Pinterest has been dragged into the ongoing debate over whether social media companies are doing enough to protect vulnerable users of their platforms from harmful content after the Sunday Times published an investigation over the weekend.

The Sunday Times found "multiple graphic images of self-harm on Pinterest that could be viewed by children as young as 13, including bloodied arms showing self-inflicted wounds, a cartoon of a young girl hanging and quotations that normalised suicide".

Pinterest
Pinterest

The investigation comes following the tragic death of British teenager Molly Russell in 2017, when it was discovered that she had been browsing content depicting self-harm and suicide on social media sites, and has reopened furious calls from the government to 'ban' social media companies that are unable to effectively police their platforms.

Health secretary and unabashed 'techie' Matt Hancock told Andrew Marr on the BBC: "If we think they need to do things they are refusing to do, then we can and we must legislate." He did not expand on how that might work in practice, simply stating that "ultimately Parliament does have that sanction, yes".

Content which promotes or depicts "self-harm, like self mutilation, eating disorders or drug abuse" are explicitly against Pinterest's community guidelines. A source close to the company told Techworld that it employs human moderators to look for and remove this content, as well as that which is reported by users. 

They added that the company has been training its existing computer vision and machine learning technology -- which it uses to spot and remove other types of harmful content -- to recognise images involving self-harm over the past year, and is looking to introduce these signals to make that system more effective in the coming months.

Pinterest issued a statement today in response to the reports, saying: "We don't want disturbing content on Pinterest. We want to create a positive experience for people, and when that doesn't happen it is a reminder that we need to do better.

"We have a policy against harmful content and take numerous proactive measures to try to prevent it from coming and spreading on our platform. But we know we can do more, which is why we've been working to update our self-harm policy and enforcement guidelines over the last few months. We will also work with more outside groups with expertise in mental health and self-harm to help us improve." 

"Our hearts are breaking for Molly Russell and her family," the spokesperson added.

Pinterest already works with groups like the National Eating Disorders Association and content moderation software vendor KOKO to ensure it doesn't deliver search results for harmful terms and instead provide resources for those who might be vulnerable, but the Sunday Times says it did not receive any such guidance during its investigation. Pinterest says it will look to engage further with outside experts to improve its processes around this issue.

Pinterest to blame?

For the uninitiated, Pinterest allows users to 'pin' sharable media, creating a wall of content that reflects their interests or style. These pins are then linked out to products, making Pinterest a sizeable ecommerce machine.

Pinterest prides itself on being a pleasant online space, an image that has helped it avoid the PR disasters of its peers, as we wrote last year. At the time, Techworld spoke to Evan Sharp, cofounder and chief product officer at Pinterest, who said: "I think one of the reasons we have been lucky to not be involved in some of those conversations is that people are using Pinterest for very different reasons, very different purposes.

"It's not that we are perfect but because of that we have to value our brand and the environment we create really highly, we have to make sure that it feels safe and free from judgement or extreme controversy for the product to function, and secondly it's something we care a lot about and invest resources in to try and do our best to monitor and remediate."

Now those investments and resources are under the spotlight, as the father of Molly Russell said to the Sunday Times: "Pinterest has a lot to answer for."

What next?

Pinterest has most recently been valued at $12 billion and is heavily rumoured to be seeking an IPO this year. A large part of its pitch to investors will be its ability to effectively moderate content and provide a safe, wholesome space on the internet.

Sharp even attempted to distance his company from the recently anathematic moniker of 'social network', last year. "Pinterest is not a social network, it's not a place where people come to share what they are doing with their life, it is a visual discovery engine," he said at the time.

As displayed by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's recent coordinated press tour -- which included interviews with Rolling Stone, the Huffington Post and the Bill Simmons podcast -- there is a willingness to own up to problems from the leaders of social media companies, but seemingly limited ability to offer solutions, and even if they do offer solutions, they seldom come with an urgent timeline.

Take Dorsey's interview with Ashley Feinberg at the Huffington Post, for example. When asked if US President Donal Trump tweeting an explicit call for murder would be grounds for removal, he said: "We'd definitely... You know we're in constant communication with all governments around the world. So we'd certainly talk about it."

Perhaps its time for the social media moguls to do more acting, and less sharing and talking.