Almost one in five of the most popular YouTube videos associated with searches about climate change on the video platform deny the science behind global warming, according to a report from campaign group Avaaz.
The report, published Thursday, analyzed the types of videos recommended to people when they searched for topics like climate change and global warming on YouTube. It found that climate-change-denying videos — viewed, collectively, by millions of people worldwide — were also shown alongside online ads by brands like Greenpeace and L’Oreal with ties to either sustainability or environmental protection.
Those ties between brands and such videos raised questions about how YouTube’s algorithms both promoted the content and linked it to online advertising from such blue-chip companies and nonprofit organizations.
The findings come as social media platforms owned by Google, Facebook and Twitter are facing increased regulatory pressure to better police the type of digital material displayed on their networks.
That includes renewed efforts in Brussels, Washington and elsewhere demanding that these companies be held responsible for such online content, as well as individual efforts by the tech giants to clamp down on the worst behavior associated with coordinated misinformation, hate speech and terrorist material.
“The fossil fuel industry has invested in and profited from climate disinformation for decades, and YouTube’s algorithm is helping them” — Travis Nichols, Greenpeace spokesman
“YouTube reaches billions of people each month,” said Fadi Quran, a senior campaigner at Avaaz, who conducted the research into how the video platform promoted climate change denial content to would-be viewers. “It shouldn’t be recommending any misinformation to its users. The more misinformation videos that you watch, the more types of misinformation you’re recommended.”
In response, Google, which owns YouTube, said that it had strict policies in place to determine which ads could be displayed alongside certain videos, and that it was investing heavily in the video platform to stop harmful content from spreading.
Nataleigh O’Connell, a company spokeswoman, said she could not speak to Avaaz’s findings, but that Google prioritized credible voices when it recommended videos to its users, including around hot-button topics like climate change.
“We continue to expand these efforts to more topics and countries,” she said in a statement.
Brands at risk
As part of its research, Avaaz ran three search terms — climate change, global warming and climate manipulation — through YouTube’s data analysis tools to determine the top 100 most recommended videos that were related to those searches.
The campaign group then manually watched those videos to determine if they included climate-denying terms, using data from NASA, the United Nations and others to make their judgments. The goal was to see which types of videos were suggested through YouTube’s opaque recommendation algorithm, and if those suggestions were biased toward one point of view.
In total, 16 percent of the top 100 related videos, representing roughly 1 million views per video, for the “global warming” search term included scientifically incorrect information about climate change, according to Avaaz’s report. For “climate change,” that figure fell to 8 percent of the top 100 related videos, while for “climate manipulation” — arguably a more biased search term — the number rose to 21 percent.
The types of videos in Avaaz’s analysis included those produced by far-right political and religious groups, as well as clips from outlets like Fox News that cast doubt on climate change science.
While such content did deny the scientific consensus around global warming, most of the material did not constitute outright misinformation, in which content is produced with the direct purpose of manipulating the viewer, according to several academics who have studied the subject area.
Still, several brands had their ads displayed before these climate change denying videos, and Avaaz called on YouTube to reduce the ability of people who create such content to make money, particularly from companies associated with green credentials. The group also said that Google should remove these videos from the platform, and provide better data analysis tools for researchers to spot potentially harmful material.
“They need to correct the record for people who have seen these videos,” said Quran, the Avaaz campaigner.
The firms that had their ads associated with these videos included L’Oreal, Friends of the Earth, Uber and Samsung, according to Avaaz’s research. The campaign group conducted its analysis of ads by using a virtual private network, or VPN, to view the climate change denying videos from a number of different countries, including the United States, Germany and Brazil, and then observing which ads were displayed alongside the content.
When contacted by POLITICO for their response to the research, several of the brands called on YouTube to either remove the videos or stop their creators from making money from online advertising. Those reached for comment said they would continue buying ads themselves on Google’s video platform.
“The fossil fuel industry has invested in and profited from climate disinformation for decades, and YouTube’s algorithm is helping them,” said Travis Nichols, a spokesman for Greenpeace. “If we’re going to stop the climate crisis, we need tech and social media companies like YouTube to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”