A new study, published by Avaaz, reveals that YouTube is ‘driving its users to climate misinformation and the world’s most trusted brands are paying for it.’ Avaaz is a non-profit organisation that aims to protect democracies from the dangers of disinformation on social media.
The vast reach of climate misinformation
To say YouTube is popular is an understatement: a billion hours of content is watched on YouTube daily. The platform doesn’t just provide entertainment, viewers also access it for content that provide information and education.
In its investigation, Avaaz examined YouTube’s results for search terms ‘global warming,’ ’climate change,’ or ‘climate manipulation.’ The study reveals that millions of people are delivered climate misinformation videos every day. These videos are promoted through YouTube’s recommendation algorithm for related videos.
The content served
17% of the views for top 100 related ‘climate change’ videos were on climate misinformation videos. This number rises to over 20% for ‘global warming’ and 27% for ‘climate manipulation’.
What counts as misinformation videos? Those that had easily found evidence of claims that were false or misleading, and against the scientific consensus of peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Some of these videos have garnered millions of views, including one show falsely claiming its guest to be a co-founder of Greenpeace. Another falsely claims that 31 of 32 climate models are flawed by design to vastly over-predict warming.
Google and YouTube: public positions vs action
YouTube and creators earn money from views of these disinformation videos through ads. One in five ads of the videos in the investigation were paid for by ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ brands like World Wildlife Fund, Save The Children, and Greenpeace International.
In 2015, YouTube launched a publicity campaign against climate change. Its parent company Google claims to ‘set out to prevent our systems from serving up content that could misinform users in a harmful way, particularly in domains that rely on veracity, such as science’. Following that, YouTube’s algorithms are supposed to contain a higher bar for videos promoted in the homepage or through the recommendation engine. In some countries, YouTube even provides a link to a Wikipedia article on global warming under some promoted videos, but does not provide indication that the video contains misinformation.
Google has claimed that climate disinformation does not violate ad guidelines. Instead, advertisers can opt out of all videos related to ‘Climate Change & Global Warming’. Perhaps this option makes sense for some brands, but it does not address an underlying issue: that climate misinformation videos are a source of revenue in the first place, for both the platform and the creators of the videos. For environmental groups advertising on YouTube, it makes sense to target viewers interested in climate change and global warming. Yet YouTube does not provide the choice to exclude climate disinformation videos.
To this end, Avaaz has called on media practitioners and brands to use their advertising budgets as leverage, and demand that YouTube not display their ads on videos that promote climate misinformation.
Their recommended steps for YouTube include:
- ‘detox’ their algorithm to end free promotion of disinformation videos
- make the process of dealing with misinformation transparent
- demonitise disinformation, and immediately provide option for advertisers to exclude climate misinformation videos
- collaborate with independent fact checkers, issue corrections
- make climate misinformation a violation of Google’s Community Guidelines.
Download study (PDF)
Fake news threaten a climate literate world (Nature Communications)