YouTube is now adding fact checks to videos that question climate change, BuzzFeed News has confirmed, as a part of its ongoing effort to combat the rampant misinformation and conspiratorial fodder on its platform.
On July 9, the company added a blurb of text underneath some videos about climate change, which provided a scientifically accurate explainer. The text comes from the Wikipedia entry for global warming and states that “multiple lines of scientific evidence show that the climate system is warming.”
This new feature follows YouTube’s announcement in March that it would place descriptions from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica next to videos on topics that spur conspiracy theories, such as the moon landing and the Oklahoma City bombing. In doing the same for climate videos, the company seems to be wading into more fraught and complex intellectual territory.
“I’d guess that it will have some influence, at least on those people who don’t know much about the subject,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told BuzzFeed News by email. “Might be confusing to some people, but that’s probably better than just accepting the denier video at face value.”
YouTube has not disclosed the full list of topics it is targeting. But a Wikipedia post to its administrators in mid-July offers some clues, listing seven topics the company was helping clarify: global warming, Dulce Base, Lilla Saltsjöbadsavtalet, the 1980 Camarate air crash, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Kecksburg UFO incident, and the MMR vaccine. The two organizations appear to be working more closely since the launch of YouTube’s policy, which Wikipedia did not know about in advance.
Google, which owns YouTube, has struggled to excise misinformation from its platforms. In November 2017, it tried a feature that fact-checked descriptions of newspapers and other items that appear in search results but suspended it in Januaryafter some mistakes triggered complaints.
When the new Wikipedia blurb policy took effect in July, YouTube did not publicly say that climate change was an impacted topic, and the company did not notify users who had uploaded the affected videos.
The Heartland Institute, for example, a conservative think tank that posts videos of its staff and others questioning climate change, told BuzzFeed News that it noticed the change a few weeks ago and had not been notified by YouTube. Spokesperson Jim Lakely declined to comment on the policy or its impact. PragerU, a nonprofit online “university” that made some of the other affected videos, says YouTube’s policy shows its political bias.
“Despite claiming to be a public forum and a platform open to all, YouTube is clearly a left-wing organization,” Craig Strazzeri, PragerU’s chief marketing officer, said by email. “This is just another mistake in a long line of giant missteps that erodes America’s trust in Big Tech, much like what has already happened with the mainstream news media.”
YouTuber Tony Heller, who also makes climate denial videos, described the policy on Twitter as YouTube “putting propaganda at the bottom of all climate videos.” (He did not respond to a request for comment.)
It’s not just misleading climate videos. The same climate blurb was appended to dozens of videos explaining the evidence and impacts of climate change.
“It was a surprise when we saw it show up on videos that are not conspiracy videos, but climate science videos,” Joe Hanson, who produces multiple video series including Hot Mess and It’s Okay to Be Smart, told BuzzFeed News.
Hanson polled his audience about YouTube’s fact-checking, and the result was largely positive. “It is a probably a good thing,” especially for videos with misleading science, Hanson said.