Climate denialists find new ways to monetize disinformation on YouTube

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.”

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