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 Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton 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.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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