Climate scientists and environmental researchers are calling for Youtube to change their algorithms to favor contents that agree with consensus belief regarding the climate crisis, and to address the issue of misinformation regarding the state of the environment.
Researchers revealed that a majority of the content on Youtube about the climate crisis oppose the consensus belief and they “hijack” technical keywords to appear credible. They warn that people who are using the Google-owned video streaming platform — to learn about climate change and other related topics — may be exposed to contents that go against the mainstream scientific consensus.
According to Dr. Joachim Allgaier of RWTH Aachen University in Germany, who authored the study, majority of the top videos shown in the platform for searching ten different keywords related to climate change and the climate crisis are challenging majority-accepted beliefs on the issue. These keywords, which Dr. Allgaier tested include:
- Climate change
- Climate engineering
- Climate hacking
- Climate manipulation
- Climate modification
- Climate science
- Global warming
The videos that appeared upon using these key search terms were assessed by the researcher to determine how closely they adhere or how far they oppose mainstream scientific knowledge, as represented by the findings of reports by UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2013 onwards.
Based on the United Nation’s climate reports, since the 1950s, human activities have been the most “dominant cause” of global warming and climate change. Interestingly, Allgaier found in his analysis that at least 120 videos in the top 200 search results per keyword challenge this conclusion.
As part of the methodology, the researcher, to the best of his ability and with respect to the availability of resources at his disposal, tried to anonymize his searches using the tool called Tor, which hides his IP address and masquerade it so that Youtube algorithms will treat his searches as random and unbiased.
Allgaier’s study further reveals that searches using climate, climate change, climate science, and global warming mostly reflected the scientific consensus view, citing that it is because most of the results are clips from news reports and documentaries.
However, the same thing could not be said with search keywords such as chemtrails, climate engineering, climate hacking, climate manipulation, climate modification, and geoengineering, as they reflected challenging views. The researcher said that these keywords yielded results that are opposing the mainstream scientific consensus, adding that these videos do not necessarily provide a scientific rationale to their views.
Allgaier also found out that many videos that are searchable in Google’s video streaming platform support the widely debunked chemtrail theory. Chemtrail theory is the pseudoscientific conspiracy theory saying that certain chemicals are being sprayed to the atmosphere or even to members of the public to modify the weather, control human brains, carry out chemical attacks, and other “secret” operations by the government.
It is also worth noting, the scientist said, that although these videos generate a lot of views, it does not necessarily follow that person watching them believe in what they preach. Nonetheless, exposure to this misinformed content can potentially sway uninformed individual into believing conspiracy theories instead of real scientific opinions.
Because of his discovery, Allgaier calls for Youtube to change their algorithms to prioritize scientific opinions over conspiracy theories when some searched for a scientific term. While he advocates for the prioritization of contents that support scientific consensus, he also said that he does not mean to remove those that oppose it.
“Effectively, this would be censorship, and YouTube says they are against censorship,” Allgaier said. “Perhaps they could change their algorithms to prioritize factual information, especially for health and medicine.”
Youtube is an effective platform to spread information
As a response, Youtube said that the platform values “free speech,” and everyone could post anything they want as long as their content follows the community guidelines.
“Over the last year, we’ve worked to better surface credible news sources across our site for people searching for news-related topics, begun reducing recommendations of borderline content and videos that could misinform users in harmful ways, and introduced information panels to help give users more sources where they can fact-check information for themselves.”
Amidst his results, Allgaier still encourages his colleagues in the scientific community to leverage technology such as Youtube in publishing their scientific discovery and opinions.
“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,” he said.
“Scientists could form alliances with science communicators, politicians and those in popular culture in order to reach out to the widest possible audience. They should speak out publicly about their research and be transparent in order to keep established trustful relationships with citizens and society.”