Conspiracy theorists have been accused of hijacking some scientific topic terms on YouTube to appear credible, according to new research.
The study looks at the types of results users are presented with when searching terms such as “geoengineering” or “climate modification”.
It looked at 200 videos about climate change on the Google-owned platform and found that more than half (107) of results included content that was not in line with mainstream scientific views.
Those behind the analysis said 16 of the videos deny climate change as a result of human activity, while 91 videos in the sample propagate straightforward conspiracy theories about climate engineering and climate change.
“It’s alarming to find that the majority of videos propagate conspiracy theories about climate science and technology,” said study author, Dr Joachim Allgaier, senior researcher at the RWTH Aachen University in Germany.
“So far, research has focused on the most-watched videos, checking their scientific accuracy, but this doesn’t tell us what an average internet user will find, as the results are influenced by previous search and watch histories.
“To combat this, I used the anonymisation tool TOR to avoid personalisation of the results.”
The so-called “chemtrails” conspiracy theory – a belief that condensation trails left by planes deliberately eject harmful substances to modify the weather, control people, or for biological or chemical warfare – appeared in most of the videos studied, the paper claims.
It warned that believers are also using social media tactics and strategies like search engine optimisation to make their content easier to find, which is hampering objective discussions about climate change.
“Within the scientific community, ‘geoengineering’ describes technology with the potential to deal with the serious consequences of climate change, if we don’t manage to reduce greenhouse gases successfully,” Dr Allgaier continued.
“For example, greenhouse gas removal, solar radiation management or massive forestation to absorb carbon dioxide.
“However, people searching for ‘geoengineering’ or ‘climate modification’ on YouTube won’t find any information on these topics in the way they are discussed by scientists and engineers.
“Instead, searching for these terms results in videos that leave users exposed to entirely non-scientific video content.”
Videos supporting the scientific mainstream received only slightly more views, totalling 16,941,949, versus 16,939,655 views for those opposing the mainstream scientific position.
Last year, YouTube said it would crack down on conspiracy videos by displaying links to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and other sites to try to debunk video claims.
The research called on the scientific community to take YouTube seriously as a platform to promote credible information.