Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

The anti-vaxxers are wrong but that doesn't mean Pinterest is right

Is it the role of the social media network to alter what people are talking about?

A Philippine Red Cross health worker prepares a measles vaccine during a nationwide response programme to immunise people at a slum area in Manila, Philippines. More than 70 people, mostly children under four-years of age, have been confirmed dead from the measles outbreak and over 4,300 people have fallen ill. EPA
A Philippine Red Cross health worker prepares a measles vaccine during a nationwide response programme to immunise people at a slum area in Manila, Philippines. More than 70 people, mostly children under four-years of age, have been confirmed dead from the measles outbreak and over 4,300 people have fallen ill. EPA

Pinterest has blocked searches on vaccinations in a bid to censor the prolific, and scientifically disproven, claims that they’re dangerous. You might think that this is a much-needed policy, and other platforms should follow suit. To me, however, this seems like a move straight out of the Big Brother playbook; a step closer to an Orwellian future none of us has signed up for.

On the one hand, you have the anti-vaxxers (Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone, Kat Von D and Donald Trump have all expressed such views). These people claim vaccines aren’t safe, and cause more serious health issues for kids later in life. It’s a hot-button topic that’s been the source of much debate, and widely scoffed at by scientists worldwide. 'Anti Vaxxers' are even on the World Health Organisation’s 2019 list of top 10 global health threats. On the other hand, you have big companies trying to monitor and control what conversations we’re having.

Remember, the links between the MMR vaccine and autism have been extensively investigated and found to be false. So I’m not here to give air-time to whether or not vaccinations are safe. But I am here to discuss how the idea of a social media company trying to censor the internet is something that makes me very uncomfortable.

Already, we live in our own personal bubbles online. Our feeds are constantly flooded with topics that algorithms have deduced (often wrongly) we’re most interested in. We reside in an echo chamber, a space between our own personal realities and the truth of the universe, something that’s getting further and further away every day, thanks to this data-driven world (not to sound too dramatic or anything).

Ifeoma Ozoma, Pinterest’s public policy and social impact manager, said to the Wall Street Journal of the decision: “It’s better not to serve those results than to lead people down what is like a recommendation rabbit hole.”

But what’s the difference, when you’re still dictating what kind of content is down the hole?

A spokesperson for the social media network told Fortune: “We started blocking certain searches related to vaccinations and cancer cures last year because results were leading to harmful misinformation.”

I get it. Social networks have already paved a path well beaten for the proliferation of misinformation, fake news and government-led propaganda. But, I have two questions: why don’t they do something to tackle that issue first? And once you start censoring specific topics, where does it end?

Some people have lauded Pinterest’s decision, and accused other platforms of not doing enough to stop the spread of this kind of medical misinformation. Facebook told Bloomberg that it’s exploring “reducing or removing this type of content from recommendations, including Groups You Should Join, and demoting it in search results, while also ensuring that higher quality and more authoritative information is available.” In reality, that’s just a more roundabout way of doing the exact same thing as Pinterest without actually blocking the content altogether. It's not getting to the real heart of the matter.

When all is said and done, people will always find a way to share their conspiracy theories, whether it’s on Pinterest, another platform or even in person (what a thought). Censoring the conversation is not, in my mind, the role of the social media network.

Yes, the spreading of harmful health “facts” is an issue. Yes, there’s a clear need to educate the public on what’s real and fake online. And, yes, social media networks have a responsibility to make sure that happens, alongside governmental and medical bodies.

Pinterest has deemed this as “polluted” content, using a term that's so broad it's open to much interpretation. Today it’s vaccinations, but what about tomorrow?

It won’t be long until we’re all talking in Newspeak, pondering in doublethink and guilty of thoughtcrime (read 1984 by George Orwell, if you’re confused by this reference).

Updated: February 21, 2019 12:01 PM

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