If an average Internet user opens up YouTube to learn about climate change, they might search for “global warming” or “climate engineering” or simply “climate change.” What videos will show up? A new study found that more than half of the videos that appear in a climate-related YouTube search promote views that oppose the scientific consensus on climate change.
“Searching YouTube for climate-science and climate-engineering-related terms finds fewer than half of the videos represent mainstream scientific views,” Joachim Allgaier, a senior researcher at Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen University in Germany, said in a statement.
The number of videos promoting outright climate change denial was much lower than those supporting the scientific consensus, but chemtrail conspiracy videos were the most numerous. “It’s alarming to find that the majority of videos propagate conspiracy theories about climate science and technology,” he said.
Overall, climate consensus videos were slightly more popular than nonconsensus videos. The study was published on 25 July in Frontiers in Communication.
A Powerful (Mis)information Platform
YouTube reports that nearly 2 billion logged-in users around the world access its platform every month. Science teachers and professors use YouTube videos to enhance curricula, and a growing body of research shows that YouTube can be a self-education tool outside the classroom.
But misinformation and conspiracies abound with climate science, particularly on social media, and it’s unclear which videos might appear for typical Internet users who don’t normally search for science videos.
To answer that question, Allgaier mined YouTube using 10 common climate-related search terms—for example, climate, climate change, geoengineering, global warming, and chemtrails—and used an online anonymity network so that searches would not be affected by past activity. He then evaluated the search results on whether the videos promoted the consensus view on human-induced climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Of the 200 climate-related videos he analyzed, Allgaier found that 44.5% promoted the scientific consensus view and a further 2% were in a debate format that also included nonconsensus views. Only 8% of the videos focused on outright climate change denial.
The remaining 45.5% of videos focused on climate conspiracy theories about chemtrails. Chemtrail conspiracy videos dominated search results for “chemtrails” (95%), “climate manipulation” (75%), “climate modification” (95%), and “geoengineering” (90%) and also appeared in other search results.
People searching for information on climate mitigation strategies “won’t find any information on these topics in the way they are discussed by scientists and engineers,” Allgaier concluded. “Instead, searching for these terms results in videos that leave users exposed to entirely non-scientific video content.”
When it comes to number of views, climate consensus videos (not including debates) hold a slight edge over the nonconsensus and conspiracy videos: about 2,300 more views out of more than 34 million.
Taking Back Climate Videos
Because YouTube decides which videos appear in a search and which videos it profits from in advertising, it should play a part in the solution, Allgaier argues.
“I think YouTube should take responsibility to ensure its users will find high-quality information if they search for scientific and biomedical terms, instead of being exposed to doubtful conspiracy videos,” he said. The move would have precedent: Earlier this year, YouTube and other social media platforms removed advertising from anti-vaccine videos and categorized them as “dangerous and harmful” content.
Scientists and science communicators can play a key role, too. “YouTube has an enormous reach as an information channel, and some of the popular science YouTubers are doing an excellent job at communicating complex subjects and reaching new audiences,” Allgaier said. “Scientists could form alliances with science-communicators, politicians and those in popular culture in order to reach out to the widest-possible audience.”
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer