“Platforms still haven’t learned the lesson that their obsession with engagement leads them to recommend wildly insecure content,” said Laura Edelson, a computer scientist who studies misinformation at New York University. “The fact that they still haven’t solved this problem after years of very clear evidence that their algorithms promote dangerous content is shocking.”
The scarce availability of formulas has been a problem for months because of supply chain disruptions that have affected consumers in major industries, from cars to home appliances. But after Abbott Laboratories’ food division recalled some of its products earlier this year, including its top-selling brand Similac, supplies continued to run out, prompting parents to try everything — driving for hours to stores that may have stock, or bartering in Facebook groups — to feed their babies. On May 18, President Joe Biden took urgent action to address the crisis, invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production and instructing Department of Defense aircraft to expedite formula shipments from abroad to the country.
Parents are turning to the internet for solutions and alternatives, but medical experts agree that homemade versions of baby food pose serious health risks. “We’ve all seen in recent 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 warned that parents should not make their own infant formula because of the dangers associated with a lack of nutrients. In its advisory, the FDA added that it had received reports of hospitalized babies suffering from low calcium levels from 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 special formula they needed.
Both YouTube and TikTok said they have removed videos that Bloomberg flagged. YouTube said content that “promotes, sells, or instructs homemade baby food” violates its harmful and dangerous content policy. TikTok said it would continue to look for similarly problematic content. Twitter, when Bloomberg showed examples, said it had not violated its policy on disinformation, which applies to manipulated media, elections, COVID-19 and crises such as the Buffalo shooting. Twitter said it would re-examine its approach as the public conversation evolves.
Meta Inc., owner of Facebook and Instagram, said it is working with a network of third-party fact-checkers who reviewed claims about the baby food shortage. Once posts are fact-checked, they appear with warning labels in Facebook’s feed and fewer people see them, a Meta spokesperson said. The company did not respond to questions about inconsistent labeling on its homemade baby food items.
The platforms housed many communities sharing information about where to find baby food, including crowdsourced maps of which supermarkets had products in stock. Bringing people together to devise a strategy around the problem and getting emotional support comes with the trade off of making it easy to travel for bad advice, says Melissa Ryan, chief executive officer of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that focuses on disinformation. investigates.
“Parents use online forums, especially local groups, to find formulas for their babies, and it’s been a great resource,” Ryan said. “But misinformation about the shortage is also everywhere. Everything from fake homemade formula recipes to conspiracies about the cause of the shortage.”
Ryan said the tech companies could consider solutions, such as applying more consistent fact-checking labels to formula misinformation, or setting up a resource that directs parents to factual information about formula shortages the way they’ve tried to help users. to redirect potential COVID-19 disinformation with links to trusted sources.
Steven Abrams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas at Austin, said the lack of absorbable nutrients in homemade formulas poses a risk of seizures in infants, and that insufficient iron means anemia and developmental delays. Improper preparation is also a danger, he said. “Contamination in the food or through the preparation exposes infants to risks from serious bacteria, including salmonella,” Abrams said.
But the warnings didn’t stop social media users from discussing and sharing the unproven recipes online. In the first week of May, there were only a few hundred posts about homemade baby food on Twitter, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News. The following week, that number rose to nearly 5,000 tweets — a 2.100% increase. “If you are affected by this, don’t panic,” one tweet said. “Millions of us grew up with homemade formula… your baby will be fed and happy and likely to have less tummy ache.”
On Facebook, posts sharing a photo for a 1960s recipe for homemade baby food as a solution to the shortage were by far the most viral on the platform. Posts featuring the recipe’s photo were shared in hundreds of Facebook groups with names like “Country Girl’s Dream Spaces” and “Mommy Talk Madness,” generating 95,899 interactions in the past year, according to an analysis by CrowdTangle, a social media web tool that owned by Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. While not everyone in the Facebook groups liked or shared the posts, the DIY recipe may have reached as many as 12.5 million people, the analysis found.
On some posts, Facebook has affixed a label saying that the information posted may mislead people. But others, including one that racked up nearly 1,000 likes and shares, did not apply the label. The company seemed to inconsistently label messages “based on very simple text patterns, such as ‘formula recipe,'” said Edelson, the misinformation researcher.
The recipe was also widely shared on Meta’s Instagram photo sharing app, garnering hundreds of likes and shares. As with Facebook, many of the Instagram posts did not carry the misleading label.
On Google’s YouTube, dozens of videos featuring homemade baby food recipes were hosted on the video site and shared across other platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, garnering hundreds of likes and shares. The most popular videos had tens of thousands of views and featured ads that popped up after a simple search term — “homemade baby food” — despite YouTube’s promises not to allow or promote content that contains misinformation about health in searches and recommendations 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. yielded just as many results, but the videos were even more viral on the platform. Half a dozen of the most popular search results of untested formula concoctions were viewed at least 1.5 million times on the platform, according to a Bloomberg News review. After Bloomberg reached out for comment, TikTok removed the results for “homemade baby food” and added a notice to users that some of the posts allegedly violated 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, that has also made false claims about vaccines, cholesterol, and COVID-19. “A better, healthier recipe for homemade baby food,” Darla Shine, wife of former President Donald Trump’s communications director, tweeted, linking to the group’s recipe. “Please go around.” Her tweet garnered 150 likes and shares. The link was shared hundreds of times on Twitter, according to a CrowdTangle analysis. On Facebook, the same link was shared hundreds of times, yielding 23,600 likes and shares on the platform. It collected 2,400 additional interactions on Instagram. 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 an even stronger opinion.
“Oh man, these are totally dangerous,” said Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist who treated the two young patients admitted to Memphis, when asked to review several other recipes that went viral on social media, many of which were based on Weston Price’s original recipe. † “Two of them start with raw milk. That’s unpasteurized. Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization because cow’s milk contained infectious agents that were eliminated by the process.”
“This will not be a complete feeding and has a very high risk of exposing your baby to infections you don’t want,” he said.
Sally Fallon Morell, the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, stuck to her advice on raw milk formulas in a phone call, claiming that “it gives the baby lifelong immunity against any pathogen in the raw milk.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated that raw milk may contain 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 who want to help feed their babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends searching smaller stores and local pharmacies for baby food, or searching online for well-known distributors for supplies. Pediatricians may also be able to connect low-income families to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Diet Supplements Program, which provides federal grants for food, including infant formula, to qualified individuals, the group said.
The shortage of formulas underscores the problem tech companies have with short-lived spikes of misinformation that their artificial intelligence systems are not trained to address. Despite Biden’s move, companies are warning that the shortages could hit consumers for months. According to Datasembly, shelves were 45% sold out in the week ending May 15.
“This is a public health crisis,” said Ryan, the misinformation researcher. “But the tech companies don’t treat it as one at all.”