardability.

The pointed stand that Pinterest has taken to limit the spread of these sorts of claims defies years of social media giants insisting that the veracity of claims made on their sites, is not their problem. Samuel Woolley, researcher for the Institute for the Future think tank, noted in the Wall Street Journal, “Until recently, social media companies have drawn a line in the sand saying they're not arbiters of truth; that they are passive purveyors of information.”

Again, Ozoma affirmed the site's right, and indeed responsibility, to push back when claims are demonstrably false: “right now we're focused on misinformation that can cause real-world harm.” She went on to say of the information that does remain on the site, “it's better not to serve those results than to lead people down what is like a recommendation rabbit hole.” Similar rabbitholes are proving to be the undoing of YouTube at present, as they face advertiser horror and pushback over search results that expose both child endangerment and anti-vaccination propaganda.

While some may say that Pinterest's hard line is unsustainable for larger sites, Newton seems to believe that if a platform cares enough to make it happen, such moves become sustainable. “If you want to know what taking care of your community looks like—if you want to know what social responsibility for a tech platform looks like—it looks a lot like what Ozoma is [doing].” Indeed, this stance is one that recognizes influence and uses it responsibly; it'll be telling to see if other platforms take up this mantle of responsibility as a way to combat dangerous claims made in their space.

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