A Pinterest executive has apologized after Molly Russell was able to see graphic images of self-harm and suicide on the image-sharing platform before she took her own life.
The 14-year-old died in November 2017 after spending months scrolling through thousands of dark images on social media, including Pinterest.
Judson Hoffman, Pinterest’s head of community operations, flew from the US to give evidence at the trial at North London Coroner’s Court in a first for the company.
On Thursday, he was shown many of the harrowing images that Molly either saw on Pinterest or that the tech giant emailed her directly and continued to do so after she died.
Several of the images she saw — including one showing self-harm on an arm under the words “the only thing about my body that’s perfect” — had appeared in Pinterest’s guidelines at the time as examples of posts that should be hidden by moderators.
Oliver Sanders KC, representing the Russell family, showed Hoffman the first 100 images the teenager saw or interacted with after creating an account in 2016, followed by the last 100 before her death.
The latter tranche was almost exclusively self-harming images or quotes about suicide, depression and worthlessness.
Sanders said: “Do you accept that there is a clear change in the quality of the material at the end of the period?”
Mr Hoffman replied: “I do and I think it’s important to note that I deeply regret that she was able to access any of the content she was shown.”
Molly saw thousands of images, or Pins, between the time she created her account and her death in 2017, the court was told.
After she took her own life, her family noticed she continued to receive emails from Pinterest, suggesting images she might like under topics including “depression”.
One such image had a quote emblazoned on a photograph of a dark forest that read: “Put flowers on my grave so I can look beautiful for once.”
Sanders asked Hoffman, “Is there anything that falls under the category of something Pinterest regrets sending to the family of a dead girl who’s in her grave at that point?” Mr. Hoffman replied, “Yes.”
The manager told the inquest that at the time Molly had viewed the suicide content on the platform, it had a specific team that moderated and removed certain images.
According to the platform’s rules at the time, images that gave instructions on how to self-harm or promoted it had to be removed immediately, while so-called “triggering” content, including images of self-harm, had to be hidden.
An internal Pinterest training slide from the time, shown to the survey, said: “When in doubt, lean towards easier action.” However, none of the images seen by Molly were removed or hidden by Pinterest at the time, the inquest heard.
‘I find it disturbing, I will say that’
Sanders suggested to Hoffman that some of the images Pinterest previously classified as “triggering” actually “encouraged self-harm and suicide,” such as images of knives and self-harm.
Mr Hoffman replied that he was not an expert in the field and Pinterest had consulted outside organisations, such as the Samaritans, when developing its guidelines at the time.
Sanders said, “When you speak for yourself, disregarding expert guidance, can you see that it can be encouraging and suggestive of self-harm?” Mr Hoffman said: “I find it disturbing, I will say that.”
Asked if it was safe for children to watch, he again said he was no expert. Sanders asked, “Do you want to show it to your kids?” Mr. Hoffman said, “No.”
The Pinterest boss was then asked if, in addition to his regrets, he was sorry, and replied: “I’m sorry that it happened.”
Pinterest, which has around 430 million monthly active users, now has artificial intelligence software that can automatically identify and hide self-harming images uploaded by users. The platform tightened its policy on such content in 2019, the investigation heard.
The inquest was told that Molly had shouted unanswered cries for help into the “empty void” of social media by tweeting celebrities such as JK Rowling about her depression.
Ian Russell, her father, told North London Coroner’s Court on Thursday that he believed social media “helped kill my daughter and too much of that content is still there”.
Giving evidence to the inquest into her death, the 59-year-old said another platform used by Molly, Twitter, had given him access to her account after he died.
He found that in the months before her suicide, Molly had repeatedly sent tweets to a YouTube star called Salice Rose, a rapper called Phora and Harry Potter author Rowling.
Russell told the court: “She sought help from celebrities and influencers with thousands or even millions of followers who wouldn’t even notice one little tweet from someone like Molly. She cried out into an empty void, in fact she was never going to be noticed.”