Future Tense

Pinterest Is Turning Misinformation Into Good PR

The platform banned content suggesting that climate change is a hoax, emphasizing that it offers more than surface-level home décor tips.

A banner for Pinterest hangs from the New York Stock Exchange.
Pinterest has moved to ban climate change misinformation. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last week, Pinterest announced that it would be banning climate change misinformation from its platform, including content that denies the existence of the environmental phenomenon and humans’ contribution to it. “Our new policy makes Pinterest the only major digital platform to have clearly defined guidelines against false or misleading climate change information, including conspiracy theories, across content and ads,” a company statement read.

Pinterest, an image curation site that’s often used for interior design and recipe brainstorming, isn’t a particularly political platform compared to the likes of Twitter and Facebook. It’s unclear how big of a problem climate change misinformation was for Pinterest prior to this new policy. When asked about the amount of climate change misinformation that the platform has taken down and what it looked like, a Pinterest spokesperson told Slate, “Our goal is to be proactive. We don’t wait until harmful content reaches a certain threshold before taking action. We repeatedly heard from climate experts that climate misinformation, including climate change denying narratives, is causing real harm by impeding meaningful climate action.”

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The company declined to disclose to the New York Times how many ads with climate change misinformation it’s taken down in the past. A search for the term “climate change” on the platform returned images of a polar bear atop a melting iceberg and of the earth on fire. A search for the term “climate hoax” on the platform did not return any results, but rather a message reading, “Pins about this topic often violate our community guidelines, so we’re currently unable to show search results.” Running “climate hoax” through Google did reveal active Pinterest pages with bumper stickers reading “climate change is a false religion” and infographics insisting that the earth is actually cooling. But this sort of content generally seems few and far between, which is perhaps a testament to how effective its anti-misinformation measures have been.

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Pinterest hasn’t been completely immune to the misinformation and hate speech issues that have plagued other social media networks. In 2018, the platform found that searching for medical terms like “vaccines” and “cancer cures” returned results that were rife with misinformation. The company initially disabled the search function for those terms, and then decided to reenable it but only show results from medical institutions like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. During the pandemic, outlets like PBS and Stat News applauded Pinterest for taking proactive steps to curb vaccine information, such as a proactively neutralizing search terms in preparation for the “Plandemic” conspiracy theory film. Pinterest has implemented similar measures against the QAnon conspiracy theory.

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Former employees say that the company hasn’t always been so proactive in combating misinformation. In an episode of the Slate podcast Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, some of the first members of Pinterest’s public policy team said they faced internal pushback for trying to institute the company’s early policies against vaccine misinformation around 2018, even though those same policies later earned the platform good press. “It was a familiar pattern where I would be punished internally for what I was pushing,” former public policy manager Ifeoma Ozoma said on the podcast episode, adding that she would face accusations of being too aggressive that are commonly levied against Black women. “But then the public praise would be the type of thing that Ben Silbermann, the CEO, would stand on the stage of an ad conference and talk about in order to get more advertisers.” (Ozoma has also accused the company of discrimination. Pinterest denied the accusations at first, but then apologized for its culture and pledged to make changes.)

One cynical reason for Pinterest’s climate change move: it could be trying to draw attention to the fact that the platform is a place to look for green living ideas. In its press release announcing the new policy, the company reported that it was seeing six times as many searches for the term “zero waste tips” compared to last year, and that searches for “zero waste lifestyle” had increased by 64 percent. As with its previous initiatives against coronavirus and vaccine misinformation, the coverage from the press has been largely positive.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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