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Digital Literacy

Information environmentalism research: Fake accounts and mis/disinformation on Pinterest

Pinterest has a mis/disinformation problem.

To be fair, this does not make Pinterest any different from other popular social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter. But Pinterest has largely escaped the scrutiny aimed at Facebook and Twitter for their roles in helping to spread mis/disinformation. For many users of Pinterest, the idea that polarizing and even radicalizing information could be spread on Pinterest seems strange. If you only use Pinterest for finding recipes and interior design ideas, mis/disinformation may never cross your home feed. But if you’ve searched for any information on contested topics like vaccinations, gun control, or climate change, you probably have seen mis/disinformation in action. And if you have explored Pinterest for fashion and health/beauty advice, you have likely taken note of the many Pinterest accounts that seem only to aim at selling goods. Sales-platforms-disguised-as-advice. Those accounts, as we will see shortly, tie to the toxicity spreading on Pinterest.

Fake/spam accounts have plagued Pinterest since its meteoric rise to popularity in 2011, just one year after it launched. In 2012, Pinterest made an effort to eliminate spam and deleted millions of fake accounts. Why? Fake users were “spamming the site with affiliate links to make money off its regular users. Some deceitful users are creating several fake accounts and perform activities that are taking advantage of Pinterest’s e-commerce and marketing potential” (Source). In large part, it seems, the fake accounts were focused on selling, not on polarizing.

It’s now 2018 and fake/spam accounts continue to be a problem. Spammers have developed increasingly sophisticated tactics for drawing attention to their Boards, and those tactics seem to play in to the spread of mis/disinformation on Pinterest. Again, the primary driver here seems to be selling items through affiliate links (of course, other users intentionally spread mis/disinformation for polarization purposes only). Let’s take a closer look at fake accounts polarizing to sell.

Take this account for example:

“Sandra Whyte” clearly has an interest in selling t-shirts. From the user’s URL of pinterest.com/teespringbd90, to the scattered t-shirt designs across all of their boards, it’s pretty clear this person wants to sell t-shirts via Pinterest. And, wow, this account has 10,275 followers…so wow.

Now, why do I think this is a fake account? The first clue is the profile picture. A reverse google image search shows that this is a generic image used by other style/fashion sites (like Nikki-style).

The account has other characteristics of fake accounts:

  • Generic account information, like user description and board titles
  • Pins that don’t match board titles (e.g., a pin about stretch marks on a board labeled Handmade Luxury Italian Leather Shoes for Men)
  • Several boards with only one pin
  • Repinning other fake accounts (e.g., Sandra Whyte repins a ton of “Helen Clarke’s” pins, and that account also appears to be fake–e.g., Helen Clarke’s profile pic is even more generic than Sandra’s)

(Check out this research project that identified and found patterns in fake Pinterest accounts. This study informed my small-scale inquiry. I’d like to replicate their inquiry process, especially now that the Pinterest API is available. Email me if you’re interested in helping with this)

How does all of this tie in to mis/disinformation? Well, accounts like Sandra Whyte’s spread pins that have mis/disinformation because those pins grab attention. On Sandra’s Pinterest account, for example, there is a board called “American Politics” (strange name for a board by a supposedly US-based woman). On this board, she spreads polarizing memes (not all false information, but certainly polarizing) along with false information. The American Politics board starts strangely, with a mix of t-shirts, generic memes, motorcycles, gymnastics, and more:

When you scroll, you begin to see how political polarization on both sides is being spread:

And more:

Why would someone post such divergent polarizing views? Presumably to attract attention/followers to their boards and to get them to buy merchandise. What we’re seeing is that, in addition to bad actors who are intentionally using Pinterest to polarize and radicalize, there are people spreading polarizing information in order to increase their sales of products (or take a cut on the sales of products they link to using referral links). These may not be mutually exclusive categories, either. Some people may be doing both.

Of course, it isn’t only fake/spam accounts that are spreading mis/disinformation. Certainly non-commercial Pinterest users pin mis/disinformation because they do not know the difference, or because they agree epistemologically with the pin, even if they know that it’s false. But the point of this article is to highlight what we’re up against as we look for ways to depollute our information environments. And what we’re up against is a commercial machine.

How does all of this inform our Pinterest information environmentalism initiative?

As many of you know, we are launching an information environmentalism project at Middlebury, trying to better understand pollution in our digital information spaces and work to de-pollute those environments. Why does this matter? Because this pollution is polarizing us and, in some cases, radicalizing us. While fake Pinterest users are using mis/disinformation to attract eyeballs and possibly a sale, mis/disinformation continues to affirm radicalizing perspectives. If we are going to combat this, we’re going to need to 1) neutralize their impact, and 2) seed better information on Pinterest using methods informed by what fake users have already done. At least, that’s our hypothesis.

The next step in our current information environmentalism project is to analyze and mimic the visual patterns of mis/disinformation on Pinterest. I have the honor of working with an Arts professor at Middlebury (she’s WONDERFUL!) and her students, along with a couple of DLINQ interns, on this project. We’ll post more about this visual aspect of the project soon. There is some juicy stuff here.

Last thought: You might be asking, what role does Pinterest the company play in all of this? Should they be / Are they clued in to the widespread commercial interests that are helping to spread pollution that is undermining our democracy? Good questions. Let’s keep those questions alive as we move forward in this work.

Featured image by Mohamed Nohassi

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