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YouTube ran ads for major brands, environmental nonprofits against climate misinformation videos

Global Climate Strike In Lyon
Nearly two thousand people demonstrated to defend the climate on an international day of mobilization in Lyon, France, on Sept. 20, 2019. Greenpeace has called for YouTube to demonetize climate denial videos.   -   Copyright  Nicolas Liponne NurPhoto via Getty Images file
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Greenpeace is not happy that its advertisements were found on YouTube videos featuring climate change denialism and misinformation.

The environmental nonprofit on Thursday called on YouTube to make changes to how it handles content that denies or downplays global warming, pushing the social media giant to pull ads and change its recommendation algorithm.

The ads were brought to Greenpeace's attention by Avaaz, a nonprofit global advocacy group, which issued a report Thursday that environmental organizations and major brands were unaware that their commercials were running alongside climate misinformation.

Travis Nichols, a spokesperson for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement that YouTube's actions follow other companies who have profited by casting doubt on the science of climate change.

"If we're going to stop the climate crisis, we need tech and social media companies like YouTube to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," Nichols said.

Avaaz's report found that YouTube's algorithms have been "actively promoting" videos containing inaccurate information about climate change and pairing them with ads from 108 brands including technology giant Samsung, cosmetics and personal care product maker L'Oréal and ride-hailing service Uber.

L'Oréal said it was working with YouTube to remove its ads from videos that included climate denialism or misinformation.

"The information promoted by these videos is in direct contradiction with L'Oréal's commitments and the work we have been carrying out for many years to protect the environment," a spokesperson for L'Oréal said in a statement.

The report found that some of these groups, which also included the environmental organization World Wildlife Fund, were unaware that their ads were appearing alongside climate misinformation.

YouTube said it works with advertisers to ensure their content appears in places that fit with their brands. For instance, the platform allows advertisers the choice of excluding their ads from videos related to climate change or global warming.

"YouTube has strict ad policies that govern where ads are allowed to appear and we give advertisers tools to opt out of content that doesn't align with their brand," a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement. "We've also significantly invested in reducing recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, and raising up authoritative voices on YouTube."

YouTube's recommendation algorithm has come under scrutiny in recent years for its propensity to favor videos featuring misinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism.

YouTube said it has made strides in promoting authoritative channels on its platform. In February 2019, YouTube's parent company, Google, released a white paperdetailing how the organization aims to fight disinformation across its products and advertising systems. On YouTube, the proposed efforts included prioritizing authoritative voices, reducing "borderline" content and removing videos that violate the company's guidelines.

Nell Greenberg, Avaaz's campaign director based in Oakland, California, said the study was meant to show that YouTube's recommendations favored climate denialism. She acknowledged that there were limitations to the study, since YouTube does not make data on its algorithms public.

Avaaz used a developer tool known as YouTube Data Tools to find related videos for three search terms: "global warming," "climate change" and "climate manipulation." Since related videos only make up a portion of the recommended content in YouTube's "up-next" feature, the Avaaz study does not perfectly mimic the experience that regular users may have if they manually searched for these terms and consumed content on the platform.

The study analyzed 5,537 related videos between Sept. 18 and Sept. 24 that were associated with the three search terms and found that videos containing climate misinformation were among those recommended to users in the up-next feature.

For the search term "global warming," for example, 16 percent of the top 100 related videos contained inaccurate information about climate change. Eight percent of the top 100 related videos contained climate misinformation for users who searched for "climate change," and for the search term "climate manipulation," that portion was 21 percent.

Though these related videos make up only a portion of the total videos that are served to users in YouTube's up-next feature, Avaaz found that the videos they included in their study had collectively garnered 21.1 million views.

"We're not talking about removing content from the site — that's a free speech issue," Greenberg said. "What we're talking about is the free advertising that YouTube provides to this content with its algorithm."

Greenberg said Avaaz has had discussions with YouTube on the study's findings.

"I can tell you that the people we talk to at YouTube take this stuff very seriously, but they need more emphasis from their executive leaders ensuring that not promoting misinformation and disinformation is a priority," she said. "And they need a more systemic approach."