October 18, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science communication online: The influence of YouTube and the youtubing of influencers
This is a guest post by Joachim Allgaier, senior researcher at the Human Technology Centre, RWTH Aachen, Germany. Joachim and Asheley Landrum (Texas Tech University) are curating a research topic for Frontiers on ‘Understanding the Role of Online Video-Sharing and Online Video-Sharing Platforms for Science and Research Communication’. If you want to contribute to this topic, have a look!
In July of this year I was invited to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne to participate in a panel entitled Youtubers, science journalists: allies or competitors?. In this panel two popular French-speaking Science YouTubers (Science4All and Scilabus) discussed with a science journalist (Aurélie Coulon) how they approach science communication and if that is different from science journalism practice. My role was to participate in the session as an academic expert on science communication. However, I had to admit: from the perspective of science communication research, very little is actually known about the working practices and self-perceptions of Science YouTubers. It is not clear whether most of them see themselves as influencers, journalists, entertainers, educators, scientists or something else.
We find them almost everywhere in the world, using very different styles, formats and techniques of communicating science publicly. Many of them are so successful that they reach hundreds of thousands of viewers. The most successful ones even have many millions of subscribers to their YouTube channel. In the conference discussion, it became clear that while the audiences of professional science journalists seem to be rather small in comparison and sometimes even dwindling, the YouTubers often reach enormous audiences that cannot be reached by the journalists any more. Viviane Lalande, who runs the YouTube channel Scilabus, said that young people in particular no longer read newspapers or watch television. If they want to know something they will go to YouTube and that is why YouTube is becoming the new Wikipedia.
YouTube as a popular source of information for various age groups
Many are concerned about misinformation, fake news, underdeveloped media literacy and the quality of information that young people find on the web. The Lie Detectors project is a particularly interesting endeavour, because it aims to turn schoolchildren in Europe into lie detectors and critical thinkers. The project sends journalists into classrooms in Belgium, Germany and Austria to discuss questions about propaganda and distorted facts online. The idea is to empower them, to understand news media, make informed choices and resist peer pressure as they develop their worldview.
In a recent report they collected their findings. Here I found it very interesting to see that basically only the teachers still use Facebook and Twitter; teens use Instagram and Snapchat and the younger ones now use TikTok as a social media platform of choice. However, YouTube functions as a cross section that is used by the kids and the teachers alike. Another recent representative study conducted in Germany has found that 93 percent of 18-year-olds use YouTube not only for entertainment, but also for education, learning and finding out about what is going on in the world.
Understanding and studying YouTube as a search engine for scientific topics
I am a YouTube user myself and think it has a great potential for learning, being creative, entertainment and, of course, also the public communication of science, technology, environmental and health issues. I also think that lots of Science YouTubers are already doing a great job informing people about science and inspiring them to know more and understand things better. In fact, YouTube has an enormous reach worldwide. It now boasts 2 billion monthly viewers. In addition, it is also the second most popular search engine in many countries around the world, after Google.
As an academic with a keen interest in the science and society interface, I always wondered what kind of information people would find if they type in science-related terms in the YouTube platform. I noted some years ago that the YouTube recommender algorithm often also brought up videos which are not very helpful for understanding things better but rather pushed misinformation and even disinformation (e.g. for commercial reasons) and conspiracy theories – for instance about different health issues. All in all, we know rather little about how science is communicated on YouTube.
At least some research has been conducted so far on health information on YouTube, but these studies generally just check the medical accuracy of the most watched videos on biomedical topics and this approach is not telling us anything about what users find if they use YouTube as a search engine. However, I think it is a very important topic to better understand what kinds of contents and videos YouTube users find, when they are looking for scientific or medical information.
Climate change, climate science and climate engineering on YouTube
Some years ago I started to develop a methodology using TOR to randomize a sample and use different identities in order to get an idea what people might find, when they are searching for scientific and research-related topics on YouTube. Since climate change is one of the major challenges of humanity these days and hotly debated online, I decided to search for ten climate-related terms (e.g. climate, climate change, climate science, global warming). These also involved geoengineering and climate engineering, because I think that this topic is going to become of major importance in the evolving public debate on climate change as it becomes clearer and clearer that we will miss climate emission targets. I also included the term “chemtrails” in the sample because the site is notorious for conspiracy theories and this term quickly came up in searches for geoengineering. I wanted to see whether only conspirational videos come up or also videos that debunk the conspiracy theory.
I found that eighty-nine videos of the 200 videos in the sample are supporting scientific consensus views about anthropogenic climate change, four are more or less balanced. Unexpectedly, the majority of the videos in the sample (107 videos) supports worldviews that oppose the scientific consensus: 16 videos deny anthropogenic climate change and 91 videos in the sample propagate straightforward conspiracy theories about climate engineering and climate change. Videos supporting the scientific mainstream view received only slightly more views (16,941,949 views in total) than those opposing the mainstream scientific position (16,939,655 views in total).
YouTube and the “chemtrails” conspiracy
Strategic communication distortions can clearly be identified in the sample: E.g. videos that come up if people search for “geoengineering” or “climate modification” and to a lesser degree also for “climate engineering” do not refer to the scientific debate about climate engineering and geoengineering at all. Instead they promote the so-called “chemtrails” conspiracy theory, which claims that the condensation trails of airplanes are deliberately enriched with toxins and other harmful substances. Some of the people creating these videos explicitly ask their followers to use the “geoengineering” term and not the “chemtrails” term to distribute these videos, because that would lead people to the explanation that it is actually an anti-scientific conspiracy theory.
My sampling period was between 2015 and 2018. That is the reason why YouTube responded to the research by saying “we’ve made hundreds of changes to our platform [since 2018] and the results of this study do not accurately reflect the way that YouTube works today.” At least it seems that YouTube is working on the problem right now but it is not transparent what these changes look like. From my point of view, we clearly need more independent research on science communication on YouTube to see and understand what the effects of these changes are in everyday practice.
However, the “chemtrail” conspiracy videos still received a huge amount of views, and the chemtrails conspiracy activists are also active on more fronts than just YouTube in hijacking the public discourse on climate / geoengineering (e.g. political campaigning and petitions, public demonstrations, flyer and poster campaigns, requests to governments, publications in (predatory) open access journals, recruitment of politicians, celebrities and others etc.). The upshot is that in a few years’ time when it might be necessary to have an actual serious societal debate about whether or not climate/ geoengineering methods should be applied, because we missed emission targets, then a reasonable societal discussion will be far more difficult. This is a matter of concern that should be taken seriously by the scientific community and civil society as a whole.
More science communication research needed
My hope is that my research helps to raise awareness of the “issue hijacking” problem not just on social media by conspiracy theorists and others. It would also be helpful if the academic research community would take the societal impact of platforms such as YouTube more seriously and carry out more and different kinds of research on topics like online video sharing. There are just so many things we don’t know: For instance, who is creating and distributing what kind of content on YouTube? What kind of videos do people find when they are looking for scientific, biomedical or environmental issues? And also, how do people make sense of the videos they find, what do they think is credible and what is not and why is that?
Scientists need to collaborate with YouTubers in order to be heard
I have argued on various occasions that scientists and research institutions should more proactively communicate their research on channels such as YouTube. Ideally, they should form alliances with science and other YouTubers and video creators, who really are the experts for reaching audiences on this channel and for producing compelling and engaging videos that are actually being watched by various audiences. On YouTube being successful and reaching audiences has a lot to do with forming collaborations (just like in science). In this sense University of Nottingham’s collaboration with video journalist Brady Haran was trailblazing already more than 10 years ago.