YouTube Is Rife With Climate Change Misinformation, Study Finds

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The scientific consensus on climate change is clear: humanity has approximately 12 years to limit the looming climate change catastrophe. As The Guardian reported, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2018 a landmark report, warning that urgent changes are needed in order to prevent extreme heat, floods, drought, and poverty.

Climate change, data suggests, needs to be confronted aggressively, and internationally. This will be discussed in September, at the United Nations‘ upcoming Climate Action Summit. The issue, according to the Secretary-General of the UN, needs to be brought “to the top of the international agenda.”

Despite all evidence showing that urgent action is needed, some reject the global scientific consensus. For instance, a Pew Research Center study released in 2019 found that only 59 percent of Americans consider climate change to be a major threat.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit science advocacy organization, pointed out, disinformation campaigns — by and large funded by fossil fuel and related industries — have long been confusing and misleading the public about the effects of global warming.

It is not only media publications, partisan think tanks and special interest groups that spread misinformation about climate change, however: bloggers and video bloggers do the same. YouTube, which has over 1.9 billion logged in monthly users, according to Brandwatch, is rife with misinformation about climate change.

A new study published in Frontiers in Communication explores YouTube’s vast world of climate change denialism.

Titled “Science and Environmental Communication on YouTube: Strategically Distorted Communications in Online Videos on Climate Change and Climate Engineering,” the study found that conspiracy theorists dominate the platform’s climate science content.

In other words, those who look for climate change-related information on YouTube are more likely to stumble upon conspiracy theories than real science.

For the study, author Dr. Joachim Allgaier, a senior researcher at the RWTH Aachen University, employed 10 common climate change-related search terms, analyzing over 200 videos. Given that YouTube’s algorithm is influenced by a user’s search and watch history, the researcher used the anonymous Tor browser to avoid result personalization. He found that the majority of videos he saw opposed the global scientific consensus.

Most climate change-related videos he analyzed promoted the so-called chemtrails conspiracy theory, which claims that governments use airplanes to “spray” the population with biological and chemical agents, modifying the weather in the process.

YouTube conspiracy theorists have also “hijacked” some relatively recent scientific terms, according to the study. Typing “geoengineering” or “climate modification” in YouTube’s search bar more often than not leads one to videos promoting baseless conspiracy theories, and denying climate science.

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As Allgaier explained in a statement supplied to Eurekalert, “people searching for ‘geoengineering’ or ‘climate modification’ on YouTube won’t find any information on these topics in the way they are discussed by scientists and engineers. Instead, searching for these terms results in videos that leave users exposed to entirely non-scientific video content.”

The study concluded that the non-scientific content on YouTube needs to be countered with scientific information. Scientists need to form alliances with lawmakers and communicators, and use the platform to educate the people about climate change.

“YouTube has an enormous reach as an information channel, and some of the popular science YouTubers are doing an excellent job at communicating complex subjects and reaching new audiences,” he said.

Allgaier added that artificial intelligence plays a part as well.

“The way YouTube search algorithms work is not very transparent. We should be aware this powerful artificial intelligence is already making decisions for us, for example, if you choose to use ‘auto-play’,” he explained.