Sustainability Adtech Brand Safety

Brands still funding climate denial videos, despite YouTube’s promises to demonetize


By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

May 9, 2023 | 8 min read

In 2021, the tech giant pledged to ban ads on content spreading climate misinformation. Years later, top brands are still funding lies.

Climate misinformation gif

Videos disputing climate science are still being sponsored by advertising on YouTube

YouTube has long pledged to restrict ads on content contradicting established climate science, or spreading climate misinformation – be it before, beside, or on top of videos. But plenty of ads are still appearing on climate denial videos that rake in millions of views, according to a report released by the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) coalition and the Center for Counteracting Digital Hate.

Researchers identified 200 videos containing climate misinformation and disinformation, with a total of 78.3m views as of April 2023. The videos, which all contained either outright climate denial or misinformation, also featured ads.

100 of those videos, amassing 18.8m views, breached YouTube’s own policy against the spread of misinformation, which states that ads are not permitted on videos “contradicting authoritative scientific consensus on the existence of and causes behind climate change”.

The videos in question, which featured ads from brands including Costco, Tommy Hilfiger, and Politico, included claims that “Every single model [the IPCC] ever have put out is wrong,” that “there is no link between CO2 and temperature,” and that “Climate hysteria is just another rebrand, a Trojan horse for anti-white anti-Western communist tyranny.”

A further 100 videos (viewed at least 55m times) met the CAAD’s more detailed definition of misinformation and disinformation, including content that undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, disreputes or misrepresents scientific data, or promotes efforts that contribute to global warming under the guise of sustainability. These featured ads for the likes of Nike, Hyundai, and Emirates.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate posits that Google has repeatedly failed to combat misinformation across its platforms, with tests indicating that over half (63%) of climate denial articles still carry ads.

“Despite Google’s green grandstanding, its ads continue to fuel the climate denial industry,” said Callum Hood, head of research at the organization. Hood goes on: “Whether it’s taking cash to target users with climate disinformation, or running ads that make climate denial content profitable, the company is selling out.”

While Google told The Verge it had since reviewed the list of videos in the dataset and removed ads from those that violate its policy, it said “our enforcement is not always perfect, and we are constantly working to improve our systems to better detect and remove policy-violating content.”

Hood is now calling for greater transparency from big tech, saying firms “make big promises on hate and misinformation because they know it’s hard to see if they’ve kept them. We need to force Google to open up the black box of its advertising business.”

Policy v enforcement

The fact of the matter is, “policies are pretty useless unless enforced properly – a form of greenwash in itself,” says Jake Dubbins, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network (also a member of CAAD.)

Dubbins says that, on a platform of YouTube’s scale, it’s understandable that some misinformation could slip through the cracks, “but this report shows a systemic problem with the enforcement of the policy.”

Leaders across the industry tell The Drum that the buck stops with Google to take accountability and be transparent. “It’s disappointing, but unsurprising,” says Guillermo Dvorak, head of digital at media-buying agency Total Media. Dvorak adds that, “For years the trustworthiness of platforms like YouTube and Meta has been shaken by issues like this.”

Myles Peacock, worldwide chief executive officer of digital comms agency Investis Digital says a reckoning is overdue.

“The reality is that the big names weren’t under the sort of microscope they are now – people weren’t watching as closely and now that they’re paying attention. I doubt it will ever shift back. And that’s a good thing, as the future of our planet depends on it.”

“Advertisers do not want to be a pre-roll on climate denial, nor do they want to be adjacent to hate speech or other forms of misinformation,” says Dubbins.

“We have seen the revenue drop at Twitter. If platforms want to attract ad dollars, monetization and content policies based on clear definitions, enforcement and transparency are essential,” he warns.

The Drum approached five top media agencies for comment on the research and how they could leverage their spend to demand better enforcement. Each declined to criticize the world’s biggest video app.

Meanwhile, Dvorak talks up the “responsibility”of marketers. “We can diversify media plans and educate our clients that there is a better way; there are alternatives.”

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Dvorak cites the work being done by companies like Scope3 and Ozone as examples. “We want to make sure that we are held accountable to our clients, not just on how the media we buy supports climate-change education and information, but on finding ways to reduce the emissions created by that media spend.”

But disinformation persists because it is profitable, says Erika Seiber, climate disinformation spokesperson at environmental organization Friends of the Earth. “Big Tech needs to remove that incentive. Their business model relies on user engagement at the expense of the truth. Since big tech can’t answer the call from researchers and advocates for full transparency and accountability, lawmakers need to mandate it.”

Alongside 18 other companies, including Meta and TikTok, Google now has four months to comply with the accountability and transparency requirements laid out by the EU’s Digital Services Act. Dubbins says that this is putting pressure on tech firms to sharpen up their moderation, “but we need action now,” he says.

“We need clear and transparent enforcement actions for content, and for repeat offenders, as well as transparent access and reporting for researchers and the advertising community.”

Want to learn more about the most important issue of our time? Senior reporter Ellen Ormesher will explore the role advertising and marketing play in facilitating the climate crisis. Case studies, tips, interviews and more. Register your interest here.

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