Though the industry is notoriously opaque, and reliable numbers are hard to come by, multilevel marketing has clearly benefited from the way social media provides access to a broader pool of salespeople. More recently, the pandemic has been an MLM gold rush. Salespeople from companies such as Young Living Essential Oils and the jewelry and accessories brand Stella & Dot have been recruiting aggressively as unemployment numbers stay high, the unemployed spend more time online, and working from home sounds even more appealing.
But in the past few years, significant pushback against MLMs has also been building online. “Just like social media allowed MLMs to explode in growth, now the message that it’s not a good idea to join them is also spreading,” says Alanda Carter, the host of the anti-MLM YouTube channel The Recovering Hunbot. (Hunbot is the common term of disparagement for an internet MLMer, because of their tendency to recruit with copy-pasted, impersonal messages that typically start with the fake warmth of “hey, hun.”) “There are more people speaking out against MLMs than there ever have been before.”
Carter is part of a broad online coalition: On YouTube, an entire community of creators focuses on “exposing” the false promises of MLMs. Reddit’s r/antiMLM subreddit has 674,000 members as of writing. Though the world it’s critiquing is enormous, made up of millions of sellers, this opposing force has attracted significant attention and regularly produces hits that go viral. On TikTok, videos tagged #antimlm have been viewed more than 34 million times, and individual creators who focus on snappy explanations of multilevel-marketing deceptions have tens of thousands of followers. (The company clarified that the new rules will still allow content that is critical of MLMs.)
“I believe people had been reporting MLMers on the app for fraudulent behavior long before TikTok specifically banned the businesses,” says Heather Rainbow, a TikTok creator who started dissecting MLMs on her account in March, in response to the spike in recruitment she saw around the start of the pandemic. TikTok said she’s right: It was already removing MLM content before it added the clarifying wording to its guidelines, and nothing in particular has changed to make the situation more urgent. “This update is driven by our commitment to our community’s well-being and providing more transparency into our policies rather than any sudden increase in this content,” a TikTok spokesperson told me.
However, enforcement of that internal policy seems to have been spotty up to this point. Throughout the past year, the anti-MLM group on Reddit has been documenting what it refers to as the efforts by the “hunbots” to “infiltrate” TikTok. Though the language might be dramatic, the group wasn’t wrong about the uptick in activity: On YouTube, marketing coaches with substantial followings had started encouraging MLM salespeople to use TikTok to bolster their personal brands. “It is maximum exposure over there, and it is amazing,” the MLM coach Julie Reynolds told her audience in a video posted in May.