What is the ‘new denial’? Alarming wave of climate misinformation spreading on YouTube, watchdog says

If you’ve been on YouTube lately, you may have come across someone claiming that wind and solar power don’t work, that rising sea levels will help coral reefs flourish, or that climate scientists are corrupt and alarmists.

These are all false and misleading statements drawn from a handful of thousands of YouTube videos analyzed by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which has identified a sea change in the tactics of climate deniers in the last years.

Whereas once climate deniers flatly rejected climate change as a hoax or scam, or claimed that humans were not responsible for it, many are now shifting to a different approach, one that attempts to undermine climate science, cast doubt on climate solutions and even affirm Global warming will be beneficial at best and harmless at worst.

The past five years have seen a “striking” rise in this “new denial,” according to a CCDH analysis published Tuesday, which also suggests this shift in narrative could also be helping YouTube video creators circumvent the social media company’s ban on monetizing climate denial. .

The researchers collected transcripts of more than 12,000 videos posted between 2018 and 2023 on 96 YouTube channels that have promoted climate denial and misinformation. The transcripts were analyzed by artificial intelligence to categorize the climate denial narratives used as “old denial” or “new denial.”

According to the report, new “denial” content (attacks on solutions, science and the climate movement) now accounts for 70% of all climate denial claims posted on YouTube, up from 35% in 2018.

Classic “old denials” that global warming is not happening decreased from 48% of all denial claims in 2018 to 14% in 2023, according to the report. However, claims that climate solutions will not work skyrocketed from 9% to 30% during the same period.

Imran Ahmed, CEO and founder of CCDH, said that in some ways, the report is a success story.

“The climate movement has won the argument that climate change is real and that it is damaging our planet’s ecosystems,” he told CNN. As the impacts of the climate crisis – from scorching heat waves to ferocious storms – affect a broader section of the world’s population, narratives that deny the existence of climate change are becoming less effective.

But he added that it is also a big warning. “Now that most people recognize that old climate denial is counterfactual and debunked, climate deniers have cynically concluded that the only way to derail climate action is to tell people that the solutions don’t work.” ”.

“This new climate denial is no less insidious,” Ahmed said, “and could exert enormous influence on public opinion on climate action for decades to come.”

According to the CCDH, it is particularly worrying due to the young demographic attracted to YouTube. A December Pew Research Center survey found that YouTube is the most used social media platform it looked at among 13- to 17-year-olds, used by about nine in 10 of them.

“Climate deniers now have access to vast global audiences through digital platforms,” Charlie Cray, senior strategist at Greenpeace, said in a statement. “Allowing them to steadily undermine public support for climate action, especially among younger viewers, could have devastating consequences for the future of our planet.”

The change in tactics to undermine climate action could also help creators circumvent YouTube’s policy that prohibits them from making money from climate denial content, the report suggests. In 2021, the company banned advertising against content that “contradicts a well-established scientific consensus on the existence and causes of climate change.”

However, YouTube is potentially earning up to $13.4 million a year from ads on videos that the report says contain climate denial, according to CCDH estimates, including ads from prominent sportswear companies, hotels, and international organizations without profit.

“There aren’t many companies that would be happy to see their advertising appear alongside clear climate denial content,” Ahmed said. “And I imagine they will be furious to discover that they are inadvertently funding climate denial content.”

In a statement to CNN, a YouTube spokesperson said that “debate or discussions on climate change issues are permitted, including around public policy or research.”

However, the spokesperson added, “when content crosses the line of climate change denial, we stop showing ads on those videos. “We also display information panels below relevant videos to provide additional information on climate change and third-party context.”

YouTube said its law enforcement teams work quickly to review videos that could potentially violate policies and then act accordingly.

The company said that after reviewing the CCDH report, it found that some of the videos included violated existing policies on climate change and has since removed its ads. However, it also said that most of the videos analyzed did not violate its policies.

Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the narrative shift in climate denial, said the findings were “disturbing.”

“It is extremely unlikely that this is the result of organic activity on social media,” Mann, who was not involved in the study, told CNN. “It suggests that bad actors have made a concerted effort to weaponize social media in a way that especially targets young people, recognizing that they are the biggest threat to the fossil fuel industry’s status quo, as evidenced by the tremendous impact of youth. climate movement.”

Ahmed called on Google to boost its policies to address “new denial content.” “We are calling on Google to extend its ban on monetization and amplification of ‘old denied’ content to also include ‘new denied’,” Ahmed said, adding that other social media companies should also take note of the report’s findings.

“We are asking other platforms that claim to be green to once and for all not benefit, not share revenue and therefore reward or amplify clear climate denial content that contradicts scientific consensus,” Ahmed added. “You can’t claim to be green and then be the world’s biggest megaphone for climate change misinformation.”

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