Do you suffer from Justin Trudeau-esque levels of judgment when it comes to fancy dress? Are you scrambling to find a last-minute Halloween costume? Pinterest is here to help save you from yourself! The visual social media platform, which many people use to search for Halloween inspiration, has said it is limiting recommendations for “costumes that appropriate cultures”. This builds on a policy from 2016 prohibiting advertisements with “culturally inappropriate costumes” and making it easy for users to report culturally insensitive content.
But what exactly does Pinterest consider “culturally inappropriate” or “culturally insensitive”? The company doesn’t make that clear. Nor does it make clear what “limiting” means. (I reached out to Pinterest for comment but didn’t hear back.) My own research didn’t provide much clarification: when I searched for “Native American Halloween costume”, for example, plenty of examples came up. There were also plenty of results for “Geisha Halloween costume” and “Arab Sheikh Halloween costume”. And when I searched “terrorist Halloween costume” a picture of a little white boy dressed as an Arab suicide bomber came up.
After playing around on Pinterest a little longer, I discovered what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been searching for Halloween costumes. If you search for “Native American costumes”, omitting the word Halloween, the cultural appropriation policy seems to kick in. You still get examples of costumes but you also get a big tab that says “Learn more: cultural appropriation on Halloween”. When you click on it you’re directed to articles about avoiding cultural appropriation. The same thing happens when you search for “geisha costumes” or “Mexican costumes” but it doesn’t happen when you search for “Arab sheikh costumes”. (Apparently stereotyping Arabs is fine.)
In short, it seems like Pinterest hasn’t thought through its cultural appropriation policies terribly well. Nor has it seen fit to explain its rationale for what is considered appropriation and what isn’t. This isn’t exactly surprising; cultural appropriation is an incredibly complex subject that is rarely treated with the nuance it deserves. The topic inevitably provokes fake outrage and strawman arguments; on the one hand you have a small minority of very vocal liberals who claim eating sushi is cultural appropriation, on the other hand you have conservatives who claim nobody is allowed to say or do anything more because of political correctness. (You only have to look at who the US president is to realise that is patently false.)
Should Pinterest be thinking about cultural appropriation at all? Well, yes. Social media platforms are never neutral. There is always some degree of censorship and editorializing going on. A recent study, for example, found that Facebook leads conservatives to read more polarized news sites; Reddit, on the other hand, leads conservatives to more politically moderate ones.
The study, by professors at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce, found that in a month when a conservative user visited Facebook more than usual, they read news that was about 30% more conservative than the online news they usually read. By contrast, when a typical conservative used Reddit more than usual, they read news that was about 50% more moderate than what they typically read. The researchers postulated that this is partly because Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes engagement (which is often a result of polarizing content) and Reddit prioritizes content based on what users have voted to be most informing or interesting.
While Pinterest’s cultural appropriation policy may be somewhat confused and confusing, the platform deserves some credit for attempting to tackle the subject at all. Nudging people who are searching for Native American costume ideas into thinking about the issues associated with that costume seems like a responsible thing to do. It certainly seems more responsible than the algorithm marking the user as an enthusiastic racist, and serving more and more racist content to them. Like certain other social platforms might do.