I have been talking about Pinterest as a disinformation platform for a long time, so this article on QAnon memes on Pinterest is not surprising at all:
Many of those users also pinned QAnon memes. The net effect is a community of middle-aged women, some with hundreds of followers, pinning style tips and parfait recipes alongside QAnon-inspired photoshops of Clinton aide John Podesta drinking a child’s blood. The Pinterest page for a San Francisco-based jewelry maker sells QAnon earrings alongside “best dad in the galaxy” money clips.
Pinterest’s algorithm automatically suggests tags with “ideas you might love,” based on the board currently being viewed. In a timely clash of Trumpist language and Pinterest-style relatable content, board that hosts the Podesta photoshop suggests viewers check out tags for “fake news” and “so true.”
The story is a bit more complex than that, of course. It’s not clear to me that the users noted here are not spammers (as we’ll see below). It’s quite possible many of these accounts are people mixing memes and merchandise as a marketing amplification strategy. We don’t know anything about real reach, either. There are no good numbers on this.
But the threat is real, because Pinterest’s recommendation engine is particularly prone to sucking users down conspiracy holes. Why? As far as I can tell, it’s a couple of things. The first problem is that Pinterest’s business model is in providing very niche and personalized content. It’s algorithm is designed to recognize stuff at the level of “I like pictures of salad in canning jars”, and as Zeynep Tufekci has demonstrated with YouTube, engines of personalization are also engines of radicalization.
But it’s more than that: it’s how it goes about recommendation. The worst piece of this, from a vulnerability perspective, is that it uses “boards” as a way to build its model of related things to push to you, and that spammers have developed ways to game these boards that both amplify radicalizing material and and provide a model for other bad actors to emulate.
How Spammers Use Pinterest Boards as Chumbuckets
The best explanation of how this works comes from Amy Collier at Middlebury, whose post on Pinterest radicalization earlier this year is a must-read for those new to the issue. Drawing on earlier work on Pinterest manipulation, Collier walks through the almost assuredly fake account of Sandra Whyte, a user who uses boards with extreme political material to catch the attention of users. Here’s her “American Politics” board:
These pins flow to other users’ home pages with no context, which is why the political incoherence of the board as a whole is not a problem for the user. People are more likely to see the pins through the feed than the board as a whole.
Once other users like that material, they are more likely to see links to TeeSpring T-shirts this user is likely selling:
The T-Shirts are print-on-demand through a third-party service, so hastily designed that the description can’t even be bothered to spell “Mother” right.
So two things happen here. When Moms like QAnon content, they get t-shirts, which provides the incentive for spammers to continue to make these boards capitalizing on inflammatory content. Interestingly, when Moms like the T-shirts, they get QAnon content. Fun, right?
How Pinterest’s Aggressive Recommendation Engine Makes This Worse
About a year ago I wrote an article on how Pinterest’s recommendation engine makes this situation far worse. I showed how after just 14 minutes of browsing, a new user with some questions about vaccines could move from pins on “How to Make the Perfect Egg” to something out of the Infowarverse:
What was remarkable about this process was that we got from point A to B by only pinning two pins on a board called vaccination.
I sped up the 14 minute process into a two and a half minute explanatory video. I urge you to watch it, because no matter how cynical you are it will shock you.
I haven’t repeated this experiment since then, so I’m unable to comment on whether Pinterest has mitigated this in the past year. It’s something we should be asking them, however.
I should note as well that the UI-driven decontextualization that drove Facebook’s news crisis is actually worse here. Looking at a board, I have no idea why I am seeing these various bits of information at all, or any indication where they come from.
Facebook minimized provenance in the UI to disastrous results. Pinterest has completely stripped it. What could go wrong?
Pinterest Is a Major Platform and It’s Time to Talk About It That Way
Pinterest has only 175 million users, but 75 million of those users are in the United States. We can assume a number of spam accounts pad that number, but even accounting for that, this is still a major platform that may be reaching up to a fifth of the U. S. population.
So why don’t we talk about it? My guess is that its perceived as a woman’s platform, which means the legions of men in tech reporting ignore it. And the Silicon Valley philosopher-king class doesn’t bring it up either. It just sounds a bit girly, you know? Housewife-ish.
This then filters down to the general public. When I’ve talked about Pinterest’s vulnerability to disinformation, the most common response is to assume I am joking. Pinterest? Balsamic lamb chops and state-sponsored disinfo? White supremacy and summer spritzers?
Yup, I say.
I don’t know how compromised Pinterest is at this point. But everything I’ve seen indicates its structure makes it uniquely vulnerable to manipulation. I’d beg journalists to start including it in their beat, and researchers to throw more resources into its study.