New York: YouTube is great for many things: makeup tutorials, entertaining animal clips and oddly satisfying videos of people smashing their faces into loaves of bread. It’s not necessarily great for nuanced scientific explanations.
Many of the most popular videos on the service, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, denounce or ignore mainstream climate science, while others propagate conspiracy theories, according to new research by Frontiers in Communication.
The study analyzed the top 20 videos for eight specific search terms related to climate change. Basic searches for “climate,” “climate change” and “global warming” generally yielded videos that lined up with scientific consensus. Of the top 20 videos for “climate,” for example, 18 agreed with findings shared by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
More specific searches, however, often directed viewers to videos that disagree with the scientific consensus. Users looking for information about geoengineering, for instance, found that 18 of the top 20 videos discussed conspiracy theories such as “chemtrails”—the belief that the condensation trail from flying planes (contrails) have been purposely enriched with toxins, microchips or other harmful substances as part of an illicit government operation. Even more worrying, those 18 videos accounted for 98% of the views for the category. Just one video tried to denounce the conspiracy theory; it garnered 1.5% of the views for the category as a whole.
Many of the chemtrail conspiracy theorists are portrayed as experts, or as holding various forms of professional and scientific credentials, the study found.
The amount of disinformation on the platform will make it “difficult to have a serious debate about geoengineering,” said Joachim Allgaier, the author of the study. “This could really strongly undermine the authority of science.”
YouTube, like Facebook and Twitter, has faced considerable criticism for letting misinformation spread unchecked on its video site. “Since this study was conducted in 2018, we’ve made hundreds of changes to our platform and the results of this study do not accurately reflect the way that YouTube works today,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement. “Changes include better surfacing authoritative news sources when people search for news-related topics and introducing information panels for topics prone to conspiracy theories. And in January 2019 we began reducing recommendations of borderline content or videos that could misinform users in harmful ways. These changes have already reduced views from recommendations of this type of content by 50% in the U.S.”
The company has also worked to provide more context to users about the news they watch. A YouTube search conducted for “chemtrails” this week surfaced an encyclopedia entry about contrails on top of the video results.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study found 21% of U.S. adults get news from YouTube. Another Pew study last year found 53% of adult U.S. YouTube users said the site is at least somewhat important for helping them understand things that are happening in the world.
Of the 200 videos examined in the Frontiers in Communication study, 107 opposed consensus scientific views, 89 supported them and 4 featured climate scientists discussing climate topics with climate change deniers. Those in support of mainstream climate science amassed just 2,294 more views than those opposing it. It’s important to note that not everyone who watches a conspiracy theory video necessarily believes it, and there are ways to manipulate the number of views a YouTube video receives.
Allgaier hopes scientists will engage more on YouTube and combat the platform’s issues by providing viewers with “scientifically correct” information.
The study used Tor, an online anonymization tool, to avoid personalized results. Duplicate and irrelevant videos (such as advertisements) were omitted. The oldest video was uploaded in September 2008, the most recent in October 2018. Barring two terms added at later dates, the searches were all carried out in 2015.