Youtube Still Promotes Climate Disinformation, Report Finds
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.
Avaaz asked @YouTube to extract such videos from its recommendation algorithms and include climate misinformation i… https://t.co/NzWjYntEMW— Avaaz (@Avaaz)1579172170.0
"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."
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.
If you search for terms such as “global warming” on @YouTube, you might end up watching #misinformation about… https://t.co/hOlAWVCRuN— Avaaz (@Avaaz)1579172161.0
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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