Climate denialists find new ways to monetize disinformation on YouTube

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Written By Sedoso Feb

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Content creators have spent the past five years developing new tactics to evade YouTube’s policies blocking monetization of videos making false claims about climate change, a report from a nonprofit advocacy group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), warned Tuesday.

What the CCDH found is that content creators who could no longer monetize videos spreading “old” forms of climate denial—including claims that “global warming is not happening” or “human-generated greenhouse gasses are not causing global warming”—have moved on.

Now they’re increasingly pushing other claims that contradict climate science, which YouTube has not yet banned and may not ever ban. These include harmful claims that “impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless,” “climate solutions won’t work,” and “climate science and the climate movement are unreliable.”

The CCDH uncovered these new climate-denial tactics by using artificial intelligence to scan transcripts of 12,058 videos posted on 96 YouTube channels that the CCDH found had previously posted climate-denial content. Verified by researchers, the AI model used was judged accurate in labeling climate-denial content approximately 78 percent of the time.

According to the CCDH’s analysis, the amount of content disputing climate solutions, climate science, and impacts of climate change today comprises 70 percent of climate-denial content—a percent that doubled from 2018 to 2023. At the same time, the amount of content pushing old climate-denial claims that are harder or impossible to monetize fell from 65 percent in 2018 to 30 percent in 2023.

These “new forms of climate denial,” the CCDH warned, are designed to delay climate action by spreading disinformation.

“A new front has opened up in this battle,” Imran Ahmed, the CCDH’s chief executive, said on a call with reporters, according to Reuters. “The people that we’ve been looking at, they’ve gone from saying climate change isn’t happening to now saying, ‘Hey, climate change is happening, but there is no hope. There are no solutions.'”

Since 2018—based on “estimates of typical ad pricing on YouTube” by social media analytics tool Social Blade—YouTube may have profited by as much as $13.4 million annually from videos flagged by the CCDH. And YouTube confirmed that some of these videos featured climate denialism that YouTube already explicitly bans.

In response to the CCDH’s report, YouTube de-monetized some videos found to be in violation of its climate change policy. But a spokesperson confirmed to Ars that the majority of videos that the CCDH found were considered compliant with YouTube’s ad policies.

The fact that most of these videos remain compliant is precisely why the CCDH is calling on YouTube to update its policies, though.

Currently, YouTube’s policy prohibits monetization of content “that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.”

“Our climate change policy prohibits ads from running on content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change,” YouTube’s spokesperson told Ars. “Debate or discussions of climate change topics, including around public policy or research, is allowed. However, when content crosses the line to climate change denial, we stop showing ads on those videos. We also display information panels under relevant videos to provide additional information on climate change and context from third parties.”

The CCDH worries that YouTube standing by its current policy is too short-sighted. The group recommended tweaking the policy to instead specify that YouTube prohibits content “that contradicts the authoritative scientific consensus on the causes, impacts, and solutions to climate change.”

If YouTube and other social media platforms don’t acknowledge new forms of climate denial and “urgently” update their disinformation policies in response, these new attacks on climate change science “will only increase,” the CCDH warned.

“It is vital that those advocating for action to avert climate disaster take note of this substantial shift from denial of anthropogenic climate change to undermining trust in both solutions and science itself, and shift our focus, our resources and our counternarratives accordingly,” the CCDH’s report said, adding that “demonetizing climate-denial” content “removes the economic incentives underpinning its creation and protects advertisers from bankrolling harmful content.”

New forms of climate denialism on YouTube

YouTube last updated its climate change policy in 2021, following a report from the CCDH calling out Google for monetizing climate-denial content.

When drafting that policy, YouTube’s spokesperson told Ars that YouTube consulted with authoritative climate experts who contributed to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports. Those reports document the impacts of climate change and propose solutions, concluding last year that human activities “unequivocally” caused global warming that will lead to worsening consequences as temperatures rise.

Since then, the CCDH has gathered evidence suggesting that YouTube has continued monetizing climate-denial content featured on dozens of channels, including content YouTube promised advertisers would be banned.

On YouTube, the CCDH defined climate denial as any video attempting “to undermine the scientific consensus about climate change based on rhetorical arguments.”

The CCDH seemingly seeks more nuanced fact-checking to detect when YouTubers are repeating false claims about climate science. This could prove challenging to less sophisticated fact-checkers. For example, among false claims flagged by the CCDH were videos claiming that “Earth has gotten much greener” from “the increase in carbon dioxide over the past 35 years. For YouTube to catch that video, the fact-checker would need to know that, as the CCDH countered, “negative effects of CO2 far outweigh benefits to plant growth.”

While YouTube did not specify to Ars which videos were de-monetized in response to CCDH’s report, Ars found videos that do not appear to have ads anymore. That includes one where ex-Greenpeace President Patrick Moore claimed that “global warming is in fact ‘an upward tick in a downward movement’” and another where the conservative think tank, The Heartland Institute, claimed that “there is no relationship between hurricane activity and the surface temperature of the planet.”

Other flagged videos remain monetized. Those include videos with millions of views, such as one from conservative nonprofit The Prager University Foundation, which said, “Although CO2 causes some warming, it’s much less significant than we’ve been told.” In another, titled “The Great Climate Con,” Jordan Peterson claimed that “the planet got greener,” benefiting from CO2 levels rising.

The CCDH noted that sometimes groups advocating for climate action ended up having their ads run on these videos promoting new forms of climate denial. An ad for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which “forges solutions to environmental challenges,” ran on Peterson’s video. Jake O’Neill, CLF’s press secretary, provided Ars with a statement, confirming that the organization has no control over how YouTube places ads, suggesting that videos like Peterson’s hamper CLF’s progress promoting climate action.

“Climate denialism videos like this are spreading misinformation and hampering our progress in confronting this crisis with the urgency it demands,” CLF’s statement said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have control over where our ads show up on YouTube as they’re targeted towards certain users, not channels. It’s on YouTube to moderate this, and the company is absolutely failing to weed out these videos and stop profiting off of them.”

Ars could not immediately reach Peterson or the IPCC for comment.

Today, some climate experts cited by the CCDH agree that climate denialists are shifting their strategies and hoping to delay climate policy or promote inactivism by spreading misinformation targeting climate solutions instead of denying climate science that’s generally hard to dispute today.

YouTube seemingly has no urgent plans to update its climate change policy. But if YouTube ever did decide to update its policy, YouTube would have to notify creators, then go through all the older videos on its platform and re-rate each video before running ads on the videos, YouTube’s spokesperson told Ars.

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