Rezo is a popular 26-year-old YouTuber based in the German university town Aachen, who normally posts funny clips and videos about music on his two YouTube channels. However, on May 18, 2019 he posted an unusually long video, which lasted almost an hour. He called the video “The destruction of the CDU”. The CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands) is the conservative governing party of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Right at the beginning of the video the YouTuber makes it clear that destruction in this sense is only meant metaphorically. He moves on to explain that it is the purpose of the video to present reasons and proof why the governing party actually de-legitimizes itself with its own politics. However, he does not exclusively take a swipe at the conservative party, but also at the party of the Social Democrats (SPD - Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), which form a coalition government with the CDU in Germany.
In the video, Rezo attacks various policies of the governing parties, but the largest part of the video criticises the government's policy regarding climate change. He is disappointed that the government does not act according to the recommendations of climate scientists in the face of climate change. Furthermore, he describes some of the scenarios of what might happen, if climate emissions are not curbed very soon. In order to make his sources transparent, he puts a link in the description of the video to a 13-page document listing all the sources he refers to. In the section concerning climate change he mainly refers to scientific publications in high-ranking scientific journals and scientific reports, for instance, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The video was posted roughly a week before the European elections took place in Germany on May 26, 2019. In the video he calls on his predominantly young followers to participate at the European elections, but to vote for neither the CDU, nor the SPD and particularly not the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland). From his point of view, none of the three parties provide any sustainable solution for dealing with climate change – the AFD would not even acknowledge that there is a problem with climate change at all.
The success of the video (shown below) surprised even Rezo himself. Within a day, it had more than one million views and all the major German news outlets reported on it. Until election, day it was viewed more than 11 million times and reviewed in international news outlets such as The Guardian or The New York Times. Meanwhile, there is even a German Wikipedia entry about the impactful video and its reception in politics, media, science and society. Immediately after the video had been reported in the news, politicians of the conservative governing party heavily attacked the blue-haired YouTuber for spreading false information and fake news.
The conservative party then announced that it would react in the form of a response video. However, briefly after that the conservative party announced on its website that a response video would not be the communicative style of a grand national party and instead released an 11-page PDF-document, in which it tried to refute Rezo’s claims. The different reactions and the time it took for the grand party to answer drastically displays their missing knowledge about YouTube culture and the world of creators as well as users who shape the communication on the platform. Firstly, the party tried to ignore the video, before realizing that this was not possible. Then they tried to talk down Rezo’s expertise and tried to minimise the significance of the presented data.
Soon after the video had been released, various scientists entered the scene – such as the influential female science communicator Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim. She quickly produced and released a video to check the scientific facts presented in Rezo’s work. So far, this video reached almost 2 million views. In addition, the eminent climate scientist Professor Stefan Rahmsdorf and the Professor for Regenerative Energy Systems Volker Quaschning checked the scientific facts presented in the Rezo video, as well as in the response by the CDU and generally backed up the claims that Rezo made in the video.
Quaschning, for instance, writes that he did not find any proofs in the response of the CDU that would substantially disprove the claims made in Rezo’s video concerning climate change. Physicist Christian Thomsen, who is the President of the Technical University of Berlin, also backed Rezo’s claims and states in an opinion piece that Rezo (and other involved YouTubers) would be citing references more correctly and transparently than many of the Federal Ministers and professional politicians who were attacking him. Rezo did not only receive backing from scientists and other experts, but also from many citizens, religious institutions and people from the arts and culture community, such as from the artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele Thomas Oberender.
Meanwhile, Rezo had teamed up with further influential players in the German YouTube scene. On May 24, 2019, two days before election day, an alliance of over 70 popular German YouTubers released another video, shown below, which they simply called “a statement of 70+ YouTubers”. This video is less than three minutes long and contains a single statement read in cut scenes by a very diverse set of YouTubers, with considerably differing points of focus, such as music, beauty, fashion, gaming and a range of other subjects. In addition, the statement posted underneath the video was later signed by more than 90 popular German YouTubers.
The content of this video is very remarkable from a science communication point of view..
In their video statement the YouTubers call on their followers to vote in the European elections, but not to vote for the governing parties or the right-wing AFD, because none of them would act in the sense and logic of science. In the video statement, the YouTube creators explicitly aligned themselves with the scientific experts and also referred to the work of the IPCC and a statement signed by over 26,000 scientists and scholars from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The statement explains that the governments of the three countries are not doing enough to limit global warming, halt the mass extinction of animal and plant species and to preserve the natural basis for life. Taken together, this group of YouTubers has millions of subscribers, friends and followers. So, it was no surprise that this video also made nation-wide headlines and that it has been viewed almost 3 million times within the first two days.
This alliance of YouTubers was also heavily attacked and criticized by various members of the conservative governing party. When the results of the European elections came in two days later, it turned out the governing coalition had experienced massive losses in terms of votes. The biggest winner of the election in Germany was the Green Party, receiving more than a third of the votes of first-time voters. Environmentalism and climate protection have become a major topic in the EU-elections.
The massive gain of votes of the Green Party in the European Election may not be a result of the YouTube videos alone. As there have not been any specific data collections regarding the influence of the videos on the votes, we can only speculate if there was an effect. Many young voters in Germany already held a grudge against the government because their protests against Article 13 of the draft EU Copyright Directive on copyright (which would require internet platforms like YouTube to filter out copyrighted video content) were ridiculed by some conservative politicians. It did not help that the enduring wave of nation-wide Fridays for Future demonstrations for climate protection had not been taken seriously by the government so far.
When the results of the election were official, the reactions coming from the Conservative Party were revealing. Instead of responding to the questions and concerns raised by young people about climate protection and sustainable plans for the future, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of the conservatives, proposed to have a debate on the regulation of political views on the internet during election campaigns. This lead to further furious debates, not just among young people, and a petition campaign against censorship of free speech on the internet.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained silent during this whole debate. It almost took a month until she first spoke out on the issue on June 19.
In a discussion with about 200 teenagers in Goslar, she said that she was not happy with the defensive reaction of her party, when the Rezo video first appeared. When the young people asked her if she thought there were points that Rezo got right in his video she responded, by saying that he was right that the government did indeed break its engagement on climate protection. Climate change now is a major issue across all political parties in Germany.
However, this is not the end of the story. Five days before the newly assembled climate expert commission of the German government met and the third global climate strike took place on Septermber 20, YouTube scientist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim and Rezo released a video (shown above) in order to mobilize people for the climate strike and to influence politicians’ decision on pricing carbon.
YouTuber’s underestimated influence and how to deal with it..
Several insights could be gained from this episode. A first insight is that the two videos by Rezo and his YouTube allies were enormously influential, and contributed to unleash a still ongoing societal debate about climate protection and anthropogenic climate change.
The content of the video was not only discussed in public media and among social media channels, but also in schools, where it forced teachers to have discussions on climate change and politics. The debate is also about holding the government accountable, for failing to come up with sustainable solutions on how to deal with the global challenge of climate change and neglecting the expertise of scientists and climate researchers.
A second insight is that so far the grand political parties in Germany have not yet learned how to deal productively with debates in social media. Likewise, how to have fruitful dialogues on an eye-level with the citizens, particularly the young ones, who will suffer most by failing on climate targets. In addition, many of the journalists who covered the story did not really know how to evaluate what was happening. Up to now, the consensus in the journalistic world seemed to be that most of what happened in the YouTube universe was not to be taken seriously, and driven by commercial interests or intended to misinform and manipulate audiences. That a colourful assemblage of beauty, gaming, comedy, music and other YouTube creators took sides with science in order to become an influential actor of civil society came as a surprise not only to politicians, but also to journalists and maybe even to scientists.
Science communication via YouTube
Recent events, developments and analyses show that YouTube has become increasingly influential and professional, even when it comes to public science communication.
Online media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Instagram and others have become prime information and communication channels for a large share of citizens. YouTube, for instance, now has 2 billion monthly users. A recent study found that 93 percent of 18 year-olds in Germany are using YouTube for learning, information and entertainment on a regular basis. YouTube is also the second most visited website in the world and many people use the platform as a search engine to get quick answers.
When it comes to science popularization, American Scientist already reported in 2015 that popular science YouTubers reached more young people with their videos than the two then most popular TV science communicators Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan combined. However, from an academic point of view, surprisingly little is known about how these science YouTubers see and legitimize themselves and whether they consider themselves being influencers, journalists, entertainers, educators, scientists or something else.
Academic research lacks insights about how expertise is negotiated on the platform. Scientists or academic institutions talking about science and education seem to have problems in establishing their own brands and become part of the communication environment of YouTube. While the term “platform” underlines the idea of democratic public communication, making a highly viewed video on YouTube is only possible by following platform specific rules, and therefore the rules of the recommendation algorithms. When looking closely, expertise seems to be attributed based on social markers instead of certified knowledge and expertise, such as academic titles. When people got access to television, they were keen to gain insights about countries they were not able to visit and to get a closer look on what is happening around the world. With the rise of YouTube we are now in a time where a lot of people can travel anywhere they want to. Knowledge and information are now widely available.
What people are seeking for now is how to assess and negotiate the accessible information, and who is to trust when it comes to information selection. Seeing how the mechanisms of professional journalism for some people seem to be obscure, they tend to look for authentic and seemingly trustworthy people in public communication they can personally relate to.
On YouTube, authenticity is the key for success and YouTubers try to act as authentic as possible. Already, producing a video right in their own living rooms seems to convince some users to trust in whatever is presented in the video itself. In addition, to present oneself on eye-level with the users, video creators also gain credibility in actively creating their community. In this sense, coherent storytelling, not only in presenting the content but also in creating a coherent relationship between the users and the creators seems to be one important marker for attributing expertise on the platform.
When it comes to science content, videos produced by amateur users are often even more popular than those from professional content producers on YouTube. Amateur users also apply professional cinematographic and other standards in producing science videos. In contrast to conventional (science) journalism, many science online-video producers particularly value YouTube’s potential for audience and community engagement as well as having a dialogue and direct exchanges with their audiences. Most of the time, professional video productions from universities use YouTube only as an archive, or for the dissemination of image films, neglecting to actively engage with their community. Often the commentary function of such channels is even completely switched off.
YouTube shows great potential for education and the public communication of science and environmental topics. The video format affords the use of animations and visualisations, night-vision, time-lapse, slow motion or high-speed cinematography, various languages and subtitles and many other visual and auditory techniques that foster understanding of complex issues and topics. Many of the popular science YouTubers are doing an excellent job communicating science in public. In addition, they are reaching new audiences that traditional media does not reach – specifically among young people. However, the knowledge landscapes that are provided on and by YouTube are so far quite uncharted territory. Moreover, YouTube is infamous for being a fertile ground for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Challenges for academia
From an academic point of view, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done in order to better understand this influential video platform: It would be desirable to find out more about the scientific video content on YouTube, but also about its production, consumption and reception. Only little is known about how influential players on YouTube see themselves, what their motivations are and whether or not their audiences ascribe new forms of authority, professionalism and expertise to successful YouTubers. And last but not least, academics, scientists, researchers and academic and research institutions need to develop concepts and ideas about how they want to position themselves and make use of online platforms such as YouTube.
We also need to keep in mind that it is not very transparent how the YouTube algorithms work. We should be aware that we are dealing with a very powerful artificial intelligence here that is already making decisions for us (for instance if we chose to use YouTube’s “auto-play” function). The algorithms for YouTube recommendations, that Google engineers are very proud of, are complex. By basically teaching themselves about human behaviour and preferences, the platform is turning itself into a black box influenced by the mutual interactions between the users, the creators and the software engineers.
Therefore, dealing with questions on how social media platforms like YouTube develop, is also a question of responsible research and innovation. Furthermore, for YouTube as a platform that has a significant influence on the communication culture and the dissemination of information, this means taking responsibility.
Responsibility to curate content, filter false information and facilitate access to scientifically sound contributions. However, the solution currently under discussion, algorithmic curating via so-called upload filters, should be questioned just as critically as an uncurated video collection.
The popularisation of other platforms beyond YouTube would also be an interesting option, but YouTube’s monopoly extends to science communication as well. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to foster the digital literacy of citizens, starting from childhood days onwards, so that the users have a better grasp of how the dissemination of information on the internet works and also know how to evaluate conflicting information.
In this context, it is interesting that France and Germany have decided to create a Franco-German digital portal for audio-visual content and information in the Treaty of Aachenin January 2019. In high-ranking political circles there was a lot of unrest and unhappiness about the spread of rumours, misinformation and political conspiracy theories on social media and the fear of political interference by the major commercial internet players.
There will be many challenges ahead for a European digital media platform but increasing the diversity of platform providers and limiting the previous internet monopolies is to be welcomed. Furthermore, this would be very valuable for fostering open dialogues in civil-society. It is more than likely that there will be further impactful interventions, such as the one by Rezo and his allies. Yet, we do not know where they will be coming from next and if these will be science and fact-based videos or misleading information.
The role of academia in this context should be to understand the complexity of these communication mechanisms and to unravel the origins and paths of information, its interaction patterns and how these build a new civil society or at least a crucial part of it.
Joachim Allgaier, Human Technology Centre (HumTec), RWTH Aachen University
Andrea Geipel, Munich Center for Technology in Society, Technical University of Munich (TUM) / Deutsches Museum
Jesús Muñoz Morcillo, ZAK | Centre for Cultural and General Studies, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
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