Last week, Pinterest banned climate change misinformation from its platform, becoming the first major social media company to do so outright. The policy raises free speech concerns. Since not all scientists agree on the nature of climate change, what causes it, and what the solutions are, how is the issue to be discussed if alternate points of view are banned from public platforms?
Pinterest is an image-sharing social media site, where users share ideas that they can “pin” to their own boards on everything from recipes to interior design to fashion.
On April 6, Pinterest announced their new climate misinformation policy, aimed at “remov[ing] content that may harm the public’s well-being, safety or trust.” As of the policy announcement, any content that contradicts “scientific consensus” on climate change will be removed from the platform. This includes “content that denies the existence or impacts of climate change, the human influence on climate change, or that climate change is backed by scientific consensus.”
The ban also includes “false or misleading content about climate change solutions,” “content that misrepresents scientific data,” and “harmful or misleading content about public safety emergencies” such as “natural disasters and extreme weather events.”
Ads are included in the policy. Last year, Google and YouTube demonetized content that included skepticism about the climate change narrative, but they did not go so far as to implement a ban.
Like many other social media sites, Pinterest uses both human content moderators and machine learning to identify misinformation and any other content deemed “harmful.”
Pinterest partnered with the Climate Disinformation Coalition and the Conscious Advertising Network to craft this new policy. The Climate Disinformation Coalition is a project of the Global Center for Climate Justice, a self-described “multidisciplinary resource center dedicated to advancing a more transformative and emancipatory climate justice politics.”
In a newsletter published last month, the Global Center for Climate Justice explained that the Climate Disinformation Coalition “was created to counter the power and influence of” a “large denial ecosystem,” which includes fossil fuel corporations, conservative philanthropists and news outlets, and the Republican Party. The Coalition accuses the groups of “circulat[ing] suspicion and fear online in an attempt to convince readers that any climate action or regulations will result in the loss of their freedom.”
When asked if they consulted with scientists who might have different opinions about climate change, Pinterest told Mind Matters News that they sought council from “climate scientists, coalitions and members of academia” before implementing their new policy:
We heard over and over again from the experts we talked to about five climate change misinformation narratives that are causing real harm:
That climate change is not real
That it’s not caused by humans
That it’s not bad or urgent
That experts and their models are unreliable (including misrepresenting their data) and
That scientifically backed climate solutions won’t work.
But is there actually a “scientific consensus” on climate change?
Dr. William Happer told Mind Matters News that’s not actually how science works.
Dr. Happer is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics at Princeton University, his alma mater. He’s an accomplished scientist, and a voice dissenting from the “scientific consensus” on climate change.
“You don’t vote on the law of gravity,” Happer said. “You do a lot of experiments and measurements and see if they agree with the assumed law of gravity. If they do, it doesn’t matter if 99% of scientists disagree with it. It’s still true. So consensus is an awful argument. I would be embarrassed to use it. And in fact, scientific consensuses are often wrong. Science advances by bringing down false consensuses. That’s been the case forever.”
Among those changes in scientific consensus, Happer pointed to the ether theory widely accepted by scientists before Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the ridicule the continental drift theory faced until it led to what scientists now embrace as plate tectonic theory.
Dr. Happer might not be one to open a Pinterest account, but the company’s policy shuts down any meaningful debate that could spur science on toward a better understanding of the world. Pinterest might be the first company to implement such a strict ban, but what if it’s not the last?
It’s possible that Pinterest caved to outside pressure. CNN reported that last November, “more than 200 climate scientists, activists and organizations fighting disinformation signed an open letter addressed to the heads of Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit calling on them to implement climate misinformation policies similar to their ‘robust COVID-19’ policies.”
What’s the solution? Happer suggested a public debate.
“Let’s get the best scientists who promote alarmism and let’s get the best scientists we can find on the other side – there are plenty out there – and let’s publicly go through all the arguments, one after the other, and make the best case.”
In fact, England’s foremost science institution, the Royal Society, agrees with Happer. Earlier this year, they published a report discouraging social media companies from censoring misinformation, explaining that it does more harm than good.
This isn’t the first time Pinterest has banned certain viewpoints. In 2017, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Pinterest banned anti-vaccine content. In 2020, they banned election misinformation, and in 2021, they banned ads that included “weight loss language and imagery.”
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Royal Society: Don’t Censor Misinformation; It Makes Things Worse. While others demand crackdowns on “fake news,” the Society reminds us that the history of science is one of error correction. It’s a fact that much COVID news later thought to need correction was in fact purveyed by official sources, not blogs or Facebook or Twitter accounts. (Denyse O’Leary)
Google and YouTube Demonetize Climate Change Skeptics. But how did Google acquire the authority to declare what is “misinformation” or “scientific consensus”? “One of the most aggressive measures” taken depends wholly on a current consensus in science, a field that, by definition, requires skepticism. (Caitlin Bassett)