Why Climate Science Doesn’t Go Viral on YouTube
(Bloomberg) -- Greg Brown and Mitchell Moffit posted a video to YouTube engineered to get your clicks. They gave it an alluring title: “The Biggest Lie About Climate Change.”
What is the lie? What do they think is true? You must click to see. Like much on YouTube, clips about climate science tends to circulate more when framed this way. “It works,” says Brown. “Outside of that, we’ve had a hard time grasping people’s eyes.”
The “biggest lie” in their 2019 video refers to internal climate research dating back to 1977 that Exxon Mobil Corp. buried and publicly contradicted. Brown narrates the clip, which published after he spent months researching Exxon’s denial of the risk from greenhouse-gas emissions. Beneath the video are links to over 30 related news articles and studies.
Brown and Moffit, both 32, are YouTube pros. For over eight years they’ve run the channel AsapScience, where they distill biology and chemistry lessons into quirky animated shorts. They have nearly 10 million subscribers, an impressive stat for an account devoted to science—or, really, any YouTuber who isn’t a celebrity, game streamer, beauty guru or child star.
YouTube wasn’t built to reward truth and clearly documented reliable sources. Google’s video service has long put broadcasters like Brown and Moffit, who echo the scientific consensus, on equal footing with conspiracy theorists and global warming deniers. Both the skeptics and the science-aligned creators could appear in a YouTube search result or get recommended to viewers or go viral. That approach let a swarm of footage that misrepresented or contradicted established science.
YouTube now says it has worked to remedy this. The video platform is treating some global warming videos like misinformation, putting climate contrarians in the same category as flat Earthers or those who argue vaccines cause autism. Under this new system, YouTube stops recommending videos that “misinform users in harmful ways,” the company says, and makes them harder to find on the site. Instead, YouTube tries to surface videos from news outlets and vetted video creators. The company responded similarly to criticism for not rooting out conspiracies about politics and health.
Though YouTube has applied this new policy to climate change footage for some time, it hasn’t shared this fact widely. Farshad Shadloo, a spokesman, says the site has treated “certain climate change related videos” this way since early 2019 and its systems became more “accurate” over time. He says the company works with “external raters and experts” to measure the veracity of footage, but declined to provide more detail on how this process works for media about the climate. Since 2018, YouTube has placed a text box beneath videos on climate change linking to a Wikipedia entry.
After years of being studiously neutral, YouTube is now putting its thumb on the algorithmic scale for science. But because of the way the online video giant works, it hasn’t been noticeable to many people. Creators like Brown and Moffit usually don’t have visibility into this kind of behind-the-curtain move at YouTube, even if it’s designed to help them. For the pair, some of the difficulties of addressing global warming on the site still remain.
At the onset of 2020, they drew up plans to devote AsapScience entirely to covering climate change. It felt like a moral imperative. (“What's the right word?” says Moffit. “We should be doing it.”) Then the pandemic hit, and they worried that viewers could only stomach one crisis at a time. Besides, YouTube cautioned them against such a pivot. Channels that switch direction often struggle to get people to click on their videos and linger at the same rates, prompting the site’s algorithms to bury their footage.
A manager at YouTube told them the switch might not work, because, Brown recalls, “‘your audience is not necessarily there to see that.’”
AsapScience was born in 2012 during Brown’s stint teaching high school science in a small town in the U.K. All his students watched YouTube, not television. Back in Toronto, Moffit also explored the blossoming video site, which was then mostly the domain of amateurs. They started an account.
Quickly, they found a winning formula. Young, affable and internet-savvy, the two coupled textbook curriculum with YouTube’s whimsical aesthetic. They made short animated videos that unpacked hangovers and bodily fluids (“The Poop Cycle,” “Drinking Your Own Pee!”); debunked internet lore (“Childbirth vs. Getting Kicked In the Balls”); and, naturally, talked sex (“Is Your Sexual Fantasy Normal?”). Money from YouTube advertisements soon funded their work full-time.
In 2013, the two connected with Bill Nye, the godfather of pop science. Nye, a television veteran, arrived at their makeshift studio a bit bewildered. “Where’s hair and makeup?” he asked. Brown and Moffit sheepishly explained that they were the entire production staff. Still, Nye gamely proceeded. Three years later, he made another video for AsapScience about ice caps melting, which has earned nearly 7 million views.
Back then other beloved YouTubers, like Hank and John Green, pioneers in making educational videos on the site, created similar channels for approachable science lessons. Tear-jerk videos, such as footage of plastics lodged in a sea turtle’s nose, did well.
YouTube ran a promotional campaign for a a handful of creators to make videos ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The company offered Brown and Moffit the sort of stage for off-kilter science communication missing in old media. Television usually showed men exploding things, not young, queer Canadians with a whiteboard like them. “If you go on TV, it’s all dudes and Shark Week,” says Brown. “The fact that education is so popular, and is even a thing on YouTube, is kind of unique.”
But as AsapScience grew on YouTube, so did old media. Cable networks, once reluctant to hand Google free footage, began flooding the site with clips. That brought cable’s bombast and style. When covering the climate, TV news shows eager to show balance often brought on guests to argue the other side. A cadre of oil industry shills and global warming skeptics, borrowing tactics from the tobacco industry, were ready to debate and cast doubt on the science behind greenhouse gas emissions. That made good TV.
Debates and polemics make good YouTube, too. Some of the most popular clips about climate change are arguments, such as Nye debating Fox News host Tucker Carlson (4.5 million views), or a right-wing YouTuber who per the video title “destroys” Greta Thunberg (1.8 million views). Other viral videos warn of the “global warming hoax” and “pseudoscience.” A clip with Daniel Peña, a former oil executive, berating an environmentalist—“IS GLOBAL WARMING THE BIGGEST FRAUD IN HISTORY?”—has over 2.4 million views.
PragerU, a nonprofit funded partially by energy executives, has released multiple YouTube clips critical of political efforts to curb emissions. A popular video called “What do Scientists Say” only features one scientist: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Richard Lindzen, a climate change skeptic. (A group of Lindzen's colleagues publicly said they disagreed with his views.)
Google’s video site lacked many of the news standards of broadcast and had a super-charged recommendation system designed, for many years, to show viewers like-minded videos. Avaaz, a nonprofit that promotes climate activism, released a report earlier last year detailing the abundance of climate inaccuracies on YouTube. The report identified over 21 million views on videos with false and misleading information, many that YouTube’s software recommended to its audience.
The number of views was not as damning as the commercial ties. Avaaz found that Google ran ads on these videos. (Google still does 11 months later.) The company says it gives advertisers controls to opt out of video topics, including those on climate change.
Online viewers are drawn to those clips for some of the same reasons they come to AsapScience, says Corey Basch, a researcher at William Paterson University who studies YouTube. People seek out digestible expertise. “They don’t want to decipher the science,” she says. “They want someone to do that for them.”
YouTube’s algorithm changes have been effective in elevating more accurate information by some external measures. In May, Basch and colleagues examined 100 of the most popular YouTube videos under the search “climate change.” A majority of the videos were from news channels and accepted that humans are accelerating warming.
Those results show YouTube’s progress in curbing the fringe conspiracy theorists, Basch argued. “To their credit, they’ve really tried to push these videos away,” Basch says.
But YouTube’s reliance on the authority of major news outlets means denialism can still go unchecked. In 2019, Sky News Australia posted a YouTube clip featuring Craig Kelly, a member of parliament. “Lies are being pedaled to our children on climate change,” he said on air, referring to a recent United Nations report. “I agree with you completely,” the anchor replied.
Another clip from Fox News—using the ever-present title “The truth about global warming”—features a guest from a think tank, which received oil industry funding, disputing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “It’s not your run-of-the-mill type of disinformation,” says Fadi Quran, campaigns director for Avaaz. “It’s so politicized.”
YouTube disputed Avaaz’s characterization of the Fox News clip. YouTube sees the video as an example of “public discourse on a political and scientific topic rather than misinformation,” Shadloo, the spokesman, wrote in an email. For YouTube, there’s a difference between stating false claims and discussing false claims. The video giant relies on a mixture of machine systems and reviewers to separate the two, but doesn’t share much about its sorting process.
Its online peers are also trying to handle climate lies. In September, Facebook Inc. said it would begin pointing people on its social network to authoritative information on climate. Bytedance Ltd.’s TikTok, the video app, uses fact-check partners, like PolitiFact, to identify and suppress climate change misinformation. A Twitter Inc. spokesman says the company does not have rules specific to climate information.
Brown and Moffit see the politicization of climate in the thumbs. Each YouTube video has little icons viewers can click to “like” or “dislike.” YouTubers watch the ratio of these thumbs, worried that too many dislikes can hurt a video’s chances of performing well. On climate videos, Brown and Moffit began to note an influx of dislikes. Most of the top comments below a recent video on renewable energy are about taxes, and negative.
These may be viewers who came for a breezy explainer, not conversations about regulation or Exxon. “It’s a tough sell,” says Brown. “When we make those videos, we sacrifice views, we lose subscribers.” YouTubers depend on rising views and subscriptions to grow their intake from ads and sponsorships.
YouTube’s personnel and programming funds have backed accurate climate change videos. A day after President Donald Trump set in motion the U.S. exit from the Paris Agreement, in 2017, YouTube’s Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki wrote on Twitter, “Impacts of yesterday’s disappointing decision are real.” She linked to a Hank Green video about it. YouTube has given AsapScience money to make videos, including a recent one on “zero-waste” holiday gifts, a non-controversial topic.
In the meantime, AsapScience, like many YouTubers, have started tinkering with TikTok. For many, the short-form app feels less crowded and burdensome. Logan Good, a grad student, spent entire days shooting and editing YouTube videos on plastic pollution. Few watched. His third TikTok video, on the same topic, surpassed a million views.
AsapScience’s videos on TikTok are shorter and their viewership is smaller. But their climate material—including one about the energy Google’s computers eat with every search—seems to them to have a more welcoming audience.
They don’t know exactly why. Brown guesses that it comes down to a different viewer. “They’re 16. They’re not mad,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. I have to live on this planet.’”
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