How the comment systems on YouTube and Facebook help propagate misinformation.

I get so depressed by the amount of deliberate misinformation that I encounter on the internet. Today I ran across this YouTube video spreading patently false propaganda about renewable energy:

The annoying thing about this sort of video is how effective it is. At the time when I watched it, this video had 1.57 million views and it had 63k likes compared to 19k dislikes. It was trending high enough that it popped up in my list of recommended videos, right after I watched some business news on YouTube. If this video is reaching a user like me who isn’t part of the right-wing news bubble on YouTube, then it is probably showing up in the recommended video lists of a lot of average YouTube users.

I wasted 40 minutes writing up a detailed comment to debunk what the propagandist in the video says about renewable energy, but almost nobody will ever bother reading my one comment in a sea of 25,580 comments. Most of the comments are mindless drivel from people who don’t have the slightest idea what they are talking about. My one detailed comment will be gone within minutes in an avalanche of new comments, so I wasted my time trying to refute the propagandist in the comment section.

Here was my comment:
————
You know Thoughty2 is a fraud, when he says solar panels “can break down in as little as 5 years.” Anything manufactured can break down, but most solar panels being sold today come with a performance warranty that guarantee 90% production of its rated output at 10 years and 80% at 25 years. Plus, they come with an equipment warranty, which will typically guarantee 10-12 years without failing. Most string inverters have a 10 year warranty and most microinverters have a 25 year warranty. Solar panels bought today should typically last 30-40 years.

Thoughty2 raises fears about leakage from solar panels in landfills, but monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are less hazardous than typical electronic waste. It is true that cadmium telluride panels contains lots of cadmium which is a toxic heavy metal, but that is only used in large-scale utility installations, and all the makers of CdTe panels guarantee that they will recycle their panels for free. Since they are only used in large-scale installations, the chance that they won’t be recycled is minimal, so there is no risk to the public. All solar panels in Europe have to be recycled by the manufacturer. There are likely to be recycling programs in the next 20-30 years in the rest of the world when most of the current solar panels start needing to be replaced. See: https://news.energysage.com/recycling-solar-panels/

Wind turbines do kill birds, but several academic studies have found that wind farms kill fewer birds than fossil fuel energy generation per MWh, which is why wind energy is endorsed by virtually every environmental group. For example, B. Sovacool (2009) found that wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil fueled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh. Some of the early wind farms in California and Spain were poorly sited in the flight paths of birds, so they killed a lot of birds, but wind farms being built today undergo environmental review so they aren’t placed in common flight paths. See:
https://www.carbonbrief.org/bird-death-and-wind-turbines-a-look-at-the-evidence
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0960148112000857

Thoughty2 argues that the variability from solar and wind energy is a problem, but he neglects to mention that Denmark, which got 43.4% of its electricity from wind in 2017 (the highest percentage in the world), has more reliable electricity than the US, in terms of time without blackouts and brownouts.

The variability of wind and solar can be solved with smart grids that adjust demand to meet supply and continental energy markets and good grid infrastructure to transfer energy to places that need it. With high voltage direct (HVDC) current power lines, energy can be transferred across continents with only a 3% loss per 1000 km, plus a 1.5% conversion loss going from AC to DC and then 1.5% loss from DC to AC. That means that you only lose about 12% to transfer energy from one side of Europe to the other or 18% from the east to west coasts of North America, so the variability problem is solved by constructing continent-wide grids and energy markets, since there is always wind blowing and sun shining somewhere on a continent.

Thoughty2 argues that nuclear power is the answer, but he neglects to tell you that the electricity from new nuclear power plants costs 3 times more per kWh compared to new wind and solar energy. Every single nuclear plant currently under construction in the Western world has cost overruns and time delays.

The practical effect of saying that nuclear energy is the answer is to delay the implementation of low-carbon electricity and to keep burning fossil fuels, which is why the fossil fuel lobby keeps pushing nuclear as a way to hold onto their market as long as possible. It will take decades to do the necessary R&D to implement thorium, whereas we have wind and solar technology which is already being implemented on a massive scale and is falling every year in price. Wind is already the cheapest form of electricity in many parts of the world, and solar is set to become the cheapest within 5 years in most of the world. There is no reason to delay the transition to 100% clean energy when it can be done today with renewable energy using current technology.

Thoughty2 gets so many things wrong that he is either an ignoramus who doesn’t know the first thing about energy or he is a paid shill spreading deceptive propaganda on the internet.

What is so frustrating is the fact that YouTube and Facebook, which are two of the biggest platforms that have been used to spread deliberate misinformation, were designed to prevent debunking in their comment sections.

YouTube shows the comments at the top which have generated the most responses, which are often the ones that are trolling in order to provoke responses. If you write something short and provocative, then you have a higher chance of getting your comment to rise to the top of the list of comments. In contrast, thoughtful comments that don’t excite responses will get buried.

Both YouTube and Facebook only show the first couple lines of each comment, so you have to write something pithy and eye-catching in the first couple lines to attract the readers’ attention, so they will click to expand your comment. Debunking requires space. It can rarely be done in the space of 2 or 3 lines that you are likely to see when scanning a long list of comments.  These platforms weren’t designed to encourage people to read long comments. Their goal is to get the user to move on to the next bit of eye candy and not concentrate for too long on any one  video or post.

Even worse, Youtube and Facebook don’t show responses to comments by default. If someone posts something false in the comments, you can take the time to debunk it, but nobody is likely to ever see what you wrote, because they have to take the time to click to see the responses.

Good commenting systems, which are designed to generate thoughtful discussion, have mechanisms for making the good comments rise to the top of the list, so you have a better chance of reading the thoughtful comments and ignoring the mindless comments that add little to the conversation.  Unlike Facebook and YouTube, good commenting systems shows the responses to comments, so people scanning the list of comments are likely to see the reponses that debunk misinformation in the comments.

There is no way to search through the comments in the YouTube or Facebook (aside from using the web browser’s built-in search function, which only works inside the current page of comments). You can’t search for the comments of particular users or search for key words, so it is largely impossible to find and follow a conversation, which doesn’t appear in the first page of comments.

Debunking misinformation requires being able to link to outside sources of information. Nobody has time to write out an essay every time misinformation is posted about a topic like climate change. Unfortunately, Youtube doesn’t allow many links in its posts. Often, I post a reply with a link and it falls afoul of YouTube’s algorithms, and the post isn’t allowed. Both Facebook and YouTube display the address of the link, rather than allowing me to create a link, so it is very ugly and cumbersome to read, especially when you want to link to a couple scientific articles with long URLs. If Facebook recognizes the URL, it will pull graphics and info from the link and display that instead, but that makes the links even longer and requires a lot of scrolling. When debunking misinformation, you want the references right there to provide credibility to what you are saying, but you want the reader to focus on your words, not a long list of distracting images to links.

Unfortunately, Facebook and YouTube have become the primary source of news and information for most people, so it has become very easy to spread misinformation in the modern age.  Facebook and Google obviously thought long and hard about what would be the best type of comment system. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook generate billions in revenue every year and have helped turn Alphabet and Facebook into the fourth and sixth most valuable companies on the planet. With that much money on the line, it can’t be argued that these companies weren’t thinking about the effect of their comment systems or that they didn’t have the resources to design better comment systems.

These companies made the deliberate choice to encourage users to not read long and detailed comments and to discourage users from spending too much time in the comments. The system is designed to encourage people to leave their own comments, but not to read other people’s comments, because that is the best way to ensure that users will be constantly viewing new material.  It makes perfect sense for a capitalist enterprise to design their platforms this way since it maximizes the opportunities to show people targeted advertising, but it has very destructive effects on society when people are constantly being bombarded with misinformation. At the end of the day, the profits of companies like Google and Facebook cannot take priority over the needs of society.

The problem is how to address the problem of misinformation being spread by the largest internet services. A better comment system would help, but Reddit, SlashDot and Disqus have better comment systems and they still are used to propagate a lot of misinformation on the internet. Obviously the solutions go far beyond just creating better comment systems, but it is a small step that could help, and it wouldn’t be difficult for YouTube and Facebook to implement different comment systems.

2 thoughts on “How the comment systems on YouTube and Facebook help propagate misinformation.

  1. Eric Qel-Droma

    Thank you for writing this up. I just watched five minutes of that video because it showed up on my YouTube feed, and I felt the same way that you did. (I’m clearly not as learned in these matters as you, so I couldn’t write the helpful and informative comment that you did.

    In any case, you’re so right about the problems with comment systems. I hope someone figures out a really effective way to do it so that we get more comments like yours and fewer like… everything else on the internet.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Loki

    It really is crazy that more people can’t see this. The misingormation isn’t obvious but the thing that is: the lack of sources given. There’s nothing in the discriptions of any videos showing sources, no outer website showing how he found his info on his vids, no comment he makes showing his sources. No proof of what he’s saying is shown at all in any way. He states facts, and never comments how this fact has been found. He also mentions in the bio pf his channel that a “small team” works on it. Does this “small team” consist of professionals in any of the feilds he works in I wonder? I doubt it as he, afterwards, says he’s requesting writers. Not people who can fact check his work or find better ways of describing so it can be more true, just writers for more entertainment. There’s no fact checking. I know its not as far as this, but for what we know, it could just be the one guy writing ideas of cool things in a notebook and making up stories about it. There’s no sources and no known professionality or even attempt to do either. How does this go unnoticed?

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s