AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 120 people have been diagnosed with measles so far this year in outbreaks in Texas, New York and Washington. One factor public health officials suspect is contributing to these outbreaks - anti-vaccine information on social media. Pinterest, the visual bookmarking site, has decided to intervene. A 2017 policy limits search results related to, "quote, health misinformation, including about vaccines." Ifeoma Ozoma is the public policy and social impact manager for Pinterest. Before this policy was in place...
IFEOMA OZOMA: For a term like vaccine, if you had searched vaccine, much of the content was in violation of our community guidelines because it was anti-vaccine advice.
CORNISH: A search on the site for cancer cures might have brought up pins or bookmarks for pages about herbs and juices that work better than chemotherapy. Now you'll find a message that says pins about this topic often violate our community guidelines, so we're currently unable to show search results.
OZOMA: Our goal, really, is harm reduction. And so because we're humble about our limitations and our own expertise here, we look to outside experts like the WHO, CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics and their guidance on what's harmful.
CORNISH: Now, there are some critics of this move. Jennifer Granick of the ACLU told The Wall Street Journal that this is dangerous, that it's essentially a secretive process, no real appeal. People are making very difficult subject calls when it comes to politics and culture and religion. What's your response?
OZOMA: So to that, we have clear and transparent community guidelines. And this is just one way of enforcing, like...
CORNISH: Like buried in the terms and conditions or what do you mean by that?
OZOMA: No. Nope. They're clear in our community guidelines on our website. And we also, whenever we have a search that we've removed results for, we explain right in there in the search advisory why we removed it, and we link to those community guidelines. And we also have an appeals process for any content that's taken down.
CORNISH: Is this essentially censorship?
OZOMA: For us, we don't see it as that. There's an enthusiasm gap between those who save harmful health misinformation and organizations like the CDC and WHO and American Academy of Pediatrics. And so because of that, you're going to find more health misinformation than, say, journal articles on the virtues of vaccination or other science-based health interventions. We've taken the view that further sharing that harmful content through our search results isn't in line with enforcing our community guidelines.
CORNISH: Your title is public policy and social impact manager. None of those things are things we thought about when we thought about social media when it was first starting up, right? We called them platforms. They were just places we put things that we wanted to share. When do you think this mindset changed?
OZOMA: We have had content policy and trust and safety teams since the beginning. And so safety has always been a consideration when you think about different types of harmful content, whether they're illegal or not illegal. Safety has been top of mind and still is for every team across the company.
CORNISH: People go to the Internet and go to these platforms to find like-minded communities and to share information. Are you doing damage to that, that kind of agreement that they think they have with you?
OZOMA: Yeah. So harmful misinformation is not inspiring, and it's not the kind of content that our platform hopes to promote. And because...
CORNISH: But what if people think you shouldn't be the one to make that decision for them? As adults who are on the Internet doing research on their own, why should you get to make that call?
OZOMA: Well, we aren't making the call because vaccines are settled science. And we also are very clear because we know that there may be questions about the decisions that we've made. We're really clear and transparent in our community guidelines and use simple language so that everyone can understand why we're considering certain content harmful.
CORNISH: Ifeoma Ozoma is the Pinterest public policy social impact manager. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
OZOMA: Thanks so much for talking with us today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.