How Russian content ended up on Pinterest, of all places
SAN FRANCISCO -- Image-bookmarking site Pinterest is known as a place where people go to get ideas about home décor, fashion, and recipes.
Few would associate it with politics -- let alone Russian trolls. But in the run-up to the 2016 election, the site became a repository for thousands of political posts created by Russian operatives seeking to shape public opinion and foment discord in U.S. society, the company acknowledged Wednesday.
Russian operatives don't appear to have posted directly on Pinterest, but their influence spread to the site through users who came across Russian content elsewhere and unwittingly "pinned" it onto their Pinterest scrap boards.
"We believe the fake Facebook content was so sophisticated that it tricked real Americans into saving it to Pinterest," said Pinterest head of public policy Charlie Hale. "We've removed the content brought to our attention and continue to investigate."
San Francisco-based Pinterest is the latest in a growing list of Silicon Valley companies that hosted or were exploited directly by the Russian disinformation campaign. The acknowledgment by Pinterest also highlights an essential truth of the internet that helped bolster the Russian agenda -- once content appears on a site or social network, it can be shared across the web by ordinary Americans in unpredictable ways and reach a far broader audience than its initial readership.
The content generated by Russian operatives was not only aimed at influencing the election. Many of the posts and ads intended to divide Americans over hot-button issues such as immigration or race.
Under growing pressure from Congressional investigators and the public, Facebook has shut down 470 accounts and pages that were created by a Kremlin-connected troll farm called the Internet Research Agency. Facebook has acknowledged that some of the accounts also had a presence on the Facebook-owned photo-sharing site Instagram. Twitter shut down 201 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency accounts after receiving data from Facebook. Google also believes that agents of the Russian government bought political ads on its systems during the 2016 election.
A Pinterest board dedicated to Ideas for the House, for example, features an image of a police officer with copy that says "Georgia Police Officer was Fired for Flying the Confederate Flag." The Pinterest user found the image on Twitter, where it was originally posted by an account called Being Patriotic. Being Patriotic was among the accounts that Facebook and Twitter shut down after discovering that were associated with the Internet Research Agency.
In another example, a pro-Texas Pinterest board titled Texas Life includes a photograph of a man wearing a cowboy hat with a caption encouraging people to "like and share if they want to stop the Islamic invasion of Texas." In the upper-right hand corner of the image is a tiny icon saying "Heart of Texas," and a link to a Facebook page FB.com/TxRebels. Heart of Texas is also among the 470 accounts and pages that Facebook shut down. Pinterest's data shows that the image was pulled from Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
"They've gone to every possible medium and basically turned it into a sewer," said Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, who unearthed the Russian content on Pinterest. He says he found over 2,000 images tied to the Internet Research Agency on the bookmarking site.
Neither Facebook or Twitter have publicly disclosed the names of the deleted pages and accounts, resulting in criticism that the companies are denying everyday Americans the ability to know whether they were the targets of a foreign disinformation campaign.
In addition to Being Patriotic and Heart of Texas, deleted pages have come to light through the efforts of outside researchers and journalists include Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Secured Borders, and LGBT United.
Albright found imagery from five out of six of those accounts on Pinterest, he said (Imagery from United Muslims did not appear to have migrated to Pinterest). In each case, the images were posted by users who copied their content from Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The six Facebook pages put up by Russian operatives had corresponding Twitter and Instagram accounts, Albright says.
Pinterest is used by roughly 100 million U.S. users each month, the company says. Seventy percent of the users are women, many outside of coastal cities. Content does not spread on Pinterest the way it does on Facebook. Trends like "Mason jars" and "spicy bacon" go viral on Pinterest when many users like the content and the company's software then begins recommending it people's feeds. Political content has never gone viral on Pinterest, Hale said. Unlike Facebook, Pinterest does not give users the ability to blast content out to many users in their network at once.
Danah Boyd, founder of the nonprofit Data & Society Research Institute, said she wasn't surprised to see a tentacle of the Russian effort reach all the way to Pinterest. "Many of those seeking to manipulate the media ecosystem are throwing large amounts of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks," she said, in an email. "Yet, Pinterest isn't known for political (or even newsy) content. So I can't help but wonder who is aiming to influence crafty people and homemakers. Or perhaps the goal is simply to pollute the entire information and social media landscape."
In its investigation of several hundred accounts that were flagged by Albright and The Washington Post, Pinterest found that just one of the accounts appeared to have a suspicious origin, according to people familiar with the investigation. The suspicious account was only created in the last year, posted just a few times, and didn't appear to interact with other users on Pinterest.
The other accounts appeared to be legitimate to company officials because they had been used over a long period of time -- roughly 5 years -- interacted with other Pinterest users in their network, and posted a variety of content. Experts say one hallmark of content and accounts created by trolls and bots is that they do not interact regularly with other users, though their methods to appear authentic are becoming more sophisticated, Boyd said.
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The Washington Post's Alice Crites contributed to this story from Washington.