YouTube is broadcasting climate denial and misinformation to many millions, and some of the world’s biggest brands are unknowingly underwriting that activity, warns a new study conducted by Avaaz.
The study “classified videos as ‘climate denial and misinformation’ if they contained verifiably false or misleading information that has the potential to cause public harm, such as undermining public support for efforts to limit human-induced climate change, as assessed against the scientific consensus represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, NOAA [the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], and other peer-reviewed scientific literature,” writes newsletter editor Judd Legum of Popular Information
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One such video on the PragerU channel, run by conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager, claims there “has been no significant warming trend in the 21st century” and “temperatures and carbon dioxide levels do not show a strong correlation,” Legum adds. At time of writing, the video had received 3.6 million views.
Because YouTube is not full transparent about its recommendation algorithm, the Avaaz team generated its own list of “related” videos by identifying the top picks for three climate-related search terms (climate change, global warming, and climate manipulation), then using YouTube’s own publicly available data tools to build its video set.
YouTube’s parent company, Google, told Popular Information that “the query used by Avaaz generates a list of videos typically viewed by users in the same session,” but one that “does not directly correlate to videos featured by YouTube’s recommendation engine.”
Not so, says Popular Information, citing Avaaz’s observation that because “70% of the time users spend on YouTube is driven by the platform’s recommendations,” related videos are “very likely to make up a large portion of the top videos recommended by YouTube”.
While Google told Popular Information that it has “significantly invested in reducing recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, and raising up authoritative voices on YouTube,” it added that “it considers climate misinformation that is clipped from Fox News to be part of a legitimate public discourse on a political and scientific issue,” Legum writes.
The Avaaz study also found a disturbing pattern of “turning climate denial into cash,” with climate misinformation videos regularly running ads “from a significant number of the world’s most widely recognized and trusted household brands and environmental companies and NGOs”—unbeknownst to the companies and organizations themselves.
While 45% of the advertising fee goes to YouTube, the remainder belongs to the video creator.
“Companies advertising on climate misinformation videos on YouTube include Zipcar, Samsung, Showtime, Sketchers, Hyundai, 7-11, Red Bull, Uber, Under Armour, Warner Brothers, Nikin, and L’Oreal,” Legum states. After he wrote to them all asking what action they planned to take on Avaaz’ findings, Hyundai Motor America replied that it “works constantly with YouTube to ensure its ads run on content that follows established protocols and filters, including avoiding content that promotes patently inaccurate information.”
Sustainable clothing company Nikin was more forthright. “We from NIKIN want to join Avaaz in calling on YouTube to change their algorithm [so] that disinformation doesn’t get spread around the world, and it should especially not be monetized,” the company wrote. NIKIN is “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 hands to change that.”
YouTube does allow advertisers to opt out of advertising on all videos related to climate change or global warming, Popular Information notes. But “there is currently no way to advertise on videos that contain accurate information about climate change and exclude those with disinformation.”
Avaaz recommended that YouTube stop promoting and funding climate denial by removing misinformation and disinformation videos from its recommendation algorithm, refusing any longer to monetize climate misinformation, and being more transparent about its recommendation algorithm.