Exploring mis/disinformation on Pinterest

I am going to walk you through a little exercise to show how quickly mis/disinformation gets spread on the social media site Pinterest. This is the same exercise Mike Caulfield did in this post and video; I’m just taking a different trail into the muck (and no video).

We will be doing a similar project with Middlebury students in a J-term and spring class. Middlebury faculty, if you are interested in having students do a similar project in your course, please let me know. I want to note that this activity is part one of our information environmentalism work. The first step is to better understand the pollution and its sources, but we will follow with work on how to depollute the environment. We’ll talk more at the end of this post (and in later posts) about how to start depolluting (and how you and your classes can get involved).

Now, it’s important to start an activity like this by protecting yourself and your data as much as you can. Protect yourself and your data by using a secure browser like Tor and pseudonyms (take as many additional precautions as you can). Why these precautions? Well, for one, the research you’re about to do could put you in contact with some unusual content. It’s best to keep that content away from anything that is tracking your personal information (browsers, ISPs, other social media, etc.) so that it doesn’t get tied to your data. Also, if you don’t take these precautions, Pinterest is going to suck in as much of your personal data as it can to offer you “personalized” pins. That external data will shape/color what you see during this activity.

Ready? Once you create your account, Pinterest asks you to select topics of interest. You cannot move ahead until you pick at least three topics. This will be the basis for the initial home feed you’ll see when you log in to Pinterest.

For my research, I selected Health & Fitness, Infographics, and Travel Photography as my starting “interests.” After I selected my interests, my home feed immediately filled with recommended pins based on those interest selections. Seems pretty innocuous thus far, right? And, for a lot of people, it is. As they pin together vision boards (more on that later) for their dreams of prosperity , they rarely if ever encounter the darker side of the platform.

But that’s not what this research is about. We want to find the pollution. It’s not too hard to find.

I’m going to simulate a user who is looking for tips on healthy living and cancer prevention. I select an item to pin. It’s a “How to Get Up Early” infographic-looking thing. I save that pin to a board I called “Good Life.”

When I return to my home feed, there are new recommendations based on that pin. This, for instance:

And this…

…which, by the way, has a link to a site (note the link URL at the bottom) that autoplays a video about how women can lose fat.

The health-advice-disguising-ads part of Pinterest is super annoying and, if you’re a Pinterest user who is looking for healthy living resources, you will run across plenty of sites selling goods (vitamins, supplements, devices, etc.) behind “advice” pins. We’ll come back to this point in a later post, about the economic drivers of Pinterest.

After clicking on these pins, I return to my home feed and now see an image of gooseberries, with text about preventing cancer. Since I’m simulating someone who is interested in cancer prevention, let’s follow this pin down the rabbit hole and see where it takes us.

When I click this image, it takes me to a full view of the pin (from which I can follow the link to herbalhelptips.com, which is inevitably going to try to sell me supplements). By the way, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of these same stylized pins on different foods and spices, each touting the health benefits of a food/spice (Turmeric! Clementines! Dill! Walnuts!) and often leading to different websites trying to sell you something.

Below the gooseberry pin is a More Like This section. It shows stuff like:

 

In that section, I found this little pin:

As someone looking at resources for preventing cancer, this catches my attention, and I view and pin this to my “Fighting Cancer” board. Now, we’ve moved into conspiracy land. The More Like This section of the pin I just saved has a handful of conspiratorial pins, like this one:

Click on this gem? Here is what you get in the More Like This section:

Whoa.

And the range of conspiracies at this point is pretty wide. Anti-right, anti-left, anti-Muslim, anti-gun regulation, anti-feminism, 9/11 conspiracies, CIA conspiracies, bank conspiracies, alien conspiracies, and so on and so on. Pretty much any conspiracy you can name, and some super weird ones you probably haven’t heard of, show up under the cancer conspiracy pin. I have no doubt that if I saved the cancer conspiracy pin to my pinboard, my main feed would change dramatically (as Mike brilliantly showed in his video). And, as I click into a conspiracy pin, more like it get shown to me. Before you know it, you’re WAAAAAAY down a scary rabbit hole.

So what’s happening here? The answer is “A lot, and it’s complicated.” Let’s take a quick look at some drivers for how information spreads on Pinterest (there is a lot more to examine here, this is just a quick little intro):

1. Visual design / UX drivers

Pinterest’s visual design and sharing functionality help spread information and misinformation quickly. Gestalt theories of visual perception explain a lot of Pinterest’s visual/perceptual power. Gestalt laws of proximity and similarity suggest that items that are similar and visually close to each other are perceived as related to each other. Pinterest’s masonry layout provides tight proximity for pins, almost like puzzle pieces fitting together. The infinite scroll on Pinterest pages enhances that power, providing a lot of visual/perceptual information without requiring a break in attention or a clicking action. As Pinterest’s layout emphasizes the whole, rather than the sum of parts, the power of pins becomes amplified by their “part” in the whole.

Pinterest’s visual information-spreading driver is also helped by a growing mainstream “meme culture,” where feelings, advice, values, and personal expressions of identity are shared through folk images (read this). Though meme culture began as a humorous counter-cultural expression (e.g., Ermahgerd girl, or LOLcats), it has recently moved into mainstream social sharing (Nick Douglas calls this the post-meme era) and has a notable presence on Pinterest. Meme sharing is visual, and not intended to provide deeper content, context, or reliable sources. Often a user will pin something to their account based entirely on the visual imagery/design of the pin, not on the content “behind” the pin. That is, THEY MAY NEVER ACTUALLY CLICK THE LINK ASSOCIATED WITH THE PIN. It’s not even that they don’t check the source; they never even view the source and rely entirely on the visual information in the pin. As we’ve seen on other platforms, mis/disinformation is helped by people’s inability or unwillingness to verify the information they are seeing.

2. Psychological and social drivers

Have you heard of vision boards? I’ll admit that I hadn’t until Mike Caulfield alerted me to vision boards, the law of attraction, and the bestselling book, The Secret. These are tied to the positive psychology movement, all advancing the idea that success is a function of positive thinking. Want something good to happen in your life? Make a vision board that attracts positive thoughts that will bring what you want into this world, through your will and, according to some, through realignment of the universe caused by your positive thinking. Want to lose weight? Think about your goals and make them happen (interestingly, this study about health and fitness content on Pinterest noted an unexpected amount of “inspirational content, which generally consisted of pins that were intended only to inspire the pinner, not to instruct them on how to achieve their ideal health and fitness.” Also, it doesn’t really work.) Want to fight your cancer? Embrace positivity. Never mind that there isn’t much scientific basis for any of that (in fact, it’s considered by many psychologists to be pseudoscience), it could be causing more harm than good to people who are trying to accomplish goals or fight through a tough life situation.

Whether or not positive psychology is flawed (or possibly even bunk), Pinterest has become the web version of vision boards. In fact, do a little searching for “law of attraction” on Pinterest and you will find PLENTY of stuff to add to your digital vision board. And it’s not just Pinterest’s design that makes it a place to enact positive thinking. According to the Pew Research Center, women are significantly more likely to use Pinterest than men; 44% of American women on the internet use Pinterest, compared to 17% of American men on the internet. As such, Pinterest is seen as a “feminized” social media space, where women are creating and engaging with content at higher rates than men. It’s also a space where the domestic realm gets reinforced as a woman’s domain, but is also beautified and optimized.

Wilson and Yochim (2015) write that: “The digital world of mothering media is one that thrives on “pinning” happiness, that is, on the displaying, archiving, detailing, and sharing of happy family lives…Specifically, the practice of pinning happiness is posting and sharing content that points toward the possibility of happiness: happy scenes, good habits and best practices, fun activities, and thoughtful ruminations on the meaning of life. Happy families are pinned down, put on display and stabilized through pinning. While in the midst of everyday family life, happiness can be elusive, pinning happiness serves as a constant reminder of the potential and promise of family happiness.”

They continue: “Pinterest is littered with ‘happy objects,’ as pinners curate objects that point to and hold the promise of happiness: inspirational or funny quotes, books one loved or hopes to love, recipes one plans to try, and so on. It is a social network that thrives on and capitalizes on the contribution of happy packets and the free labor of promoting ‘a few (million) of your favorite things.’”

While its interface/design is well suited to a board for collecting happiness/positivity (and there is a social and psychological draw to do so), it can just as quickly become a place for collecting negativity and conspiracy. The same interface/design, psychological, and social drivers that make Pinterest perfect for vision boards make it perfect for conspiracy boards. As I was exploring Pinterest conspiracy boards for this post, I kept getting recommendations to follow boards called things like “Makes you think” and “Did You Know?” Taken as a whole, just like the positive/happy boards are intended to spread happiness, the conspiracy boards are intended to spread fear and hate, and they can be very successful at that.

3. Algorithms

As information gets attached to users’ profiles through pinning/saving, and as they view and follow each other’s boards, algorithms feed related content to the users. Once a user has pinned something (i.e., they have save a link and associated image), their primary user page becomes algorithmically tied to their preferences. The design/UX features I described before (and others I haven’t mentioned, like social growth hacking and guided search) connect the user to more and more items that Pinterest decides will be interesting to the user; the user is bombarded with these images as soon as they log in (and you saw in Mike’s post/video and in this post how quickly those pins get us to misinformation).

The problem with algorithms is that it is hard to counter them, since they are proprietary and typically obscured from scrutiny. We have some work to do to better understand how Pinterest’s algorithms work–to the extent that we can understand that–but I am working with a student intern now to see what we can learn. Stay tuned.

4. External data

I’m not going to go into it in this post, but Pinterest does pull a lot of data from places “outside” of Pinterest itself. This is part of its functionality; content is supposed to be generated outside of Pinterest, then shared through Pinterest. So, as people share links from outside–say, from Facebook–misinformation from those spaces  enters Pinterest and spreads. Pinterest is also optimized for following content from people in your social networks, namely from people in your Facebook friend group. If people in your Facebook network are sharing mis/disformation from Facebook on Pinterest, that information is likely to spread to your feed, even if you are not interested in that information.

5. Economic drivers

We’ll have to come back to this in a later post, but as I mentioned, advertisements are a huge driver for how information spreads on Pinterest. In recent years, Pinterest has put more and more engineering and functionality behind this–with “buyable” pins and other ways to drive revenue through the platform.

How you can help/join

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I am looking for collaborators to engage in information environmentalism on Pinterest. As educators and scholars, we cannot ignore the misinformation in digital social spaces. It’s hard to want to engage, I know. I fight the urge daily to throw my hands up and quit. We can’t quit. We must engage on these platforms and begin to depollute them. As educators, as scholars, as citizens, we have work to do.

In an article about Pinterest and the spread of anti-vaccination rhetoric, the authors wrote:

Considering the potential harmful health consequences for those who are not vaccinated, it is concerning that very few of the linked external websites refer to a government website like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a medical website. Seemingly, organizations with the information and resources to provide a counter-argument to the strong anti-vaccine presence on Pinterest do not participate in discussions on the platform as intensely as other content creators” (Guidry, Carlyle, Messner, & Jin, 2015).

This is so important. If we want to combat mis/disinformation on Pinterest, we have to participate on those platforms “as intensely” as those whose aim is to spread mis/disinformation.

Ready to join?

Are you teaching any classes that relate to the drivers (visual/UX,psychological/social, economic, algorithmic, external data) we discussed above? Are you teaching classes on information design, art, rhetoric, or any topic about how to influence people? Economics? Big data? Digital literacy? Or are you teaching a topic for which the spread of misinformation via digital platforms is a huge issue (climate science, immunizations, public health, etc.)?

If so, join me in having your students do inquiry and environmental action on Pinterest. Email me, or call x5921.

Amy Collier

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