Conspiracy theorists hijack engineering terms to spread deceit on YouTube
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Researchers have examined the proliferation of climate-related conspiracy theories on YouTube and found that conspiracy theorists appear to be hijacking scientific terms in order to promote their videos.
The research team from RWTH Aachen University, Germany, looked at the types of results returned when searching for terms such as “geoengineering” and “climate modification” on YouTube. YouTube is now one of the world's largest educational resources, with billions of people visiting the video-sharing platform every month.
The researchers watched hundreds of YouTube videos listed in the results and found that more than half of the videos (107/200) include content contradicting the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Approximately 97 per cent of scientists agree that climate change is a result of human activity; this week, three studies published in Nature journals used extensive data to demonstrate that recent temperature changes are more rapid and extreme than at any other time in the past 2,000 years.
Contrary to the scientific consensus, 16 of the YouTube videos denied that climate change is a result of human activity, while 91 of the videos (46 per cent) featured conspiracy theories about climate engineering and climate change. While previous research focused on the most-watched videos on YouTube, these researchers used the anonymous TOR browser to avoid their results being influenced by factors such as previous watch history. This allowed them to assess what the average internet user would see when searching for climate-related videos on YouTube.
“It’s alarming to find that the majority of videos propagate conspiracy theories about climate science and technology,” said Dr Joachim Allgaier, senior author of the Frontiers in Communication study.
The ‘chemtrails’ conspiracy theory – which claims that trails of condensation left by planes contain malicious substances, such as mind-control drugs, biological or chemical weapons, or weather-modifying substances – appeared in most of the videos studied.
The report explained that conspiracy theories use strategies such as search engine optimisation to boost their content and to reach new audiences which may not immediately recognise the videos as deceitful. The researchers found that videos supporting the scientific mainstream received only very slightly more views than anti-scientific content (16,941,949 vs. 16,939,655 views).
“Within the scientific community, ‘geoengineering’ describes technology with the potential to deal with the serious consequences of climate change, if we don’t manage to reduce greenhouse gases successfully. For example, greenhouse gas removal, solar radiation management or massive forestation to absorb carbon dioxide,” said Allegaier.
“However, people searching for ‘geoengineering’ or ‘climate modification’ on YouTube won’t find any information on these topics in the way they are discussed by scientists and engineers.
“Instead, searching for these terms results in videos that leave users exposed to entirely non-scientific video content.”
Allegaier questioned YouTube’s elusive algorithms, which recommend videos to users based on data collected about their viewing preferences: “The way YouTube search algorithms work is not very transparent […] I think YouTube should take responsibility to ensure its users will find high-quality information if they search for scientific and biomedical terms, instead of being exposed to doubtful conspiracy videos.”
Earlier this, YouTube announced that it would clamp down on conspiracy theorists, recommending fewer videos containing such content and by displaying links to Wikipedia entries for the subject on which the video is speculating, in order to help debunk fantastical claims.
The researchers used their report to call on scientists to take YouTube seriously as a means of promoting scientific information, such as by partnering with influential creators to ensure that scientifically accurate content reaches a wider audience.
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