How the internet fueled and defeated the pandemic’s weirdest MLM

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The social media posts started in May: photos and videos of smiling people, mostly women, drinking Mason jars of black liquid, slathering black paste on their faces and feet, or dipping babies and dogs in tubs of the black water. They tagged the posts #BOO and linked to a website that sold a product called Black Oxygen Organics.

Black Oxygen Organics, or “BOO” for short, is difficult to classify. It was marketed as fulvic acid, a compound derived from decayed plants, that was dug up from an Ontario peat bog. The website of the Canadian company that sold it billed it as “the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter.”

Put more simply, the product is dirt — four-and-a-half ounces of it, sealed in a sleek black plastic baggie and sold for $110 plus shipping. Visitors to the Black Oxygen Organics website, recently taken offline, were greeted with a pair of white hands cradling cups of dirt like an offering. “A gift from the Ground,” it reads. “Drink it. Wear it. Bathe in it.”

BOO, which “can be taken by anyone at any age, as well as animals,” according to the company, claims many benefits and uses, including improved brain function and heart health, and ridding the body of so-called toxins that include heavy metals, pesticides and parasites.

By the end of the summer, online ads for BOO had made their way to millions of people within the internet subcultures that embrace fringe supplements, including the mixed martial arts community, anti-vaccine and Covid-denier groups, and finally more general alternative health and fake cure spaces.

And people seemed to be buying; parts of TikTok and Instagram were flooded with #BOO posts. The businessman behind Black Oxygen Organics has been selling mud in various forms for 25 years now, but BOO sold in amounts that surprised even its own executives, according to videos of company meetings viewed by NBC News.

The stars appeared aligned for it. A pandemic marked by unprecedented and politicized misinformation has spurred a revival in wonder cures. Well-connected Facebook groups of alternative health seekers and vaccine skeptics provided an audience and eager customer base for a new kind of medicine show. And the too-good-to-be-true testimonials posted to social media attracted a wave of direct sellers, many of them women dipping their toes into the often unprofitable world of multilevel marketing for the first time.

But success came at a price. Canadian and U.S. health regulators have cracked down on BOO in recent months, initiating recalls and product holds at the border, respectively. And just as an online army of fans powered BOO’s success, an oppositional force of online skeptics threatened to shut it down.

Just before Thanksgiving, the company announced in an email it was closing up shop for good. Sellers packed video calls mourning the death of their miracle cure, railing against executives who had taken their money and seemingly run, and wondering how they might recoup the thousands of dollars they paid for BOO that never arrived.

The announcement was the apparent end of one of the most haltingly successful companies to ride a wave of interest in online and directly sold alternative medicines — immunity-boosting oils, supplements, herbs, elixirs and so-called superfoods that, despite widespread concerns over their efficacy and safety, make up a lightly regulated, multibillion-dollar industry.

In a world where consumers flock to alternative health products, BOO seemed to provide an answer to the question: Just how far are people willing to dig to find their miracle cure?

Obtained by NBC News

What is BOO?

Monica Wong first learned about BOO in May. The 39-year-old was scrolling Facebook from her home in Brentwood, California, and saw a Facebook ad that caught her eye: A woman in a bright green shirt emblazoned with a marijuana leaf holding a sign that read, “F— Big Pharma!” alongside a kind of treatment that promised to “detox heavy metals.”

Wong had been looking for such a product, for her boyfriend and herself, and while the price was steep, a little internet research convinced her that the health effects would be worth it. Wong clicked on the ad and bought some BOO.

Wong said that for two months she dissolved a half-teaspoon of the black stuff in a glass of water and drank it every day. But unlike people in her new BOO Facebook group who posted miraculous testimonials of cured diseases, weight loss, clearer skin, whiter teeth, regrown hair, reclaimed energy, expelled worms and even changes in eye color (from brown to blue), Wong didn’t feel like any toxins were leaving her body. In fact, she started having stomach pains.

“I can’t say it was the BOO for sure,” Wong said she remembers wondering as she went to the hospital for tests, “but wasn’t it supposed to heal my gut?”

Wong quit taking BOO and told the head of her Facebook group, a higher-ranked seller who earned commission off Wong’s participation, about her new pains. When asked why she didn’t alert others, Wong said the group administrators, BOO sellers themselves, censored the comments to weed out anything negative. “They’d never let me post that,” she said.

These online groups are filled with true believers, acolytes who call it “magic dirt.” They post that they are drinking, cooking, soaking, snorting and slathering BOO on their bodies and giving it to their families, children and pets.

“Who would have thought drinking dirt would make me feel so so good?” one person in a 27,000-member private Facebook group posted, her face nuzzling a jar of black liquid.

Another user posted a photo of a baby sitting in a bathtub of water colored a deep caramel. In the caption, she shared that the baby had contracted hand, foot and mouth disease — a virus that mainly affects children and causes painful sores. “Tiny is enjoying his Boo bath!” she wrote. “We’re happy to say our bottom feels happier and we’re in a better mood!”

Many such posts are dedicated to tactics for getting kids and loved ones to take BOO.

“Boo brownies for the picky family,” one poster offered.

Testimonials like these make up the majority of posts in dozens of Facebook groups, set up and overseen by BOO sellers, with hundreds of thousands of collective members, where BOO is heralded as a miracle drug. Teams of sellers in these private Facebook groups claim that, beyond cosmetic applications, BOO can cure everything from autism to cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Conveniently in these times, BOO proponents say it also protects against and treats COVID-19, and can be used to “detox” the newly vaccinated, according to posts viewed by NBC News.

None of the posters contacted by NBC News returned a request for comment. But there may be an incentive for the hyperbole.

The MLM boom

Black Oxygen Organics products can’t be bought in stores. Instead, the pills and powders are sold by individuals, who theoretically profit not only off their sales but off those of others they recruit. It’s the type of top-down and widening profit-modeled business, known as multilevel marketing or MLM, that has led critics to label BOO and products like it pyramid schemes.

Participation in MLMs boomed during the pandemic with 7.7 million Americans working for one in 2020, a 13% increase over the previous year, according to the Direct Selling Association, the trade and lobbying group for the MLM industry. Wellness products make up the majority of MLM products, and, as the Federal Trade Commission noted, some direct sellers took advantage of a rush toward so-called natural remedies during the pandemic to boost sales.

More than 99% of MLM sellers lose money, according to the Consumer Awareness Institute, an industry watchdog group. But according to social media posts, BOO’s business was booming. In selfies and videos posted to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, women lather BOO on their faces and soak their feet in sludge-filled pasta pots while, they claim, the money rolls in.

Black Oxygen Organics’ compensation plan, like most MLMs, is convoluted. According to their company handbook, sellers, called “brand partners,” can earn income in two distinct ways: through retail commissions on bags of BOO they sell, and through recruiting other sellers, from which they earn additional commission and bonuses. The more recruits a seller brings in, the more quickly the seller rises in the ranks — there are 10 titles in the company, from brand partner to director to CEO, with compensation packages growing along the way.

A common strategy for MLM participants, including BOO sellers, is to create Facebook groups to collaborate and attract new customers.

“I earned $21,000 in bonuses in my first 5 weeks!” one post read. “I am a single mom, 1 income family, this business was the best decision!!!”

Black Oxygen Organics’ vice president of business development, Ron Montaruli, described the craze in September, telling distributors on a Zoom call viewed by NBC News that the company had attracted 21,000 sellers and 38,000 new customers. Within the last six months, sales had rocketed from $200,000 a month to nearly $4 million, Montaruli said, referring to a chart that showed the same. (Attempts to reach Montaruli were unsuccessful.)

Facts around the company’s actual income are as hazy as the mud it sells, but the secret to dealing dirt seems to be Facebook, where sellers have created dozens of individual groups that have attracted a hodgepodge of hundreds of thousands of members.

The largest BOO Facebook groups, including one with over 97,000 members, are led mostly by MLM jumpers, the term for people who sell a range of MLM products. The groups have also attracted more general alternative health consumers, as well as people seemingly suffering from delusional parasitosis, a condition characterized by the misguided belief that one’s body is being overrun by parasites. Users in these groups mimic activity in anti-parasite internet groups by dosing according to phases of the moon and posting photos of dirty water from foot baths or human waste from toilets asking others to identify a mystery worm.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on the BOO groups or whether their claims violated the company’s content policies.

User testimonials about the Black Oxygen Organic dirt posted to social media. (Obtained by NBC News)

User testimonials about the Black Oxygen Organic dirt posted to social media. (Obtained by NBC News)

In the last several months, the groups have seen a rise in members from anti-vaccine and Covid-denial communities, including prominent activists who sell the product to raise funds for anti-vaccine efforts.

A profile of one top seller featured in BOO’s semiregular glossy magazine, “The Bog,” noted that Covid had drawn more people to the industry.

“It’s been kind of a blessing,” the seller said.

While it undoubtedly attracted sales and built teams, Facebook also created a unique problem for Black Oxygen Organics: Those testimonials might have violated federal law that requires efficacy claims be substantiated by “competent and reliable scientific evidence.” They also attracted attention, not only from customers, but from health professionals, regulatory agencies and a group BOO executives have dubbed “the haters.”

After a summer of unbridled success, the internet backlash began.

The rise of MLMs online prompted criticism from some people who have created informal activist groups to bring awareness to what they say are the predatory practices of MLM companies and organized campaigns to disrupt specific businesses. Many of the groups use the same social media techniques to organize their responses.

Online activists who oppose MLMs formed Facebook groups targeting BOO for its claims. Members of these groups infiltrated the BOO community, signing up as sellers, joining pro-BOO groups, and attending BOO sales meetings, then reporting back what they had seen to the group. They posted videos of the company meetings and screenshots from the private BOO sales groups and urged members to file official complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

YouTube creators made videos debunking BOO peddlers’ most outrageous claims, ridiculing BOO executives and making public recordings of the private company meetings.

Ceara Manchester, a stay-at-home mother in Pompano Beach, Florida, helps run one of the largest anti-BOO Facebook groups, “Boo is Woo.” Manchester, 34, has spent the last four years monitoring predatory MLMs — or “cults,” in her view — and posting to multiple social media accounts and groups dedicated to “exposing” Black Oxygen Organics.

“The health claims, I had never seen them that bad,” Manchester said. “Just the sheer amount. Every single post was like, ‘cancer, Covid, diabetes, autism.’”

“I don’t feel like people are stupid,” Manchester said of the people who purchased and even sold BOO. “I think that they’re desperate or vulnerable, or they’ve been preyed upon, and you get somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this product that cures everything.’ You know when you’re desperate like that you might listen.”

The mudman

Black Oxygen Organics is the brainchild of Marc Saint-Onge, a 59-year-old entrepreneur from Casselman, Ontario. Saint-Onge, BOO’s founder and CEO, did not respond to calls, texts, emails or direct messages.

But decades of interviews in local press and more recently on social media offer some details about Saint-Onge, or, as he likes to be called, “the mudman.”

Saint-Onge describes himself as an orthotherapist, naturopath, kinesitherapist, reiki master, holistic practitioner, herbalist and aromatherapist. As he said in a video posted to YouTube that has since been made private, his love of mud began as a child, chasing bullfrogs around Ontario bogs. Years later, he went on to practice orthotherapy, a kind of advanced massage technique, to treat pain. He said he packaged dirt from a local bog, branches and leaves included, in zip-lock baggies and gave them to his “patients,” who demanded the mud faster than he could scoop it.

Saint-Onge said he was charged by Canadian authorities with practicing medicine without a license in 1989 and fined $20,000.

“Then my clinic went underground,” he said on a recent podcast.

He has sold mud in some form since the early 1990s. Health Canada, the government regulator responsible for public health, forced him to pull an early version of his mud product, then called the “Anti-Rheuma Bath,” according to a 1996 article in The Calgary Herald, because Saint-Onge marketed it to treat arthritis and rheumatism without any proof to substantiate the claims. Saint-Onge also claimed his mud could heal wounds, telling an Ottawa Citizen reporter in 2012 that his mud compress healed the leg of a man who had suffered an accident with a power saw, saving it from amputation.

“The doctor said it was the antibiotics,” he said. “But we believe it was the mud.”

In the ‘90s Saint-Onge began selling his mud bath under the “Golden Moor” label, which he did until he realized a dream, “a way to do a secret little extraction,” in his words, that would make the dirt dissolve in water. In 2015, with the founding of his company NuWTR, which would later turn into Black Oxygen Organics, Saint-Onge said he finally invented a dirt people could drink.

In 2016, he began selling himself as a business coach, and his personal website boasted of his worth: “I sell mud in a bottle,” he wrote. “Let me teach you to sell anything.”

The troubles

In September, Montaruli, BOO’s vice president, led a corporate call to address the Facebook groups and what he called “the compliance situation.”

“Right now, it’s scary,” Montaruli said in a Zoom call posted publicly, referring to the outlandish claims made by some of BOO’s sellers. “In 21 years, I have never seen anything like this. Never.”

“These outrageous claims, and I’m not even sure if outrageous is bad enough, are obviously attracting the haters, giving them more fuel for the fire, and potential government officials.”

Montaruli called for “a reset,” telling BOO sellers to delete the pages and groups and start over again.

One slide suggested alternatives for 14 popular BOO uses, including switching terms like ADHD to “trouble concentrating,” and “prevents heart attack” to “maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.”

And so in September, the Facebook groups evolved — many went private, most changed their names from BOO to “fulvic acid,” and the pinned testimonials from customers claiming miracle cures were wiped clean, tweaked or edited to add a disclaimer absolving the company from any liability.

But that wasn’t the end of the company’s troubles. While individual sellers navigated their new compliance waters, regulatory agencies cracked down.

Days after Montaruli’s call, Health Canada announced a recall of Black Oxygen Organics tablets and powders, citing “potential health risks which may be higher for children, adolescents, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.” Further, the regulatory agency noted, “The products are being promoted in ways and for uses that have not been evaluated and authorized by Health Canada.”

“Stop taking these products,” the announcement advised.

Inventory for U.S. customers had already been hard to come by. In private groups, sellers claimed the product had sold out, but in the company-wide call, Montaruli confirmed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was holding its products at the border.

Jeremy Kahn, an FDA spokesperson, declined to comment.

Saint-Onge did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News. Phone messages and emails sent by a reporter to the company, its executives and its legal counsel were not returned.

What’s in BOO?

BOO is not the only dirt-like health supplement on the market. Consumers have the option of dozens of products — in drops, tablets, powders and pastes — that claim to provide the healing power of fulvic and humic acid.

Fulvic and humic acids have been used in traditional and folk medicines for centuries, and do exhibit antibacterial qualities in large quantities. But there is little scientific evidence to support the kinds of claims made by BOO sellers, according to Brian Bennett, a professor of physics at Marquette University who has studied fulvic and humic acids as a biochemist.

“I would say it’s snake oil,” Bennett said. “There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that a pharmaceutical based on the characteristics of this material might actually work, but I think eating handfuls of soil probably doesn’t.”

Beyond the questions of the health benefits of fulvic acid, there’s the question of just what is in Black Oxygen Organics’ product.

The company’s most recent certificate of analysis, a document meant to show what a product is made of and in what amounts, was posted by sellers this year. Reporting the product makeup as mostly fulvic acid and Vitamin C, the report comes from 2017 and doesn’t list a lab, or even a specific test. NBC News spoke to six environmental scientists, each of whom expressed skepticism at the quality of BOO’s certificate.

Assuming the company-provided analysis was correct, two of the scientists confirmed that just two servings of BOO exceeded Health Canada’s daily limits for lead, and three servings — a dose recommended on the package — approached daily arsenic limits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no comparable daily guidelines.

In an effort to verify BOO’s analysis, NBC News procured a bag and sent it to Nicholas Basta, a professor of soil and environmental science at Ohio State University.

The BOO product was analyzed for the presence of heavy metals at Ohio State’s Trace Element Research Laboratory. Results from that test were similar to the company’s 2017 certificate, finding two doses per day exceeded Health Canada’s limit for lead, and three doses for daily arsenic amounts.

Growing concern among BOO sellers about the product — precipitated by an anti-MLM activist who noticed on Google Earth that the bog that sourced BOO’s peat appeared to share a border with a landfill — pushed several to take matters into their own hands, sending bags of BOO to labs for testing.

The results of three of these tests, viewed by NBC News and confirmed as seemingly reliable by two soil scientists at U.S. universities, again showed elevated levels of lead and arsenic.

Those results are the backbone of a federal lawsuit seeking class action status filed in November in Georgia’s Northern District court. The complaint, filed on behalf of four Georgia residents who purchased BOO, claims that the company negligently sold a product with “dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals,” which led to physical and economic harm.

Black Oxygen Organics did not respond to requests for comment concerning the complaint.

‘A heavy heart’

The lawsuit hit at an inopportune time, just as the company had “reformulated” its products and added a new label on the powder that now specifies the product is “not for human consumption.”

“Things are starting to settle a little bit,” BOO executive Montaruli said in a video meeting explaining a change from tablet to capsules and a relabeling of the powder.

The powder is “strictly for cosmetics,” Saint-Onge said on the call, a recording of which was shared with NBC News by an attendee.

In the BOO groups, the company’s sellers were undeterred.

“You can continue to use the powder as you choose in your own home,” the admin of one Facebook group wrote to members announcing the product update. “Know that it is the same powder.”

“We cannot TECHNICALLY tell customers to use the product internally,” Adam Ringham, a “Royal Diamond CEO” (BOO’s highest seller title), told his group. “WE CAN HOWEVER — tell them that the powder is THE EXACT SAME as before … ”

Ringham did not return requests for comment.

Just as the BOO sellers were planning their Black Friday sales, the rug was pulled out from them again, this time, seemingly, for good.

Two days before Thanksgiving, an email landed in the inboxes of BOO customers and sellers.

“It is with a heavy heart that we must announce the immediate closing of Black Oxygen Organics,” it read. Details in the note were sparse, but Black Oxygen executives and employees offered an explanation in company Zoom meetings that afternoon.

According to BOO President Carlo Garibaldi, they had weathered the FTC complaints, the FDA seizures, the Health Canada recalls and the online mob. But the “fatal blow” came when their online merchant dropped them as clients.

With no actual product in stock for the last two months, sellers had been urging customers to “preorder” BOO. Now, the throng of customers responding to the nonconsumable “reformulation” by asking for their money back had spooked their payment processor.

“This is our baby,” Garibaldi said, flashing his Black Oxygen elbow tattoo to the screen. “We needed this to go on forever.”

Saint-Onge appeared briefly, holding his head in his hands. “This was my limit,” he said.

Members of anti-BOO groups celebrated.

“WE DID IT!!!!!!” Manchester, the group administrator, posted to the “Boo is Woo” Facebook group. “I hope this is proof positive that if the anti-MLM community bans together we can take these companies down. We won’t stop with just BOO. A new age of anti-MLM activism has just begun.”

In a separate Zoom meeting unattended by executives and shared with NBC News, lower-rung sellers grappled with the sudden closure and the reality that they were out hundreds or thousands of dollars.

“I am three weeks to a month away from having a baby and I’ve been depending on this money to arrive in my bank account,” one seller said through tears. “It’s the only income we have.”

The future of BOO is uncertain. Tens of thousands of bags remain in warehouses, according to Black Oxygen executives. Sellers are unlikely to receive orders, refunds or commissions. The federal lawsuit will continue, Matt Wetherington, the Georgia lawyer behind the proposed class action lawsuit, said.

But in the land of MLMs, failure is just another opportunity. Saint-Onge may have walked away from this cohort of customers, but for those who sold it, BOO was more than just a product; it was a way of believing. Now, the thousands of BOO acolytes still convening in BOO Facebook groups are funneling into a new Facebook group, named “The Solution,” and turning their outstretched hands toward a new direct-sales company, one that BOO’s top sellers claim offers an even purer fulvic acid product and a colloidal silver as well.

“Thanks for all your continued support,” The Solution’s admins wrote in a welcome post. “Moving forward is all we can do.”

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.

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