Pinterest executive admits site was ‘not safe’ when Molly Russell used it

The social media giant’s head of community operations apologised at the inquest into the teenager’s death on Thursday.

Judson Hoffman, global head of community operations at Pinterest, leaves Barnet Coroner’s Court, north London, after giving evidence in the inquest into the death of Molly Russell
Judson Hoffman, global head of community operations at Pinterest, leaves Barnet Coroner’s Court, north London, after giving evidence in the inquest into the death of Molly Russell

A senior executive from social media giant Pinterest has apologised after admitting the site was “not safe” when schoolgirl Molly Russell used it.

The company’s head of community operations, Judson Hoffman, told North London Coroner’s Court self-harm or suicide content that violates its policies “still likely exists on our platform” and conceded it is not as safe as it could be.

Mr Hoffman said he “deeply regrets” posts viewed by Molly on Pinterest before her death – saying it was material he would “not show to my children”.

The 14-year-old, from Harrow, north-west London, ended her life in November 2017, prompting her family to campaign for better internet safety.

Molly Russell inquest
Molly Russell accessed a number of ‘disturbing’ images on Pinterest, the inquest heard (Family handout/PA)

On Thursday, Mr Hoffman was taken through emails sent to Molly such as “10 depression pins you might like”, which the witness said contained “the type of content that we wouldn’t like anyone spending a lot of time with”.

Pinterest describes itself as a “visual discovery engine for finding ideas”, where users can save the “pins” they see to their own “boards” – said in court to be akin to creating a collage.

The senior executive said the platform is “safe but imperfect” as he admitted that harmful content still “likely exists” on the site.

Mr Hoffman said: “Content that violates our policies still likely exists on our platform.

“It’s safe but imperfect and we strive everyday to make it safer and safer.”

Coroner Andrew Walker asked: “It’s not as safe as it could be?”

Mr Hoffman replied: “Yes, because it could be perfect.”

The witness also agreed that the platform was not safe when Molly used it.

Oliver Sanders KC, representing the teenager’s family, asked: “Pinterest accepts that it’s platform should be safe for children?”

Mr Hoffman answered: “It should be safe for everyone on the platform.”

Mr Sanders continued: “And it accepts that in 2017, when Molly was on it, it wasn’t safe?”

Mr Hoffman replied: “That’s correct, there was content that should have been removed that was not removed.”

Giving evidence from the witness box, the senior executive was taken through a vast number of “disturbing” images Molly had interacted with on the site relating to self-harm, suicide and depression.

Judson Hoffman, global head of community operations at Pinterest, at Barnet Coroner’s Court, north London, after giving evidence in the inquest into the death of Molly Russell
Judson Hoffman, global head of community operations at Pinterest, at Barnet Coroner’s Court, north London, after giving evidence in the inquest into the death of Molly Russell (James Manning/PA)

The court was shown two streams of content the 14-year-old saw, comparing the material she viewed earlier in her use of the platform and in the months closer to her death.

While the earlier content included a wide variety of material, the latter focused on depression, self-harm and suicide.

Asked by Mr Sanders if he agreed that the type of content had changed, Mr Hoffman said: “I do and it’s important to note, and I deeply regret that she was able to access some of the content shown.”

Mr Sanders asked: “Are you sorry it happened?”

Mr Hoffman replied: “I am sorry it happened.”

The witness insisted the platform had not taken a “risky” option of allowing children to use it despite the possibility they may encounter harmful content.

The court heard how Pinterest uses artificial intelligence and human moderators to hide or remove content related to self-harm and suicide.

The system was largely successful but users may still encounter such content, the inquest was told.

Mr Sanders suggested to Mr Hoffman the site had “chosen to take risk” when there was a “no-risk option” of not allowing children on Pinterest.

Mr Hoffman replied: “I would say chosen an option other than absolutely no risk, I would not say risky option… obviously our intention is to reduce the risk.”

The senior executive said the technology available to the company now was “just not available to us” before Molly’s death.

The court heard Pinterest sent other emails to Molly with headings such as “depression recovery, depressed girl and more pins trending on Pinterest” and “new ideas for you in depression”.

Mr Hoffman was asked by Mr Sanders if he believed the images in the emails sent by the company were “safe for children to see”.

He replied: “I want to be careful here because of the guidance that we have seen.

“I will say that this is the type of content that we wouldn’t like anyone spending a lot of time with.”

Mr Sanders said “particularly children” would find it “very difficult… to make sense” of the content, to which Mr Hoffman replied: “Yes.”

Mr Hoffman admitted some images he was shown were ones he would “not show to my children”.

The inquest was told Molly made a number of boards on Pinterest, including two of interest to proceedings.

Mr Sanders said one board was called “stay strong”, which tended to “have more positive” material pinned to it, while the other board, with “much more downbeat, negative content”, was called “nothing to worry about”.

Earlier on Thursday, Molly’s father Ian Russell was taken through posts made by his daughter on Twitter where she approached celebrities and social media influencers for help.

Mr Russell told the inquest: “I believe social media helped kill my daughter.

“I believe that too much of that content is still there and I believe there is a lack of transparency.

“Children shouldn’t be on a platform that presents a risk to their lives.”

Mr Russell was shown some tweets from Molly to celebrities where his daughter said she “just can’t take it”.

One tweet sent to American actress Lili Reinhart said: “I can’t take it any more.

“I need to reach out to someone, I just can’t take it.”

Mr Russell said: “It’s exactly that type of message… that was particularly prevalent on Twitter.

“On the Twitter platform… she reached out to celebrities with thousands or millions of followers who wouldn’t even notice one small tweet from someone like Molly.

“She was never really going to get a response.”

Mr Russell told the court that harmful and “normal” online content would have been “conflated” in his daughter’s mind.

He said “digital technology can be brilliant”, but the difference between the two types of content “would be very much blurred” for Molly.

The inquest, due to last up to two weeks, continues.

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