A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Joachim Allgaier about the spread of misinformation on YouTube.
Joachim Allgaier is Professor for Communication and Digital Society at the Department of Nutritional, Food and Consumer Sciences of Fulda University of Applied Sciences in Germany. His research interests concern communication and cooperation in the digital society, including how information and disinformation is spread through online video platforms.
Do you think the spread of misinformation on YouTube has worsened throughout the pandemic? If so, why do you think this is?
Objectively, it’s hard to say. If you ask people, whether they think that they encounter more disinformation on social media, almost everybody would say, “yes”. But the media have also covered this topic quite thoroughly which might have had amplification effects.
However, it does seem that many of the conspiracy theorists in Germany have been very successful at using YouTube. Many of them have also converged during the COVID-19 crisis. Connecting different conspiracy theories during the pandemic was actually an effective way for conspiracy theorists on YouTube to reach more people.
5G [fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks] is a good example of this. There were a number of conspiracies surrounding 5G networks before the pandemic which were linked to COVID-19 very early on. In April 2020, a number of 5G towers in London were vandalised as a result of a conspiracy that claimed 5G was causing the pandemic.
In one of your recent publications, you mention that search terms such as ‘geoengineering’ often produce misleading content. What can scientists working in these fields do to reclaim these words?
After I published the results and they were picked-up by the media, YouTube actually reacted in various statements. I noticed that they also changed the search results quite quickly, actually after just a couple of days. So, when you searched for ‘geoengineering’, you no longer found information on chemtrails, which was quite surprising. It’s actually a motivation for me to do this kind of research as it seems that they are reacting to the results.
So, more scientists need to do some research or at least check what comes up on YouTube when they look for the scientific terms that they use in their research. And if a lot of really bad information or misleading information comes up, it might make sense to, in one way or another, contact YouTube and say “Look, this is really, really bad”.
In your opinion, should YouTube have tighter regulations to prevent misinformation from spreading on their platform?
It’s not entirely transparent how YouTube manages this but their representatives have actually said that they don’t monetise this information and that spreading misinformation is against their community rules. But if you search for ‘vaccination’ on YouTube, you can of course find something that isn’t scientifically correct. It’s still there and the people who want to disseminate misinformation know how to get around the filters.
We also have the problem that if there is too much regulation, this content and its viewers will just move to different, darker corners of the of the web. Platforms like BitChute and Parler, which don’t have any regulation, may gain traction and might even radicalise people more. There’s no easy answer, it’s a very complex societal problem and we need to have a bigger discussion about it.
Do you think the public’s understanding of science has changed as a result of the pandemic?
I think the pandemic showed a lot of people that exponential growth and graphs actually mean something. That they are based on data, and that they can be explained. A large share of the public has learnt a bit more about scientific processes and understands how to trust and better engage with science. They are more interested and you can now really show them the issues and say, “this is why we believe this is the case, this is where the trouble comes from”. And you don’t have to be too easy on them because they will ask and follow the links or whatever you give them. I think this is one positive outcome of the situation.
Are there any incentives for scientists to engage with online video platforms such as YouTube? What are the potential risks?
There are a lot of advantages to communicating with an online video format. You have the huge advantage of combining images and text, you can use different audio channels, you can provide subtitles in different languages, and you can use all the graphs and visual material that you want. There are also many people, especially young people, who would rather go on YouTube to look for answers before they go to Wikipedia or any other page. This is just something that has changed and we need to engage with it.
But there are disadvantages too. You are out there as an individual scientist or person and it’s not always a friendly crowd. You are exposing yourself to all kinds of people and some of them will make nasty comments. For people who try it for the first time and read only really negative comments, it can be a very unpleasant experience. This is especially true if you are trying to correct misinformation. You will possibly face attacks from the people involved, or even have to deal with trolls. Nonetheless, somebody needs to do it.