If you search for videos about climate change on Youtube, you might run into one from PragerU called What They Havenâ€™t Told You About Climate Change. In the video, a Canadian energy consultant named Patrick Moore claims that the world hasnâ€™t been significantly warmer in the 21st century (which is not true) and that thereâ€™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!
Yet YouTube is promoting that video with their recommendation algorithm, and running Greenpeace ads on it. And while itâ€™s an egregious example of disinformation being spread, itâ€™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 â€œactively promotingâ€ videos that spread climate denial and placing ads on them. The group searched the terms â€œclimate change,â€ global warmingâ€ and â€œclimate manipulation,â€ specifically focusing on the content YouTube suggested in its â€œUp Nextâ€ feature and suggestions bar. All told, it turned up 5,537 videos featuring climate denial. The videos had a combined 21.1 million views.Â
On those videos, Avaaz found ads from 108 brands, including major ones like Samsung and Lâ€™OrÃ©al. One in five of those ads were from environmental or â€œethicalâ€ 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.
Itâ€™s no surprise that a $US160 ($232) billion company is making money in evil ways. After all, thereâ€™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 per cent 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 soÂ obvious.
Take that PragerU video. Itâ€™s hosted by an old white guy wearing a blazer. Itâ€™s got plain fonts and simple graphics. If you donâ€™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 (thatâ€™s what the â€œUâ€ stands for despite PragerU not being an accredited university or, you know, teaching any actual classes). Iâ€™d understand if someone didnâ€™t realise how wrong the videos are.
This is study found that fewer than half of the videos found by searching terms related to climate science and geoengineering represented the scientific consensus.
A year ago, YouTube said it would stop promoting â€œborderlineâ€ content. Shortly afterward, they said in a white paper that they â€œset 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.â€ The Avaaz study shows that if they really want to adhere to that, theyâ€™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 thatâ€™s because of greenhouse gases.
Earther reached out to YouTube for comment, but it wasnâ€™t immediately available to respond. In a public statement, the companyÂ said that advertisers can â€œopt out of content that doesnâ€™t align with their brand,â€ and that theyâ€™ve â€œsignificantly invested in reducing recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, and raising up authoritative voices on YouTube.â€
This could get a bit complicated, because itâ€™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 â€œharmful misinformation.â€ But Fox is considered mainstream media, not â€œborderline contentâ€ despite a number of questionable stories and videos.
But Avaaz isnâ€™t asking YouTube to get rid of all the climate denying videos on their platform. Theyâ€™re just asking it to prioritise videos that donâ€™t contain a bunch of lies about the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Thatâ€™s the least YouTube can do, even if costs the company some money. Iâ€™m pretty sure YouTube can afford it.