How YouTube Profits From Climate Denial and Misinformation

Illustration for article titled How YouTube Profits From Climate Denial and Misinformation
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If you search for videos about climate change on Youtube, you might run into one from PragerU called What They Haven’t Told You About Climate Change. In the video, a Canadian energy consultant named Patrick Moore claims that the world hasn’t been significantly warmer in the 21st century (which is not true) and that there’s no strong correlation between global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels (also obviously false). Moore, an infamous climate denier, is billed as a co-founder of Greenpeace, which is also not true!

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Yet YouTube is promoting that video with their recommendation algorithm, and running Greenpeace ads on it. And while it’s an egregious example of disinformation being spread, it’s hardly the only climate denial YouTube is promoting and making money off of.

A new study from the human rights nonprofit Avaaz found that YouTube has been “actively promoting” videos that spread climate denial and placing ads on them. The group searched the terms “climate change,” global warming” and “climate manipulation,” specifically focusing on the content YouTube suggested in its “Up Next” feature and suggestions bar. All told, it turned up 5,537 videos featuring climate denial. The videos had a combined 21.1 million views. 

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On those videos, Avaaz found ads from 108 brands, including major ones like Samsung and L’Oréal. One in five of those ads were from environmental or “ethical” brands like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and Save the Children. That means YouTube is making money off climate denial and through its partnership program with creators, ensuring deniers reap some of the profit, too.

It’s no surprise that a $160 billion company is making money in evil ways. After all, there’s really no way to make that much money ethically. But in our current media climate, this shit is especially scary.

With trust in the mass media low (which, totally fair), more people are turning to resources like YouTube to get their information. According to a poll Pew Research released last month, 28 percent of adults in the U.S. get their news from the platform. And while most YouTube users said they at least occasionally came across obvious misinformation on the site, some of the misinformation Avaaz found might not be so obvious.

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Take that PragerU video. It’s hosted by an old white guy wearing a blazer. It’s got plain fonts and simple graphics. If you don’t already know that PragerUis actually a monstrous right-wing hub of misinformation, you could easily mistake it for something from an actual, trustworthy university (that’s what the “U” stands for despite PragerU not being an accredited university or, you know, teaching any actual classes). I’d understand if someone didn’t realize how wrong the videos are.

This is far from the first time that YouTube has been called out for letting misinformation spread across its platform. Last summer, a study found that fewer than half of the videos found by searching terms related to climate science and geoengineering represented the scientific consensus.

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A year ago, YouTube said it would stop promoting “borderline” content. Shortly afterward, they said in a white paper that they “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.” The Avaaz study shows that if they really want to adhere to that, they’ve got a lot more work to do on that front. Because again, despite what these promoted videos say, the world has been getting way hotter, and there is scientific consensus that that’s because of greenhouse gases.

Earther reached out to YouTube for comment, but it wasn’t immediately available to respond. In a public statement, the company said that advertisers can “opt out of content that doesn’t align with their brand,” and that they’ve “significantly invested in reducing recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, and raising up authoritative voices on YouTube.”

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This could get a bit complicated, because it’s not just fringe YouTube videos that espouse incorrect views on climate change. One of the videos highlighted in the Avaaz study is from Fox News, which includes “harmful misinformation.” But Fox is considered mainstream media, not “borderline content” despite a number of questionable stories and videos.

But Avaaz isn’t asking YouTube to get rid of all the climate denying videos on their platform. They’re just asking it to prioritize videos that don’t contain a bunch of lies about the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. That’s the least YouTube can do, even if costs the company some money. I’m pretty sure YouTube can afford it.

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Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

icemetalpunk2
IceMetalPunk

I think the tone of this article is a bit misleading. It makes it sound like YouTube is intentionally, actively promoting misinformation, whereas it sounds to me more a simple failure of the machine learning behind the recommendation system to determine what’s accurate and what’s not. Which makes perfect sense, since those algorithms don’t really get information from external sources to compare against, and even plenty of *humans* can’t tell the difference (hence why these videos are so popular).

Sounds to me like they just need to work out the kinks in the algorithm — maybe by incorporating more external training data? — and shouldn’t be vilified for a failure of an isolated AI to be better than humans at discerning fact from fiction.