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Youtube Still Promotes Climate Disinformation, Report Finds

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Climate activists hold a banner after climbing atop the roof of the entrance of the building as they protest outside offices of Youtube during the tenth day of demonstrations by the climate change action group Extinction Rebellion, in London, on Oct. 16, 2019. PAUL ELLIS / AFP / Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

You don't have to look far to find misinformation about climate science continuing to spread online through prominent social media channels like YouTube. That's despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are driving the climate crisis.


A new report by the global activist NGO Avaaz reveals that, despite YouTube's pledge to combat misinformation, the popular video site owned by Google has failed to crack down on this problem when it comes to climate change. Videos containing false or misleading information on climate change continue to reach millions of users through YouTube's recommendation algorithm. Furthermore, ads — including those from major brands and environmental groups — displayed on these videos provide a monetary incentive, not only to YouTube, but to the videos' creators to keep promoting fringe theories contrary to scientific reality.

"We found that YouTube is driving millions of people to watch climate misinformation videos every day," Avaaz writes in its report, titled Why is YouTube Broadcasting Climate Misinformation to Millions? "YouTube's recommendation algorithm is giving these videos free promotion and showing misinformation to millions who wouldn't have been exposed to it otherwise."

Monetizing Misinformation

Examples of videos identified as containing climate misinformation include titles such as "ACTUAL SCIENTIST: Climate Change is a Hoax" and "CIA Whistleblower Speaks Out About Climate Engineering Vaccination Dangers and 911." Other videos feature interviews with climate science deniers, such as Patrick Moore, and promote false claims that there is no evidence that CO2 emissions are the dominant cause of climate change (there is and they are).

Not all of the channels promoting misinformation are owned by pseudonymous individuals with fringe ideas. Some come from established media organizations such as Fox News and the conservative media nonprofit PragerU.

Avaaz uncovered these examples by reviewing over 5,000 videos using the search terms "global warming," "climate change," and "climate manipulation." The NGO found a number of videos containing misleading or false information for each search term.

"For the search term 'global warming,' 16 percent of the top 100 related videos included under the up-next feature had misinformation about climate change," the report states. The percentage of top 100 related videos with climate misinformation, promoted through YouTube's recommendation algorithm, dropped to 8 percent when the search term "climate change" was used. When the researchers typed in "climate manipulation," however, that percentage rose to 21 percent. According to Avaaz, the climate misinformation videos it reviewed had 21.1 million views collectively.

Avaaz researchers also found that some of these climate misinformation videos had accompanying advertisements, indicating that YouTube is incentivizing climate misinformation through its monetization program. As the report points out, 55 percent of the fee that advertisers pay goes to the video creator, while 45 percent goes to YouTube.

Avaaz identified ads from over 100 brands appearing alongside the climate misinformation videos that it reviewed. These included major consumer brands such as Samsung and L'Oréal, ethical or green brands such as Ecosia and Nikin, and environmental groups such as WWF and Greenpeace.

"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," a company spokesperson for the Swiss sustainable fashion company said in response to the Avaaz report. "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."

Avaaz Recommends Further Action, Youtube Defends Its Policies

Avaaz acknowledged steps that YouTube and Google have taken to update the video platform's Community Guidelines policy and fight disinformation. In 2015 YouTube initiated a campaign to help "change the way people discuss climate change," and climate-related videos now include a Wikipedia link to basic, definitive information on the term "global warming."

In February 2019 Google issued a white paper on fighting disinformation, stating: "We 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, medicine, news, or historical events." Google said it introduced a "higher bar" for the promotion of YouTube videos. YouTube has also updated its policies on the kind of content it prohibits and has taken steps to protect its users from exposure to misinformation on vaccine safety and conspiracy theories.

The relative number and views of the top 100 videos found searching for "global warming" on YouTube and identifying those featuring climate misinformation. DeSmogBlog / Avaaz

But Avaaz says these actions are not enough.

"Climate misinformation threatens the health and safety of our societies and our planet. YouTube has taken notable strides to act against disinformation, but our research proves that more is needed," said Julie Deruy, senior campaigner at Avaaz. "YouTube can and should immediately move to include climate misinformation in the company's borderline content policy and allow advertisers to exclude their ads from videos with climate misinformation." (Borderline content refers to videos that walk the line of violating YouTube's terms of service and has been the subject of much scrutiny).

The Avaaz report outlines several recommendations, based on consultation with industry experts, advertisers, and legislators around the world. These recommendations, quoted here from the report, suggest the video platform:

  1. Detox the YouTube Recommendation Algorithms: The company must end its free promotion of misinformation and disinformation videos by extracting such videos from its algorithms, starting immediately by including climate misinformation in its borderline content policy.
  2. Demonetize Disinformation: Add disinformation and misinformation to YouTube's relevant monetization policies, ensuring such content does not include advertising and is not financially incentivized. YouTube should start immediately with the option for advertisers to exclude their ads from videos with climate misinformation.
  3. Correct the Record: Work with independent fact-checkers to inform users who have seen or interacted with verifiably false or misleading information, and issue corrections alongside these videos.
  4. 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. YouTube must also work with researchers to ensure access to its recommendation algorithms to study misinformation.

DeSmog reached out to one researcher who has studied YouTube's promotion of videos containing conspiracy theories or false information on climate change. Dr. Joachim Allgaier, senior researcher at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, authored a study published last summer finding that YouTube's video recommendation algorithm boosted videos that misrepresented the scientific consensus on climate. Of the 200 videos he reviewed, more than half presented views contrary to mainstream climate science. Allgaier's findings are consistent with those of Avaaz, and he said he supports the recommendations in its new report.

"I hope [YouTube] will be more transparent on how science-related videos get recommended or not and what exactly they are doing against the promotion of misinformation/disinformation," Allgaier said via email. "And they obviously need to stop the monetization of disinformation videos! To be more transparent and respond to requests and questions from researchers and NGOs would be a prerequisite for being a reliable source of information. From this point of view there still is a lot of room for improvement."

Avaaz mock up of what effective misinformation corrections could look like on YouTube videos. DeSmogBlog / Avaaz

DeSmog also reached out to Google, parent company of YouTube, and a company spokesperson defended YouTube's policies, saying that false information does not necessarily violate the site's community guidelines. YouTube indicated that it is not inclined to adopt the recommendations in the Avaaz report, due to concerns on limiting free speech.

"We can't speak to Avaaz's methodology or results, and our recommendations systems are not designed to filter or demote videos or channels based on specific perspectives. YouTube has strict ad policies that govern where ads are allowed to appear and we give advertisers tools to opt out of content that doesn't align with their brand," a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement responding to the report.

"We've also significantly invested in reducing recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, and raising up authoritative voices on YouTube," the spokesperson continued. "In 2019 alone, the consumption on authoritative news publishers' channels grew by 60 percent. As our systems appear to have done in the majority of cases in this report, we prioritize authoritative voices for millions of news and information queries, and surface information panels on topics prone to misinformation — including climate change — to provide users with context alongside their content. We continue to expand these efforts to more topics and countries."

Avaaz said it stands by its findings, and criticized YouTube for knowingly promoting false information on climate change.

"YouTube is the largest broadcasting channel in the world, and it is driving millions of people to climate misinformation videos," said Avaaz's Deruy. "This is not about free speech, this is about the free advertising YouTube is giving to factually inaccurate videos that risk confusing people about one of the biggest crises of our time. The bottom line is that YouTube should not feature, suggest, promote, advertise, or lead users to misinformation."

Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.