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Let’s not ruin the internet over flukey ‘bias’ incidents like the recent one on Pinterest

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What passes for “evidence” of Big Tech bias against the right tends to be of the anecdotal variety. A piece of content gets blocked or hidden. An account gets suspended or banned. And then conservative media goes crazy, charging that Silicon Valley is suppressing conservative thought and thinkers.

A portrait of the Pinterest logo. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

The latest controversy involves a Pinterest employee sending a series of internal documents to the right-wing political website Project Veritas. The documents supposedly prove flagrant discrimination against pro-life groups and religious conservatives. This whistleblower claims the documents show that Liveaction.org — a pro-life informational website with more than 3 million followers on social media — was unfairly added to a domain blacklist reserved for porn domains, which are prevented from being pinned by Pinterest.

As is typical of these things, the more you look at them, the less substance that appears. Pinterest responded that Live Action site had been “actioned,” Fortune magazine reports, “for “misinformation related to conspiracies and anti-vaccination advice,” and not porn. Indeed, Pinterest was the first platform to clamp down on anti-vaccination content under health and public safety considerations. After the Project Veritas report came out, Pinterest responded by removing Liveaction.org from its porn domain list and said the list name was a legacy from an anti-porn effort years ago. Indeed, there are other URLs on the list, which have nothing to do with porn, such as ZeroHedge.  

Meanwhile a privacy claim by a third party resulted in YouTube removing the video and in Twitter limiting account features on Project Veritas’ Twitter account for “posting private information.” Of course, right-wing media got pretty excited about that, too.

Yet how much do all the details of one specific case really matter given the volume of content that is posted on various social media sites? (And on Pinterest, a good chunk of that volume is pro-life in nature. A very big chunk based on my review.) On YouTube, for instance, the platform’s users upload more than 500 hours of fresh video per minute. Is it really proof of bias and conspiracy that all that content generates the odd controversy from to time?  Different platforms have different content moderation policies, but they all share the problem of moderating that mass of content as well as “having policies … perennially in a state of reactive catch-up,” notes an excellent Slate piece on the content moderation policies of the various companies.

Yet that’s not a bad thing. The cycle of content moderation controversy, public backlash, then companies altering their stances may be more feature than bug and a crucial component of a useful feedback loop, notes journalist Will Oremus. (It sorts of reminds of Amar Bhidé’s work on innovation that stresses the role of early adopter consumers to provide ongoing feedback on new tech products and services.) As Oremus writes in a recent piece, “Consistency is a virtue, but so are responsiveness and adaptability. We need standards, and we need transparency  —  but ultimately, we’ll always need the backlashes, too.”

Every problem doesn’t demand a Washington policy response. That sort of reactiveness can make things worse (such as ill-considered calls to change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). This is especially the case when the problem really isn’t much of a problem at all.

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