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Pinterest Blocks Vaccination Searches

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/20/2019 Robert McMillan, Daniela Hernandez
a close up of a piece of paper © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

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 antivaccination content, a Pinterest spokeswoman said, but has been unable to remove it completely.

Pinterest described the search ban—which the company hasn’t previously publicly discussed but which went into effect late last year—as a temporary but necessary measure until it can develop better strategies to sift through what it calls “polluted” content. The company made a similar decision last year to block searches for dubious cancer therapies.

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Users can still pin vaccine-related images to their online boards, which could lead to suggestions for similar content, but the posts no longer show up in searches. “It’s better not to serve those results than to lead people down what is like a recommendation rabbit hole,” said Ifeoma Ozoma, Pinterest’s public policy and social impact manager.

The technology industry is grappling with the thorny issue of how and when to take responsibility for information on its platforms. Companies including Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. have begun to police hate speech, violence, terrorism-recruitment campaigns and sexual harassment on their services, shutting down millions of accounts. But those actions also have sparked counter-complaints about everything from political bias and censorship to a lack of transparency in the process.

“There’s a secretive process with no real appeal where people are making extremely difficult subjective calls that have to do with politics, culture and religion,” said Jennifer Granick, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “This example shows why it is dangerous. If I want to find good information about vaccines, I can’t find it.”

The aggressive move by Pinterest marks another change in the way large tech companies are trying to handle the responsibility of monitoring the flow of information.

“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,” said Samuel Woolley, a researcher who studies social-media disinformation at the Institute for the Future think tank.

“There’s been pressure on them for a long time to respond to this because the reality of this is the spread of misinformation—especially around vaccines—leads to extremely bad consequences, including death,” he said.

Last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) wrote to Google and Facebook, expressing his concern that the tech giants’ algorithms were recommending messages that would discourage parents from vaccinating their children.

In response, Facebook said Friday that it was considering changes to the way its algorithm recommends health-related information, including demoting or ceasing recommendations of antivaccine material. Over the past few years Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., has introduced a number of measures to improve the quality of its health-related search results, such as “knowledge panels” that pop up with authoritative information on searches for medical conditions. These panels are sourced from places such as the Mayo Clinic and are reviewed by medical professionals.

YouTube said it is working with experts to provide more context, including information panels, in its search results, and the company has pledged to improve its search and recommendations when it comes to medical content.

Misinformation about health-related issues can be particularly pernicious because it can affect people’s well-being, physicians said.

In Washington state’s Clark County, a measles outbreak this winter has infected 62 people, most of them unvaccinated children. Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public-health director, said “the onslaught of fairly sophisticated but nonsense messages on social media” has contributed to the problem. Amid the outbreak, the county’s Facebook page was littered with comments falsely claiming that vaccinated children could spread the disease to others and links to a YouTube video falsely claiming a link between autism and the vaccine used to fight measles, mumps, and rubella, he said.

Pinterest also has begun to block certain cancer-related searches, content and accounts related to dubious cancer therapies, which are another source of misinformation, according to the company. A Pinterest spokeswoman said the company is working on new ways of keeping misleading content out of its recommendations engine.

In December, Pinterest blocked multiple accounts that promote what it determined to be false cancer treatments or that linked to third-party websites selling supplements or other merchandise that haven’t been scientifically vetted, according to the company.

Its decision came out of a collaboration with social-media intelligence firm Storyful, which identified cancer as “one of those areas where there is more misinformation than not,” Ms. Ozoma said. Storyful is owned by News Corp, The Wall Street Journal’s parent company. Storyful confirmed the collaboration and said its assessment of cancer-related misinformation was ongoing.

Pinterest trains and uses human reviewers to make determinations about whether or not shared images on the site, called pins, violate its health-misinformation guidelines. The reviewers rely on information from the World Health Organization, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics to judge the veracity of content, the company said. Training documents for reviewers and enforcement guidelines are updated about every six months, according to the company. The process is time-intensive and expensive, in part, because the artificial-intelligence technology required to automate the process doesn’t yet exist, Ms. Ozoma said.

Pinterest has felt blowback from users who feel that the removal of these posts is an overreach, Ms. Ozoma said.

Kevin Malone, 58 years old, who gets medical information from podcasts and Facebook, among other sources, said he would “hate to see [social media] totally censored.” In the past, traditional doctors haven’t been able to treat his ailments well, including infections and a heart condition, he said. Through friends and social media, he’s found therapies that work for him, he said.

“I think it’s a disservice to the population who like me want to be proactive and want this knowledge,” said Mr. Malone, a physical therapist from Ocean Shores, Wash.

Pinterest, which is preparing for an initial public offering this year, is looking to develop better machine-learning tools to aid with curation, and this year the company is tripling the number of engineers focused on content safety, Ms. Ozoma added.

A Pinterest search for “cancer” done this week still yields pins promoting cancer-fighting foods, for instance. The content also shows up in home-page recommendations. The pins then lead to websites claiming cancer can be treated or prevented with nutrition or that certain foods are more effective than chemotherapy at killing cancer cells. Nutritionists and oncologists say there aren’t clinical trials—the gold standard for proving therapies are safe and effective—that support those claims.

A company spokeswoman said Pinterest last year began blocking searches for “cancer cures” and “breast cancer cures,” and that the company continues to work with experts and outside groups on ways to improve.

Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com and Daniela Hernandez at daniela.hernandez@wsj.com

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