Social Media Influencers and MLMS: The Snake Oil Salesmen of the Coronavirus Pandemic

We can’t have people ignoring social distancing, thinking they are armed against the virus because they ate some fiber supplements and took a bath in essential oils. 

By Alex Dew

There are two types of pandemic people: those of us who take only our fair share of toilet paper from the grocery store and those of us who buy cartons of it to sell in the parking lot. The coronavirus pandemic has brought out awe-inspiring displays of solidarity and compassion, like the Italians singing out of their windows, the overwhelming majorities choosing to social distance for the greater good, and the people ordering from local restaurants and stores instead of big-box retailers to help save them from closure. But in some it has brought out stunning acts of opportunistic selfishness, like the guy who was forced to donate 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer after buying up all the supply in his area. While behavior like his seems shocking, this phenomenon shouldn’t come as a surprise — anthropologists have found that disasters of any kind and the scarcity that results from them bring out the best qualities in some people and the worst in others. 

Among those not being their best pandemic selves are the wellness influencers shilling alleged corona prophylactic products with no scientific basis, seizing on the health anxiety that has consumed the zeitgeist since the pandemic hit. Ingrid De La Mare-Kenny, a health influencer with 55,000 followers, recently hawked her dietary supplement Simply Inulin, claiming that it makes the immune system “bullet-proof” to coronavirus. These claims run contrary to earlier online descriptions of Simply Inulin, which tout it only for its effects as a “flat tummy powder.” According to the FDA, Simply Inulin is nothing more than dietary fiber, which can keep your bathroom schedule regular but offers no virus protection or even immune system boosting benefits. 

In a now-deleted video, another influencer, former Bachelor contestant Krystal Nielsen, who has 600,000 followers on Instagram, spouted unsubstantiated claims connecting processed foods and COVID-19 vulnerability, selling her body detox program that costs between $97 and $494 in the same breath. Former bodybuilder Ben Greenfield was hustling a $6,000 ozone generator, singing the praises of blasting ozone into his rectum as a means of coronavirus protection and outright claiming that it kills the SARS virus. While ozone has some disinfectant qualities, it is not safe for anal use or use in any orifice as it is not supposed to enter the body. One doctor even described it as the equivalent of a “Lysol enema.” 

The well-coiffed multilevel-marketing moms are no strangers to the power of social media, and they also have pounced on the opportunity to sell their essential oils, nutritional supplements, and natural cleaning products. With millions of Americans laid off from their jobs and few companies hiring, many sellers for MLMs like Young Living, doTERRA, and Isagenix see enormous potential to expand their downlines. One insider posted on Facebook that “there has never been a more opportune time” to lure recruits with false promises of financial security.

MLMs are making the same wildly unsubstantiated claims as health influencers in order to sell products like Young Living’s currently sold-out Thieves disinfectant, fortuitously named for Bubonic plague looters who allegedly used the same formula to ward off illness while robbing the homes of the dead. Many Young Living marketers have falsely claimed Thieves disinfectant spray “kills” the coronavirus. The product contains essential oils and denatured alcohol, and while alcohol can be a powerful disinfectant, essential oils do nothing to stop the spread of the virus. And if that isn’t enough to convince you, consider this: a one-ounce bottle of Thieves spray retails for $12.17, while a box of the CDC-recommended Clorox wipes costs only $4.48. 

Luckily, there’s been somewhat of a crackdown on MLMs by the FDA and Facebook — the FDA recently sent out warning letters to many companies ordering them to stop making false claims about their products preventing coronavirus, and Facebook banned any ads for coronavirus cures. DoTerra and Young Living executives have backpedaled on their earlier statements that their essential oils have antiviral properties and said that they instructed their marketers to stop making these statements. But there’s no real way for them to control the insatiable Karens and their hunger for bigger downlines, and it’s likely that many MLMs and health influencers will continue to make false, opportunistic promises in order to sell useless products. 

With the current health anxiety we are all facing, it can be easy to fall victim to products that seem like a silver bullet of protection against coronavirus. Our defenses are down, we’re desperate for an answer, and predatory businesses know this. Now, though, is the time to be savvy. In the creepy forest of profit-motivated misinformation out there,  following the trail marked by facts can be potentially lifesaving. Fully research any product claiming to protect you from COVID-19 before purchasing it, and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. And call out predatory marketers making false claims when you see them. The unsubstantiated advertising created by these influencers and MLMs is dangerous and puts all of us at risk by providing those that use the products they sell with a false sense of safety. We can’t have people ignoring social distancing, thinking they are armed against the virus because they ate some fiber supplements and took a bath in essential oils. 

Someday we will read about this time we are living through in history books. With so many people suffering financially, mentally, and physically, it is more important than ever to treat each other with kindness and generosity, and more unforgivable than ever to use the suffering of others for personal financial gain. We should all strive to be on the right side of history.

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