Twitter, YouTube Suppress Exposé on Pinterest’s Bias and Censorship, Cite Privacy

June 13, 2019 Updated: June 14, 2019

After Project Veritas released a report exposing what appears to be political bias against and censorship of conservative content on the social media platform Pinterest, Twitter temporarily suspended Veritas’s account and YouTube took down Veritas’s video of the exposé.

Both Twitter and Google, which owns YouTube, cited privacy violations by Veritas, possibly related to Veritas publishing the names and pictures of several Pinterest employees. Veritas countered by saying the employees were directly implicated in the bias and censorship allegations and their names were thus newsworthy.

“Twitter should not be making news decisions on behalf of journalists,” said Veritas founder James O’Keefe in a phone call.

Pinterest Censorship

Veritas published the report on June 11, releasing a trove of internal documents provided by Pinterest software engineer Eric Cochran.

Cochran said he was escorted out of Pinterest’s offices on June 11 by security without an explanation. He has since been informed by Pinterest that he’s been put on administrative leave because he “may have shared confidential company information with an external third party.”

An email received by Eric Cochran, Pinterest software engineer
An email received by Eric Cochran, Pinterest software engineer, on Jun. 12, 2019. (Courtesy of Project Veritas)

The documents, together with Cochran’s commentary, showed that Pinterest put a number of websites providing right-leaning or anti-establishment content on its list of banned pornography websites. Among those on the list were: zerohedge.com, theantimedia.com, liveaction.org, prisonplanet.com, pjmedia.com, and teaparty.org.

Cochran explained that the websites on the list cannot be linked in posts made by users.

According to the report, Pinterest also had blocked search suggestions on “sensitive terms,” which included phrases like, “bible journaling ideas,” “bible journaling,” “bible verses,” “christian easter,” and “christian tattoos.” Phrases relating to other major religions are not listed in the released documents, but a cursory testing of the Pinterest search function suggested some terms related to other religions may have been targeted, too.

“The documents we obtained raise questions about whether or not these tech companies really operate like neutral platforms, as opposed to publishers with editorial agendas,” O’Keefe said in the report.

Pinterest’s Response

Pinterest didn’t respond to a request for comment, but gave a statement to Veritas saying that “religious content is allowed on Pinterest.”

“Many people use our service to search for and save Pins inspired by their beliefs,” according to the statement. “To protect our users from being targeted based on personal characteristics such as their religion, we have policies in place so that ads and recommendations don’t appear alongside certain terms.”

In response to the Veritas video removal, a Google spokesperson referred to the YouTube privacy guidelines. “If someone feels their privacy has been violated on YouTube, they can file a privacy complaint and we will promptly remove the content if it violates our guidelines,” the spokesperson said via email.

YouTube’s Response

Based on a notification received by Veritas from YouTube, the violation related to Veritas releasing a picture of and naming Megan McClellan and Genet Girmay, who are members of Pinterest’s Trust and Safety team.

YouTube indeed reserves the right to remove content that reveals somebody’s full name or image, but it also states that it also takes into account “public interest” and “newsworthiness” of the information.

Based on the Pinterest documents, it was McClellan who put Liveaction.org, a website of a major anti-abortion advocacy organization, on the list of blocked pornography websites.

Girmay received a user request for Pinterest to allow posting links to LiveAction.org, according to an internal message. “I do not think [LiveAction.org] should be removed [from the list], but think this warrants a further discussion because we are currently not removing pro-life/pro-choice content, but this was added to a domain blocklist,” she said.

Twitter’s Response

Twitter didn’t provide a comment, but a person familiar with its decision to suspend Veritas said it was due to a violation of Twitter’s private information policy. Yet the policy states that Twitter doesn’t consider somebody’s name or place of employment to be private information. It makes no mention of posting somebody’s image, though it lists “biometric data” as private.

Veritas’s account was unlocked by Twitter on the evening of June 12.

‘Expose What’s Going On’

Cochran at first asked Veritas to conceal his identity, but later, as it became clear that the company was able to identify him, he went public, appearing on June 12 on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“I did this because I saw wrongdoing, and the normalization of censorship within big tech companies right now is downright un-American,” he said.

He explained that he wanted Pinterest to come out publicly as censoring the anti-abortion website instead of doing so “behind closed doors.” He also urged other employees of tech companies to come out with what they know.

“Pro-lifers who exist within big tech companies—there’s a lot of us—they need to come to Project Veritas and they need to expose what’s going on,” he said. “They need to make these tech companies, like I have, explicitly say that ‘We are on the side of the abortion lobby,’” he said.

Indeed, it appears that Pinterest has, in response to Veritas’s reporting, officially banned LiveAction’s account.

Company Culture

The Pinterest documents indicated a left-leaning culture at the company.

In internal communications, Ifeoma Ozoma, who is Pinterest’s Public Policy and Social Impact manager, according to a LinkedIn profile, labeled Ben Shapiro as a “white supremacist,” despite the fact that Shapiro, a conservative commentator, is a Jew, one major target of bona fide white supremacists.

She also labeled Stefan Molyneux, a libertarian commentator, as a “white supremacist.”

The documents suggested that Ozoma created a list of terms labeled as “hate speech” that included phrases like “western civilization stefan molyneux,” “ben shapiro muslim,” and “lauren southern muslim.”

Southern is an independent right-leaning journalist who recently released a documentary on the smuggling of migrants from North Africa to Europe.

The reference to Shapiro and “muslim” was likely related to his 2014 video, “The Myth of the Tiny Radical Muslim Minority,” which draws on the Pew Research polling in Muslim-majority countries to show that a majority of Muslims in many such countries support policies like Sharia law, a legal system based on Islam, and significant minorities in some such countries believed that suicide bombings were often or sometimes justified. Shapiro argued that the data showed the majority of Muslims were radical.

Another Pinterest document indicated that the company labelled as a “conspiracy theory” a series of undercover videos released in 2015 showing Planned Parenthood executives discussing the illegal sale of aborted baby body parts.

Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States, claimed that the videos were “heavily [and] deceptively edited.” But a January court ruling stated that a review by an independent forensic firm determined “that the video was authentic and not deceptively edited.”

Targeting ‘Satirical Memes’

Yet another document showed an “assessment” seemingly produced by Storyful, a social media intelligence agency. The document recommended employees “monitor” and “take action” against “news sites” and “content sources” that spread “misinformation” related to the 2020 election.

The document listed “findings” regarding the election misinformation, which recommended targeting “news sites that publish highly subjective and biased content,” including “satirical memes,” about presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and memes “insulting intelligence” of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Among other things, the document labelled “satire or parody” as “false information” because it has “potential to fool.”

There was no information in the document regarding Republican politicians satirized or targeted by biased content or misinformation.

Storyful didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab
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