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Pinterest's perfect response to misinformation

February 20 · Issue #293 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: The Interface will be off Thursday as I finish up a project that I will share with you next week.
Since the reckoning over social networks began in 2016, a popular genre of content has emerged that I like to call Hey, These Search Results Are Bad. This genre of story comprises three parts:
  1. The reporter searches for something using a social network’s search engine.
  2. The search results are bad.
  3. The reporter writes a story about how the search results are bad.
You may have noticed that YouTube figures prominently in these stories. As Kevin Roose noted yesterday, YouTube and conspiracy are linked at the hip. And while Google is paying more attention to YouTube search results than ever before, there’s still plenty of bad to be found there.
Clearly, certain subjects — particularly mass shootings and, as we talked about yesterday, vaccines — lead to more stories about bad search results than others. And so I was delighted to see that Pinterest had taken note of this phenomenon — and taken a surprisingly bold step to protect against it. Here are Robert McMillan and Daniela Hernandez in the Wall Street Journal:
Pinterest has stopped returning results for searches related to vaccinations, a drastic step the social-media company said is aimed at curbing the spread of misinformation but one that demonstrates the power of tech companies to censor discussion of hot-button issues.
Most shared images on Pinterest relating to vaccination cautioned against it, contradicting established medical guidelines and research showing that vaccines are safe, Pinterest said. The image-searching platform tried to remove the anti-vaccination content, a Pinterest spokeswoman said, but has been unable to remove it completely.
In other words, Pinterest realized that it had what researcher Renee DiResta refers to as a “data void”:
A situation where searching for answers about a keyword returns content produced by a niche group with a particular agenda. It isn’t just Google results—keyword voids are happening on social too. The most shared articles about vitamin K on Facebook are anti-vax, and the CrowdTangle analytics platform shows those articles are reaching an audience of millions. YouTube results are no better; several of the top 10 results feature notable immunology expert Alex Jones.
To its great credit, Pinterest realized the potential for harm here, and rather than wring its hands over the rights of fringe anti-vaccination groups to take over their viral machinery, Pinterest simply shut them down. As the story notes, users can still pin fringe images to their own boards, but they can no longer use Pinterest for free viral distribution. This is an approach that some call “freedom of speech versus freedom of reach.” You can say what you want, but Pinterest has no obligation to share it with the wider world.
And while I’m gushing, may I just recommend this quote from the Journal‘s story from Pinterest’s public policy and social impact manager, Ifeoma Ozoma:
“It’s better not to serve those results than to lead people down what is like a recommendation rabbit hole.”
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 saying right there.
Now, I’m sure some Googlers are reading this story and saying to themselves: that’s fine for Pinterest, but this is YouTube we’re talking about. YouTubers go to war at the mere suggestion that the site might diminish their number of views; the idea that the company would hide entire categories from search results could trigger some sort of apocalypse.
But what if a kind of apocalypse … were happening at YouTube already? My colleague Julia Alexander has been chronicling a very bad week at the video site, in which one man’s search for the phrase “bikini haul” took him down a rabbit hole leading to a host of child exploitation videos:
The videos aren’t pornographic in nature, but the comment sections are full of people time stamping specific scenes that sexualize the child or children in the video. Comments about how beautiful young girls are also litter the comment section.
The reaction was swift. Epic Games (maker of Fortnite), Nestlé, and Disney are among the companies who have pulled their advertising from the platform. YouTube creators are bracing for themselves for what, by Alexander’s count, would be the fifth “adpocalypse” — a time in which revenue dries up, possibly for many months, as advertisers flee to safer ground.
There’s a world in which YouTube proactively sought out bad search results and data voids, blocking access while it works to root out exploitative content. Such a drastic move would surely inspire howls of outrage — and legitimate concerns about the huge power that the company has to set the terms of public debate.
And yet I can’t help but be inspired by the move Pinterest took when confronted with the same question. The only folks who lose in this decision are ones who, if they had their way, would trigger a global health crisis. Here’s to Ozoma and her team for standing up to them.

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When Kids Realize Their Whole Life Is Already Online
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Twitter gets Chrissy Teigen to spill her Twitter secrets
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TikTok Has Created A Whole New Kind Of Cool Girl Called Egirls
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Twitter Should Have Groups and Here Is How They Should Work
And finally ...
Zuckerberg, forgetting about Facebook's Portal: 'We definitely don't want a society where there's a camera in everyone's living room'
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