Conspiracy theorists have hijacked YouTube science search terms

25 Jul 2019

A conspiracy theorist. Image: Couperfield/Depositphotos

YouTube users turning to the platform for science information are often being guided to conspiracy theorists warning about chemtrails, according to new research.

Climate science deniers and overt conspiracy theorists who contradict worldwide scientific consensus have made the ability to convey accurate science on YouTube an awful lot more difficult.

In a study published to Frontiers in Communication, a researcher from Aachen University in Germany showed that the streaming platform’s algorithms will regularly suggest videos filled with false information when searching for topics related to the ongoing climate crisis. In many instances, terms such as geoengineering have been ‘hijacked’ by conspiracy theorists.

“Searching YouTube for climate science and climate engineering-related terms finds fewer than half of the videos represent mainstream scientific views,” said the study’s author, Dr Joachim Allgaier. “It’s alarming to find that the majority of videos propagate conspiracy theories about climate science and technology.”

As part of the study, Allgaier wanted to expand on previous research that focused on the most watched videos and their scientific accuracy. This, he argued, doesn’t reveal what an average YouTube user comes across because each individual’s results will be dictated by their viewing history.

Using the anonymisation tool Tor, he put in 10 search terms related to the climate crisis and analysed 200 videos about the topic and climate modification. This showed the majority of videos opposed worldwide scientific consensus as detailed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Most of these videos propagated the belief in ‘chemtrails’, a popular conspiracy theory that falsely suggests condensation trails left by jet aircraft at high altitudes are actually weapons used to alter our climate, poison the humans below or control our minds.

YouTube’s algorithms ‘not very transparent’

Allgaier said he was most alarmed to see that these same conspiracy theorists hijacked relatively recent scientific terms so that the person cannot be immediately identified as a climate science denier.

“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 CO2,” explained Allgaier.

“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.”

He has also questioned YouTube’s algorithms, noting that a number of these videos were being monetised via adverts or the sale of merchandise with conspiracy theory motives.

“The way YouTube search algorithms work is not very transparent. We should be aware this powerful artificial intelligence is already making decisions for us, for example, if you choose to use ‘auto play’,” Allgaier said.

“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.”

A conspiracy theorist. Image: Couperfield/Depositphotos

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic