“The platforms have not yet learned the lesson that their obsession with engagement is leading them to recommend extremely dangerous content,” said Laura Edelson, a computer scientist who studies disinformation at New York University. “The fact that they still haven’t solved this problem after years of very clear evidence that their algorithms are promoting dangerous content is shocking.”
The low availability of the formula has been a problem for months due to supply chain disruptions affecting consumers in major sectors, from automobiles to appliances. But after Abbott Laboratories’ nutrition unit retired some of its products earlier this year, including its best-selling brand Similac, stocks further ran out, leading parents to try everything: driving for hours. to shops that may have stocks or by bartering in Facebook groups – to feed their children. On May 18, President Joe Biden took urgent action to address the crisis, invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production and ordering Department of Defense planes to speed up shipments of formulas to the country from overseas.
Parents are turning to the internet for solutions and alternatives, but medical experts agree that homemade versions of formula milk carry serious health risks. “We have all seen in the past couple of years that fear and uncertainty create an ideal environment for disinformation to go viral,” Edelson said.
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Both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued warnings stating that parents should not produce their own infant formula due to the dangers associated with the lack of nutrients it contains. In its notice, the FDA added that it has received reports of hospitalized children suffering from low calcium levels as a result of the homemade recipes. On May 16, a doctor at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee said he was treating two young patients, a toddler and a preschooler, because they didn’t have access to the specialist formula they needed.
Both YouTube and TikTok said they removed the videos reported by Bloomberg. YouTube said that content it “promotes, sells, or instructs on homemade infant formula” violates its harmful and dangerous content policies. TikTok said it will continue to search for similar problematic content. Twitter, when it showed examples from Bloomberg, said it did not violate its disinformation policies, which apply to manipulated media, elections, COVID-19 and crises, such as the Buffalo shooting. Twitter said it will re-examine its approach as the public conversation evolves.
Meta Inc., which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it partnered with a network of third-party fact-checkers who evaluated claims about the shortage of baby formulas. Once the posts are verified, they appear with warning labels in the Facebook feed and fewer people see them, a spokesperson for Meta said. The company did not answer questions about its inconsistent labeling on homemade infant formula posts.
The platforms hosted many communities sharing information on where to find infant formula, including crowdsourced maps of which grocery stores had products in stock. Bringing people together to strategize around the problem and gain emotional support comes with the trade-off of making it easy to travel for bad advice, said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation.
“Parents use online forums, especially local groups, to find formula milk for their babies, and it’s been an amazing resource,” Ryan said. “But misinformation about the shortage is also everywhere. Everything from fake homemade recipes to conspiracies about what caused the shortage.
Ryan said tech companies might consider solutions such as applying more consistent fact-checking labels on formula misinformation or creating a resource that points parents with factual information about the formula shortage, how they have tried to redirect users from potential COVID-19 misinformation with links to trusted sources.
Steven Abrams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas at Austin, said the lack of absorbable nutrients in infant formula poses a risk of seizures in babies and inadequate iron risks anemia and developmental delays. Improper preparation is also a danger, he said. “Contamination in food or preparation exposes children to risks of serious bacteria, including salmonella,” Abrams said.
But the warnings haven’t stopped social media users from discussing and sharing unproven recipes online. In the first week of May, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News, there were just a couple of hundred Twitter posts discussing homemade infant formula. The following week, that number jumped to nearly 5,000 tweets, a 2,100% increase. “If you are affected by this, don’t panic,” said a tweet. “Millions of us grew up on homemade formula … your baby will be fed and happy and likely to have less tummy upsets.”
On Facebook, posts sharing a photo for a 1960s recipe for homemade infant formula as a shortage workaround were by far the most viral on the platform. Posts containing the recipe photo were shared across hundreds of Facebook groups with names like “Country Girl’s Dream Spaces” and “Mommy Talk Madness”, generating 95,899 interactions over the past year, according to an analysis on CrowdTangle, a web tool. The analysis showed that while not all Facebook groups liked or shared the posts, the DIY recipe could have reached up to 12.5 million people.
On some of the posts, Facebook has applied a label stating that the information listed could mislead people. But on others, including one that garnered nearly 1,000 likes and shares, the label didn’t apply. The company seemed to be labeling posts inconsistently “based on very simple text templates, like ‘recipe formula’,” said Edelson, the disinformation researcher.
The recipe was also widely shared on Meta’s Instagram photo sharing app, generating hundreds of likes and shares. Similar to Facebook, many of the Instagram posts did not carry the misleading label.
On Google’s YouTube, dozens of videos sharing children’s DIY recipes were hosted on the video site and shared on other platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, garnering hundreds of likes and shares. The most popular videos had tens of thousands of views and included ads, displayed after a simple search string – “homemade baby formula” – despite YouTube’s promises not to allow or promote content containing health disinformation on search and on the advice on the site. YouTube removed some videos from its site, but only after Bloomberg News reached out.
The same simple search on ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok app produced just as many results, but the videos were even more viral on the platform. Half a dozen of the most popular search results containing untested formula concoctions saw at least 1.5 million views on the platform, according to a Bloomberg News review. After Bloomberg asked for comment, TikTok removed the results for “homemade baby milk” and added a notification to users that some of the posts that would appear violate community guidelines.
Many of the instructions shared online were based on a homemade recipe from the Weston Price Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, which also made false claims about vaccines, cholesterol, and COVID-19. “A better and healthier infant formula recipe for babies,” tweeted Darla Shine, the wife of former President Donald Trump’s former communications director, attaching a link to the group’s recipe. “Please pass around.” Her tweet collected 150 likes and shares. The link was shared hundreds of more times on Twitter, a CrowdTangle analysis showed. On Facebook, the same link has been shared hundreds of times, generating 23,600 likes and shares on the platform. He collected 2,400 more Instagram interactions. Shine did not respond to a request for comment.
Abrams, the pediatrician, said he was “very familiar” with the group’s formulations and considered them “risky”. Others had even stronger opinions.
“Oh man, these are completely dangerous,” said Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist who treated the two young hospital patients in Memphis, when asked to review many other recipes that went viral on social media, many of which based on Weston Price’s original recipe. “Two of them start with raw milk. That is not pasteurized. Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization because cow’s milk contained infectious agents that were eliminated by the process. “
“These will not be full feeding and have a very high risk of exposing your baby to infections you don’t want them to have,” she said.
Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, followed his advice on raw milk formulas in a telephone conversation, saying it “gives the baby lifelong immunity against any pathogen in raw milk.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can kill people. In about half of the states, the sale of raw milk to consumers is illegal.
For parents looking to help feed their babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends checking smaller stores and local drugstores for infant formula or searching online for well-known distributors for supplies. Pediatricians may also be able to link low-income families to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s special nutritional supplement program, which provides federal grants for food, including infant formula, to qualified individuals, the group said. .
The shortage formula underscores the problem tech companies have with short-lived misinformation spikes that their AI systems aren’t trained to deal with. Despite Biden’s action, companies warn the shortages could affect consumers for months. Shelves were 45% out of stock in the week ending May 15, according to Datasembly.
“This is a public health crisis,” said Ryan, the disinformation researcher. “But the tech companies don’t treat it as such at all.”