Pinterest’s efforts to moderate vaccine discussion may be causing an information vacuum

The social media platform’s 2019 policy to curb vaccine misinformation has led to an increase in the presence of verified medical sources, but a reduction in content visibility.

The screen of a smartphone showing icons for Pinterest and other applications.
A study led by VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Jeanine Guidry compares how HPV vaccination was portrayed on Pinterest before and after the social media platform began moderating content related to vaccines. (James Irwin, University Public Affairs)

A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher’s study of Pinterest finds the social media platform’s efforts to moderate vaccine discussion have been largely successful, but also may contribute to an information vacuum.

The study, led by VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., and published in the American Journal of Public Health, compared how human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination was portrayed on Pinterest before and after the social media platform began moderating content related to vaccines.

Guidry’s study, a quantitative analysis of two samples of 500 HPV vaccine-related posts — collected before and after Pinterest’s 2019 policy that only allows public health organizations to generate vaccine-related content — showed that the majority of search results prior to the policy change leaned toward vaccine skepticism, specifically focused on perceived vaccine barriers. These posts were associated with higher levels of engagement and mainly published by unverified individuals. Very little content was generated from official public health or medical accounts. Post-policy search results showed a significant shift to HPV vaccination benefits and increase in the presence of government or medical accounts. However, the proportion of HPV content of any type in search results was significantly lower.

“It was not surprising that earlier posts were largely anti-vaccine,” said Guidry, an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and director of the Media+Health Lab at VCU. “What surprised us was that many of the posts were not related to the HPV vaccine or HPV at all, but rather MMR or flu vaccine. The quality of the visuals was also problematic in many cases.”

While Pinterest’s efforts to moderate vaccination discussions were largely successful, limiting HPV vaccination search results overall may contribute to confusion or an information vacuum, Guidry said. She acknowledges that more strategic efforts to promote vaccine awareness and uptake on Pinterest are needed.

“Pinterest’s curation actions are to be commended but the process needs to be improved, and this study can help inform efforts to that end — for the HPV vaccine, but also for other vaccines, including the future COVID-19 vaccine,” Guidry said.

Pinterest’s curation actions are to be commended but the process needs to be improved, and this study can help inform efforts to that end — for the HPV vaccine, but also for other vaccines, including the future COVID-19 vaccine.

This is the first study to examine how the HPV vaccine is portrayed on Pinterest and the first to compare vaccine search results before and after platform policy changes. The research builds on Guidry’s analysis of vaccine-focused Pinterest posts that she conducted during her doctoral program at the VCU School of Medicine. The findings, published in 2015, were a driving force behind Pinterest’s policy change to block vaccine misinformation and provide curated public health information.

“We are in the middle of planning for studies related to the future COVID-19 vaccine,” Guidry said. “We also just started a follow-up study analyzing content related to multiple other vaccines on Pinterest after the curation actions.”

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease and the primary cause of several cancers. Recent estimates indicate that 70-90% of HPV-related cancers may be prevented through vaccination. Despite widespread scientific agreement on benefits, misleading information about the HPV vaccine and concerns about safety are prevalent on social media.

Guidry and her collaborators selected Pinterest for their analysis because the platform has a predominantly female audience and research shows that women tend to make the most health care decisions in families. Findings from the study may help public health officials better utilize social media to tackle potentially harmful rhetoric and disseminate trustworthy health information.

“Vaccine misinformation is immensely prevalent online and particularly on social media,” said Guidry, a member of Massey Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program. “Although the specific influence of social media on medical decision-making remains understudied, research supports an association between online health information searches and medical decisions.”

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