A top executive at social media giant Pinterest has apologized, admitting the site was “not secure” when schoolgirl Molly Russell used it.
The company’s head of community operations, Judson Hoffman, told the North London Coroner’s Court that self-harm or suicide content that violates its policies “probably still exists on our platform” and admitted it’s not as safe as it could be. .
Hoffman said he “deeply regrets” the posts Molly viewed on Pinterest before her death, saying it was material he “would not show my children.”
The 14-year-old girl, from Harrow, northwest London, ended her life in November 2017, prompting her family to campaign for better internet safety.
On Thursday, Hoffman was led through emails sent to Molly as “10 Depression Pins You Might Like,” which the witness said contained “the kind of content we wouldn’t want anyone to spend 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,” which was said in court to be akin to creating a collage.
Hoffman called the platform “secure but imperfect” and admitted that harmful content still “probably exists” on the site.
The senior executive said recent searches for “suicide quotes,” which was a term used by Molly, turned up content that he agreed should have been removed.
He told the court it was a “mistake” that the material had not been removed, as the phrase should have been part of the banned search terms.
Hoffman said: “Content that violates our policies likely still exists on our platform.
“It is secure but imperfect and we strive every day to make it more and more secure.”
Coroner Andrew Walker asked, “Isn’t that as safe as it could be?”
Hoffman replied: “Yes, because it could be perfect.”
Oliver Sanders KC, representing the teen’s family, asked, “Does Pinterest accept that its platform should be safe for children?”
Hoffman responded: “It should be safe for everyone on the platform.”
Sanders continued: “And do you accept that in 2017, when Molly was on it, it wasn’t safe?”
Mr. Hoffman responded: “That’s correct, there was content that should have been removed and it wasn’t.”
Giving evidence from the witness stand, the top executive was taken through a host of “disturbing” images Molly had interacted with on the site related to self-harm, suicide and depression.
The court was shown two streams of content the teenager viewed, comparing material she viewed earlier in her use of the platform and in the months closest to her death.
While the former content included a wide variety of material, the latter focused on depression, self-harm, and suicide.
Asked by Sanders if he agreed that the type of content had changed, Hoffman said, “Yes, and it’s important to note, and I deeply regret that she was able to access some of the content that’s shown.”
Sanders asked, “Are you sorry for what happened?”
Hoffman responded, “I’m sorry it happened.”
The witness insisted that the platform had not taken the “risky” option of allowing children to use it despite the possibility that they might 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 can still find such content, the investigation said.
Sanders suggested to Hoffman that the site had “chosen to take risks” when there was a “risk-free option” to not allow children to access Pinterest.
Hoffman responded, “I would say he chose an option that is absolutely no risk, I wouldn’t say a risky option…obviously our intention is to reduce risk.”
The top executive said the technology available to the company now was “just not available to us” before Molly’s death.
The court heard that Pinterest sent other emails to Molly with headers such as “depression recovery, depressed girl and more trending pins on Pinterest” and “new ideas for you in depression”.
Sanders asked Hoffman if he believed the images in the emails sent by the company were “safe for children to view.”
He replied, “I want to be careful here because of the guidance we’ve seen.
“I will say that this is the kind of content that we wouldn’t want anyone to spend a lot of time with.”
The investigation was told that Molly created a number of boards on Pinterest, including two of interest to the proceedings.
Sanders said that one board was called “stay strong,” which tended to “have more positive material,” while the other board, with “much more pessimistic and negative content,” was called “nothing to worry about.”
The investigation, which should last up to two weeks, continues.