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Climate denial is evolving on YouTube, report says, as third of UK teens think crisis is exaggerated

Disinformation is the biggest global threat. Here's how new climate denial narratives are spreading on YouTube.
Disinformation is the biggest global threat. Here's how new climate denial narratives are spreading on YouTube. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Lottie Limb
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Climate denial on YouTube has taken a ‘disturbing shift’, according to a new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

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Teenagers are being influenced by a new breed of climate denial content on YouTube, a campaign group has warned.

Almost a third of 13-17 year olds in the UK think that climate change is being “purposefully over-exaggerated”, according to a survey commissioned by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

A new report from the big tech watchdog investigates how climate denial is shared on YouTube - teens’ favourite social media platform. It comes days after the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report warning that misinformation and disinformation are the biggest short-term risks to global security.

“Platforms like YouTube have developed technology to monopolise young people's attention and shouldn’t direct that towards climate denial,” says Michael Khoo, Climate Disinformation Program Director at Friends of the Earth.

What are ‘new climate denial’ narratives?

Researchers from CCDH have seen a pronounced shift in what they term ‘new denial’ narratives around the climate crisis.

Old denial, the group says, was premised on two key false narratives: that global warming is not happening, or that humans are not causing it.

New denial moves along three prevalent lines which claim that: climate solutions won’t work; climate science and the climate movement are unreliable; and the impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless.

“Scientists have won the battle to inform the public about climate change and its causes, which is why those opposed to climate action have cynically switched focus to undermining confidence in solutions and in science itself,” says CCDH chief executive Imran Ahmed.

CCDH says that these subsequent stories - championed by the likes of Canadian influencer Jordan Peterson - now make up 70 per cent of all climate denial on YouTube, compared to 35 per cent in 2018.

The researchers reached this figure by taking a dataset of text transcripts from more than 12,000 climate-related YouTube videos posted by 96 channels over almost six years, between January 2018 to September 2023. They then used an AI model to analyse the transcripts, categorising them into different forms of denial.

YouTube is ‘making millions’ from climate denial accounts

Google (YouTube’s owner) took a significant step towards disincentivising climate denial content back in October 2021, when it banned ads for - and the monetisation of - such videos.

This was prompted by concerns from advertisers, who naturally did not want their ads running alongside inaccurate claims about climate change.

But CCDH says it found ads for legacy brands like Hilton Hotels and Nike on videos containing climate denial, as well as paid ads by charities like Save the Children.

Its new report makes three big criticisms of YouTube. Firstly, that the social media platform is potentially making up to $13.4 million (around €12,000) a year in ad revenue from channels it studied that have posted climate denial content.

Secondly, YouTube's rules do not cover the new denial claims that are now being heavily pursued by bad faith actors. And thirdly that YouTube is failing to enforce its existing policy against the monetisation of videos promoting ‘old denial’.

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“Our climate change policy prohibits ads from running on content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change,” a Youtube spokesperson tells Euronews Green in response.

“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.”

After looking into the content flagged by CCDH, YouTube acknowledges that some of the videos shared violated its climate change policy, and has removed ads from running on them. But, it says, the majority of examples given were policy compliant.

Campaigners urge Google to take greater action as teens affected

As climate denial and delaysim continue to evolve, drawing the line in the right place is a mammoth task for tech giants like Google. But mis- and disinformation campaign groups urge tighter action to be taken.

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Particularly concerning, they say, is the impact this kind of content is having on young people.

YouTube is the most widely used social media platform among 13- to 17-year-olds in the US, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center last month. 71 per cent of teens say they use the video-sharing platform daily, including 16 per cent who report being on the site almost constantly.

Polling conducted by Survation for the CCDH in March 2023, meanwhile, found that 31 per cent of UK respondents aged 13-17 agreed with the statement “Climate change and its effects are being purposefully over exaggerated”.

This rose to 37 per cent of teens who were ‘heavy users’ of social media, meaning they reported using any one platform for more than four hours a day. Just over 1,000 children were surveyed for the poll via online interviews.

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“It is time for digital platforms to put their money where their mouth is. They should refuse to amplify or monetise cynical climate denial content that undermines faith in our collective capacity to solve humanity’s most pressing challenge,” says CCDH chief executive Ahmed.

“We've pressured Google to stop supporting climate denial in the past, but they've done little,” adds Friends of the Earth’s Khoo. “The New Climate Denial report shows a disturbing shift in the tactics used by bad actors to derail the action needed to avert further disaster."

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