Climate misinformation may be thriving on YouTube | Science News for Students

Climate misinformation may be thriving on YouTube

Of 200 videos analyzed, a majority supported views not upheld by science
Sep 23, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
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Scientists and science communicators must do a better job of combatting fake news about climate change and climate engineering on YouTube, says one researcher.

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Beware what you view about climate change on YouTube. Some skeptics have hijacked common terms on the site related to climate. This lets them deceive viewers of the online video-sharing website, a social scientist now warns. He urges other scientists to respond by getting accurate info about their work onto the site. Indeed, he’d like them to flood YouTube with scientifically accurate content.

Facebook and Twitter often get the most attention when it comes to concerns over fake news. But YouTube is also hugely popular, says Joachim Allgaier. YouTube claims to reach some 2 billion users each month. That’s about one-third of all internet users. This makes the site a powerful communication tool, the social scientist notes. He works at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. His work focuses on how people communicate science online.

Allgaier started out studying science-themed music videos on YouTube. “I was amazed by the creativity,” he says. He found several on Darwin’s theory of evolution. There’s a song about the periodic table. It’s by the band They Might Be Giants. But in 2012, Allgaier became disturbed by music videos that attacked well established science. Some questioned whether human activities are driving climate change. Others challenged the value of drugs to treat cancer. Some attacked the safety of vaccines.

Allgaier decided to take a closer look at the climate videos. His new analysis appears July 25 in Frontiers in Communication.

He started by searching YouTube for 10 different terms. These included “climate change,” “global warming” and “climate science.” He also searched for “climate manipulation.” And he searched for “geoengineering.” The last two refer to emerging ideas on how to cool the Earth. One would add tiny particles high in Earth’s atmosphere. There, they would block some of the sun’s energy. And that cooling could offset some global warming. (It also, however, might affect the planet in some yet-unknown ways.)

Earlier internet searches can shape the results of later ones. So Allgaier obscured his computer’s address, location and search history. Then, he picked the top 20 videos for each of the 10 terms.

Of these 200, 89 supported the idea that human activities affect climate change. Ample science supports this idea. Four videos featured neutral debates between scientists and climate-change skeptics. (Scientists far outnumber skeptics. So videos presenting them in equal numbers would be misleading.) Sixteen videos denied that humans are causing climate change.

There also were 91 videos that promoted conspiracy theories. The most notorious one focused on so-called chemtrails. Some people believe politicians or government agents have been spreading toxic chemicals. This is supposedly done through airplane condensation trails, called “chemtrails” in this context. It’s an idea unrelated to climate change. And it’s not supported by science.   

The dangers

The words someone puts into the YouTube search engine matters. Common terms like “climate change” and “global warming” typically lead to accurate videos, Allgaier found. But newer terms like “geoengineering” and “climate modification” yield different results. They lead to those chemtrail videos almost 93 percent of the time.

Some geoengineering ideas are perfect fuel for conspiracies. They feed into ideas that a government could be doing bad things and not telling the public. Plus, geoengineering is a fairly new research area. What’s more, the scientists and engineers who work in this area do not often show up on YouTube, notes Allgaier.

All this has let conspiracy theorists hijack terms related to the technology, he says. One tactic they use is mirroring. This is when followers upload a video to many YouTube channels. They then tag each version with different keywords to dominate the online-video database.

Another tactic makes it easy for people to find links to the conspiracy videos during searches. It relies on what’s known as search engine optimization, which uses some of the most commonly looked for terms. Yet another approach is to comment on legitimate science videos. Those comments then link to conspiracy content.  

One 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found that 21 percent — more than one in every five people — get their news from YouTube. In Germany, another survey looked at people aged 14 to 29. Of those, 70 percent reported using YouTube and other online video sites to learn about science. Based on such stats, Allgaier worries that many people could become misinformed about climate science from YouTube videos.

Scientists and science communicators can reclaim terms that have been highjacked, Allgaier says. They must even mimic those conspiracy tactics. If researchers remain silent, they risk losing control of information about their work to the conspirators. “It’s necessary to take action,” he says.  

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

agent     A compound or activating form of energy (such as light or other types of radiation) that has a role to play in getting something done.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

condensation     The process of moisture in the air turning into a liquid as it comes into contact with a very cold surface. Or the term can refer to the liquid water that condenses out of the air.

conspiracy   (n.) A plot or agreement or suspicion created and shared by a group of people, often carried out in secret.

database     An organized collection of related data.

evolution     (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

internet     An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).

link     A connection between two people or things.

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

particle     A minute amount of something.

politician     A person who runs for or holds elected office in a town or larger governing body. For politicians, governing people (or organizations) and wielding power within government is a profession (job).

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

search engine     (in computing) A computer program that allows a computer to search for information on the Internet. Common examples include Google, Yahoo and Bing.

skeptic     Someone who is not easily convinced; has doubts or reservations about some idea or purported facts.

social science     A research field that deals with human society, with organizations and institutions that people join or work for, and with relationships between individuals and those organizations. Economics and political science are subsets of social science that deal with how groups of people organize and make important decisions for the good of society. People who work in all of these fields are known as social scientists

survey     To view, examine, measure or evaluate something, often land or broad aspects of a landscape. (with people) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

tactic     An action or plan of action to accomplish a particular feat.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

theory     (in science) A description of some aspect of the natural world based on extensive observations, tests and reason. A theory can also be a way of organizing a broad body of knowledge that applies in a broad range of circumstances to explain what will happen. Unlike the common definition of theory, a theory in science is not just a hunch. Ideas or conclusions that are based on a theory — and not yet on firm data or observations — are referred to as theoretical. Scientists who use mathematics and/or existing data to project what might happen in new situations are known as theorists.

Twitter     An online social network that allows users to post messages containing no more than 280 characters (until November 2017, the limit had been just 140 characters).

vaccine     (v. vaccinate) A biological mixture that resembles a disease-causing agent. It is given to help the body create immunity to a particular disease. The injections used to administer most vaccines are known as vaccinations.


Journal:​​​ J. Allgaier. Science and environmental communication on YouTube: Strategically distorted communications in online videos on climate change and climate engineering. Frontiers in Communication. Published online July 25, 2019. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2019.00036.

Journal: J. Allgaier. On the shoulders of YouTube: Science in music videos. Science Communication. April 2013, Vol. 35, p. 266. doi: 10.1177/1075547012454949.