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YouTube Is Fighting Back Against Climate Misinformation

The company is trying to combat scientific misinformation on its platform. Wikipedia has been helping the streaming platform describe topics like global warming, the MMR vaccine, and UFOs.

PragerU/YouTube

YouTube is now adding fact checks to videos that question climate change, BuzzFeed News has confirmed, as a part of its ongoing effort to combat the rampant misinformation and conspiratorial fodder on its platform.

On July 9, the company added a blurb of text underneath some videos about climate change, which provided a scientifically accurate explainer. The text comes from the Wikipedia entry for global warming and states that "multiple lines of scientific evidence show that the climate system is warming."

This new feature follows YouTube’s announcement in March that it would place descriptions from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica next to videos on topics that spur conspiracy theories, such as the moon landing and the Oklahoma City bombing. In doing the same for climate videos, the company seems to be wading into more fraught and complex intellectual territory.

"I’d guess that it will have some influence, at least on those people who don’t know much about the subject," Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told BuzzFeed News by email. "Might be confusing to some people, but that’s probably better than just accepting the denier video at face value."

YouTube has not disclosed the full list of topics it is targeting. But a Wikipedia post to its administrators in mid-July offers some clues, listing seven topics the company was helping clarify: global warming, Dulce Base, Lilla Saltsjöbadsavtalet, the 1980 Camarate air crash, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Kecksburg UFO incident, and the MMR vaccine. The two organizations appear to be working more closely since the launch of YouTube’s policy, which Wikipedia did not know about in advance.

Google, which owns YouTube, has struggled to excise misinformation from its platforms. In November 2017, it tried a feature that fact-checked descriptions of newspapers and other items that appear in search results but suspended it in January after some mistakes triggered complaints.

When the new Wikipedia blurb policy took effect in July, YouTube did not publicly say that climate change was an impacted topic, and the company did not notify users who had uploaded the affected videos.

The Heartland Institute, for example, a conservative think tank that posts videos of its staff and others questioning climate change, told BuzzFeed News that it noticed the change a few weeks ago and had not been notified by YouTube. Spokesperson Jim Lakely declined to comment on the policy or its impact. PragerU, a nonprofit online "university" that made some of the other affected videos, says YouTube’s policy shows its political bias.

"Despite claiming to be a public forum and a platform open to all, YouTube is clearly a left-wing organization," Craig Strazzeri, PragerU’s chief marketing officer, said by email. "This is just another mistake in a long line of giant missteps that erodes America’s trust in Big Tech, much like what has already happened with the mainstream news media."

YouTuber Tony Heller, who also makes climate denial videos, described the policy on Twitter as YouTube "putting propaganda at the bottom of all climate videos." (He did not respond to a request for comment.)

It’s not just misleading climate videos. The same climate blurb was appended to dozens of videos explaining the evidence and impacts of climate change.

“It was a surprise when we saw it show up on videos that are not conspiracy videos, but climate science videos.”

"It was a surprise when we saw it show up on videos that are not conspiracy videos, but climate science videos," Joe Hanson, who produces multiple video series including Hot Mess and It’s Okay to Be Smart, told BuzzFeed News.

Hanson polled his audience about YouTube’s fact-checking, and the result was largely positive. "It is a probably a good thing," especially for videos with misleading science, Hanson said.

"I welcome this change," Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, told BuzzFeed News by email. Climate science is not an opinion because scientists agree it’s happening based on documented facts, she said. "I appreciate that YouTube is taking their responsibility seriously to help people understand the difference." Hayhoe had noticed the descriptions suddenly show up with her Global Weirding video series on YouTube.

Climate scientist Michael Mann likened YouTube’s new messaging to the warning label on a pack of cigarettes: "Warning — this video may or may not be promoting actual facts about climate change."

YouTube says the goal of its policy is to give users easy access to more context and information on topics prone to misinformation, such as climate change. And in the coming months, more and more videos will be getting these labels.

The company is using an algorithm, not people, to decide which videos get the blurbs and which do not, a spokesperson said. The labels are for now only visible to people in the US and are being rolled out gradually. So two people can look at the same video and only one may see the description.

YouTube plans to measure the effectiveness of these panels by tracking how often users click on the climate description provided, which links back to the original Wikipedia page. If the page gets updated, so will the text under the videos.

And what if the Wikipedia page is edited to include misinformation? The YouTube spokesperson noted that the text under the videos does not refresh immediately, leaving a time lag between when a Wikipedia page is edited and when the change shows up on YouTube. This could allow Wikipedia editors to catch inaccuracies before they appear on YouTube — or lead to angry YouTubers giving Wikipedia added headaches. (Wikipedia deferred questions on this topic to YouTube.)

According to a BuzzFeed News review of dozens of videos, the label shows up more consistently on videos with "global warming" and "climate change" in the title than ones without.

On a series of misleading climate videos posted by the news site RT, there is no note about climate change, but there is a Wikipedia description about the publisher, saying: "RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government."

Jason Reifler, a political science professor at the University of Exeter, praised YouTube for starting to tackle the challenge of misinformation but said he’s skeptical of how effective the climate change description will be.

"They could have chosen wording that’s stronger and gets more to what the real terms of debate are between the extremely well-supported consensus scientific video versus the much, much smaller proportion of skeptics," Reifler told BuzzFeed News.

"I’m doubtful this first step is going to do much," he added. "But I hope it does!"


Zahra Hirji is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC

Contact Zahra Hirji at zahra.hirji@buzzfeed.com.

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