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Study: Most YouTube videos on climate change deny its existence

Study: Most YouTube videos on climate change deny its existence

Study: Most YouTube videos on climate change deny its existence

Look for "climate change" on YouTube and you will soon discover a video that denies its existence. In fact, with regard to the online discussion on climate change, a new study suggests that conspiracy deniers and theorists may have an advantage over those who believe in science. The researchers found evidence that most of the YouTube videos on climate change oppose the scientific consensus that they are mainly caused by human activities.

The study highlights the key role of the use of social media in the spread of scientific misinformation. And this suggests that scientists and their supporters must be more active in developing creative and convincing ways to communicate their results. But more importantly, we must be concerned about the effects that maliciously manipulated scientific information can have on our behaviour, individually and as a society.


The recent study by Joachim Allgaier of RWTH University in Aachen, Germany, analyzed the content of a random sample of 200 YouTube videos on climate change. He found that a majority (107) of the videos denied that climate change had been man-made or claimed that climate change was a conspiracy.

Videos with conspiracy theories received the most views. And those who spread these conspiracy theories used terms such as "geo-engineering" to give the impression that their claims had a scientific basis, when they did not.

Health misinformation
Climate change is far from being the only area where we see a trend towards online misinformation about science triumphing over scientifically valid facts. Let's take a problem like infectious diseases, and perhaps the best-known example of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR). Despite extensive online safety information, false claims that the vaccine has harmful effects have become widespread and have led to falling vaccination levels in many countries around the world.

But it is not only the well-known conspiracy theories that are problematic. In May 2018, a troublemaker took his place at the height of the Nipah virus outbreak, which eventually killed 17 people in the southern Indian state of Kerala. He duplicated the district doctor's letterhead and issued a message stating that Nipah was spreading in chicken meat.

In fact, it is scientifically established that the bald mouse is the host of the virus. As the unfounded rumour spread about WhatsApp in Kerala and neighbouring states such as Tamil Nadu, consumers were wary of chicken consumption, shifting the incomes of local chicken traders.

The effects of misinformation about the MMR vaccine and Nipah virus on human behaviour should not be surprising, as we know that our memory is malleable. Our memory of the original facts can be replaced by new and false ones. We also know that conspiracy theories have a powerful appeal because they can help people understand events or problems over which they have no control.

This problem is further complicated by the personalization algorithms underlying social media. These tend to feed us with content that conforms to our beliefs and click patterns, helping to reinforce the acceptance of misinformation. People who are sceptical about climate change may be attributed an increasing flow of content, denying that it is caused by humans, making them less likely to take personal action or vote to solve the problem.



Further rapid advances in digital technologies will also ensure that erroneous information reaches unexpected formats and different levels of sophistication. Duplicating a manager's letterhead or using keywords strategically to manipulate online search engines is the tip of the iceberg. The emergence of developments related to artificial intelligence such as DeepFakes - very realistic doctrinal videos - will probably make it much more difficult to detect misinformation.

So how can we solve this problem? The challenge is all the greater because simply providing corrective scientific information can increase people's awareness of lies. We must also overcome the resistance of people's ideological beliefs and prejudices.

Social media companies are trying to develop institutional mechanisms to contain the spread of misinformation. In response to the new study, a YouTube spokesperson said, "Since this study was conducted in 2018, we have made hundreds of changes to our platform and the results of this study do not accurately reflect how YouTube operates today... These changes have already reduced by 50% the number of views expressed by the recommendations regarding this type of content in the United States.

Other companies have recruited a large number of fact checkers, awarded research grants to study misinformation from academics (including myself), and research terms on subjects in which misinformation that could have harmful health effects has been blocked.

But the persistence of scientific misinformation on social media suggests that these measures are not enough. As a result, governments around the world are taking action ranging from passing laws to shutting down the Internet, going much further than freedom of expression activists.

Scientists must be involved
Another possible solution is to weaken people's ability to think critically so that they can distinguish between real scientific information and conspiracy theories. For example, a district in Kerala has launched a data literacy initiative in nearly 150 public schools to give children the skills to differentiate between authentic and fictional information. It is still early, but there is already anecdotal evidence that this can make a difference.

Scientists must also become more involved in the fight to ensure that their work is not rejected or misused, as in the case of terms such as "geo-engineering" diverted by YouTube climate deniers. Conspiracy theories are based on the attraction of certainties, even fictitious ones, while uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process. But in the case of the scientific consensus on climate change, according to which up to 99% of climatologists agree that humans are responsible, we have something as safe as science.

Scientists must make the most of this agreement and communicate with the public using innovative and convincing strategies. This includes creating their own content in social media to not only change beliefs, but also influence behaviour. Otherwise, their voices, regardless of their confidence, will continue to be drowned out by the frequency and ferocity of content produced by those who have no concrete evidence.
This article is republished from The Conversation by Santosh Vijaykumar, Senior Research Fellow in Digital Health at the Vice Chancellor, Northumbria University, Newcastle, under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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