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Jun 13, 2019

Pinterest is latest tech company drawn into U.S. culture wars

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An effort by the social media company Pinterest to limit the spread of medical conspiracy theories has blocked one of the most prominent anti-abortion groups in the U.S. from sharing its content on the site. And it’s put the social media company squarely in the middle of today’s culture wars.

The anti-abortion organization, Live Action, and conservative activist James O’Keefe allege Pinterest targeted the group for its abortion stance, not for the reasons the company claims. They say Pinterest’s actions -- first putting Live Action’s web domain name on a list of blocked pornography sites, then banning the organization altogether -- are part of a larger effort by social media companies to stifle conservative voices.

The dust-up is the latest in a wave of conservative complaints of social media bias. Other big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have also been accused by politicians and conservative media of stifling their viewpoints, something the companies have vehemently denied.

“This is censorship,” said O’Keefe, who is known for a series of sting operations against liberal groups.

In an emailed statement, Pinterest’s press office said it took action against the organization “several months ago for violating our misinformation policy related to conspiracies and health and not for any other reason.”

Abortion Politics

Facebook in particular has been at the center of social media debate. In early May, the company banned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, as well as other far-right media personalities, including former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. While conservatives complain of censorship, liberal groups argue the opposite: that social media sites carry too much misinformation.

The names involved in the Pinterest saga are familiar ones in abortion politics.

Live Action says it has one of the most dominant anti-abortion presences on the web, with more than 3 million viewers and readers. O’Keefe and Live Action president Lila Rose are both known for efforts to implicate Planned Parenthood clinics in misdeeds, by using hidden microphones or cameras and pretending to seek illegal or questionable kinds of help.

O’Keefe’s stings have also targeted the now-defunct ACORN -- which had attracted Republican ire with its minority voter registration drives -- and National Public Radio, as well as Planned Parenthood. The efforts have been criticized for selective and misleading editing of results.

Pinterest has had a policy of blocking content related to health conspiracies since 2017, according to the company. It employed it to block anti-vaccination sites beginning in February, which is also when the company put Live Action’s website on a list of blocked porn sites, according to documents provided to O’Keefe by a Pinterest employee. Facebook and YouTube have also cracked down on anti-vaccination content in recent months, claiming many of the posts create a real-world danger to those who may see them and avoid necessary medical treatments.

According to documents provided to O’Keefe, the porn list also includes the conservative Zero Hedge and PJMedia websites. Sites on the list can’t be shared on Pinterest. The company did not respond to a request to verify the leaked documents, including the portions of the list O’Keefe published on his website, Project Veritas.

Trouble Pinning

Live Action’s Rose said she had been hearing from people on the organization’s email list that people were having problems “pinning” Live Action content on Pinterest. “We had wondered if something was up,” she said. She learned about the porn list designation from O’Keefe.

In an email to O’Keefe, Pinterest said the Live Action site had been “actioned” for “misinformation related to conspiracies and anti-vaccination advice," and not porn.

Live Action is agnostic on vaccination, although it has published stories saying aborted fetuses have been used in making some vaccines, Rose said. The website includes a variety of posts calling abortion dangerous to women.

The Pinterest email to O’Keefe also said the porn list was mislabeled.

“Sometimes our internal tools have legacy names for the technology that enforces some of our policies,” the email said. “This technology was named years ago to combat porn, and has since expanded to a variety of content despite retaining its original internal name. We are updating our internal labeling to make this clear.”

O’Keefe and Rose said Pinterest took Live Action off the porn list after getting a call for comment from Project Veritas.

Hours later, though, Live Action got an email saying it had been suspended: “Your account was permanently suspended because its contents went against our policies on misinformation,” said the email provided by Rose. “We don’t allow harmful misinformation on Pinterest. That includes medical misinformation and conspiracies that turn individuals and facilities into targets for harassment or violence.”

While conservatives complain of censorship, liberal groups argue the opposite: that social media sites carry too much misinformation.