YouTube is spreading climate lies, and big brands are making it profitable

This post is re-published with permission from Judd Legum’s newsletter, Popular Information.

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A new study reveals that YouTube is pushing millions of people to watch videos with dangerous misinformation about climate change.

For searches of the term "global warming," for example, 16 percent of the top 100 related videos contained misinformation about climate change. Overall, YouTube has likely facilitated hundreds of millions of views of climate misinformation videos.

The study was conducted by Avaaz, an international non-profit working to "protect democracies from the dangers of disinformation on social media." The group provided an advance copy of the report to Popular Information.

The study "classified videos as 'climate denial and misinformation' if they contained verifiably false or misleading information that has the potential to cause public harm, such as undermining public support for efforts to limit human-induced climate change, as assessed against the scientific consensus represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, NOAA and other peer-reviewed scientific literature."

One climate misinformation video captured by the study, "What They Haven’t Told You about Climate Change," claimed there "has been no significant warming trend in the 21st century" and "temperatures and carbon dioxide levels do not show a strong correlation."

All of this is false and runs counter to the consensus of the scientific community. The video was uploaded on the PragerU channel, which is run by conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager. It currently has 3.6 million views on YouTube.

It is narrated by Patrick Moore, who is identified in the video as the "co-founder of Greenpeace." Moore is not the co-founder of Greenpeace

YouTube does not provide full transparency on its recommendation algorithm, so designing the study was tricky. Avaaz found the top YouTube video for three climate-related search terms — "global warming," "climate change," and "climate manipulation." It then used YouTube's publicly available data tools to generate lists of "related" videos. 

Google, which owns YouTube, told Popular Information that the query used by Avaaz generates a list of videos typically viewed by users in the same session. According to a Google spokesperson, this does not directly correlate to videos featured by YouTube's recommendation engine. 

But, as Avaaz notes, "70 percent of the time users spend on YouTube is driven by the platform’s recommendations." So, "related videos are very likely to make up a large portion of the top videos recommended by YouTube." That's why the methodology employed by Avaaz has been "utilized by various researchers seeking to understand how the algorithm works, including Peer Reviewed Publications." 

In a statement to Popular Information, Google said its "recommendations systems are not designed to filter or demote videos or channels based on specific perspectives." The company added that it has "significantly invested in reducing recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, and raising up authoritative voices on YouTube." 

Google said that some climate misinformation videos are considered "harmful misinformation," but some of the videos flagged by Avaaz are not. For example, Google told Popular Information it considers climate misinformation that is clipped from Fox News to be part of a legitimate public discourse on a political and scientific issue. 

Turning climate denial into cash

YouTube isn't just showing climate disinformation to millions of people. YouTube is profiting off some of this activity and helping the people who create these videos make money. 

Avaaz found "ads from a significant number of the world’s most widely recognized and trusted household brands and environmental companies and NGOs running on the climate misinformation videos." Each time one of those ads runs on YouTube, "the advertiser pays a fee, of which 55 percent goes to the video creator and the other 45 percent to YouTube."

Companies advertising on climate misinformation videos on YouTube include Zipcar, Samsung, Showtime, Sketchers, Hyundai, 7-11, Red Bull, Uber, Under Armour, Warner Brothers, Nikin, and L’Oreal.

Popular Information contacted all of those companies and organizations and asked if they would take any action in response to Avaaz's report. 

Nikin, a sustainable clothing company that was found advertising on YouTube's climate misinformation videos, provided the following statement:

We from NIKIN want to join Avaaz in calling on Youtube to change their algorithm that disinformation doesn’t get spread around the world and it should especially not be monetized. We from NIKIN are a sustainable brand that used Youtube as an advertising platform, but our videos got shown before videos that call climate change a hoax. This is completely against what we want and the responsibility lies in Youtube’s hand to change that. Therefore, we hereby want to state NIKIN’s dissatisfaction about this problem that does not only affect NIKIN, it affects the whole world and should be an urgent topic for Youtube to tackle.

Hyundai also sent a statement:

Hyundai Motor America works constantly with YouTube to ensure its ads run on content that follows established protocols and filters, including avoiding content that promotes patently inaccurate information.

Hyundai said it was "looking further into the reported ad placement." The other companies did not immediately respond.

Google told Popular Information that climate disinformation does not violate its ad guidelines and that its platforms are designed to support a range of beliefs. Advertisers can opt to exclude their ads from all videos related to "Climate Change & Global Warming." But there is currently no way to advertise on videos that contain accurate information about climate change and exclude those with disinformation. 

The "information panel" fix

Sixty-four percent of the videos flagged by Avaaz contain an "information panel," which is a small snippet of text followed by a link to the Wikipedia article on Global Warming. 

This is YouTube's attempt to combat climate misinformation. But is it effective? Avaaz notes that the Wikipedia article contains "general information about global warming," and there is "no flag to users that these videos contained misinformation."

The Wikipedia article is also 22,000 words long. Someone could watch the video, read the article, and come to the conclusions that the video is inaccurate. But it seems very unlikely that many people browsing YouTube are undertaking that task. 

Fixing YouTube

Avaaz is encouraging YouTube to take several steps to fix the problem, including:

1. Remove climate disinformation from YouTube's recommendation engine. "The company must end its free promotion of misinformation and disinformation videos by extracting such videos from its recommendation algorithms."

2. Stop making misinformation profitable. "Add misinformation and disinformation to YouTube’s relevant monetization policies, ensuring such content does not include advertising and is not financially incentivized."

3. Provide greater transparency. "Although YouTube promises to work openly with researchers, the company maintains an opaque process around its recommendation algorithms and on how effective its policies are in dealing with misinformation. YouTube should immediately release data showing the amount of views on misinformation content that were driven by its recommendation algorithms."

Avaaz also recommends making the publication of climate misinformation a violation of Google's Community Guidelines. Under the guidelines, channels with three violations in 90 days are terminated. 

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