YouTube is not the place to go for informed opinion on climate modification, a German study has confirmed.
Most of the videos found in a fairly thorough search did not reflect the scientific consensus and frequently propagated popular conspiracy theories.
Alarmingly, scientific terms such as “geoengineering” have been hijacked by conspiracy theorists, researcher Joachim Allgaier says, so that searches provide entirely non-scientific video content.
“Strategically distorted communications” is just one of the expressions he uses in a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.
Allgaier, from the Human Technology Centre at RWTH Aachen University, wanted a better idea of what YouTube’s billions of users would find if they went looking for climate information.
“So far, research has focused on the most-watched videos, checking their scientific accuracy, but this doesn’t tell us what an average internet user will find, as the results are influenced by previous search and watch histories,” he says.
“To combat this, I used the anonymisation tool TOR to avoid personalisation of the results.”
Armed with 10 search terms related to climate change, Allgaier analysed 200 videos.
Of these, only 89 supported scientific consensus views about anthropogenic climate change, with another four showing climate scientists discussing issues with deniers.
“Unexpectedly, the majority of the videos in the sample (107 videos) supports worldviews that are opposing scientific consensus views: 16 videos deny climate change and 91 videos in the sample propagate straightforward conspiracy theories about climate engineering and climate change,” Allgaier writes.
“Videos supporting the scientific mainstream view received only slightly more views (16,941,949 views in total) than those opposing the mainstream scientific position (16,939,655 views in total).”
Allgaier says most videos propagate the “chemtrails” conspiracy theory – a belief that the condensation trails of airplanes are enriched with harmful substances to modify the weather or control human populations. And one which scientists have strongly refuted.
Committed “chemtrailers” even advise followers to use scientific terms in their content, so that they are not immediately identified as conspiracy theorists, he adds.
Allgaier questions the lack of transparency of YouTube search algorithms, and whether the its business model directs traffic towards videos of dubious scientific content.
Ultimately, however, the answer might be to fight fire with fire, he suggests: scientists and science communicators should take YouTube seriously as a platform for sharing scientific information.
“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 says.
“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.”
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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