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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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