The YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”

The YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”

Ann Reardon is probably not the person whose content should be removed from YouTube. She is a former Australian youth worker, a mother of three and has her own cookbook. She has also baked for the BBC and once made a coin-size Apple Pie for 2 baby chicks. Since 2011 she’s been using her YouTube channel to show millions of loyal subscribers how to bake and decorate elaborate cakes.

Reardon woke up on July 1 to find an email from YouTube stating that her latest video had been deleted. It said, “Our team has examined your content and unfortunately it violates our harmful-and dangerous policy.”

The removal email was referring to a video that was not Reardon’s typical sugar-paste fare.

Instead, “Debunking DEADLIEST craft hack, 34 dead,” was the latest in an offshoot series on Reardon’s channel: since 2018, she has used her platform to warn viewers about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube. The baker has uploaded 28 videos tackling unsafe activities such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.

She was caught up in YouTube’s inconsistent and chaotic moderation policies. Reardon’s video revealed a flaw in the system. How can a warning about harmful hackers be considered dangerous when the hack videos themselves don’t pose a danger? The platform bans “dangerous or illegal activity that could lead to serious physical harm or death.” However, does it actually do so in practice.

In her 14-minute video, Reardon warned her viewers against a crafting technique that can be deadly if it goes wrong. “Fractal Wood Burning” is a technique that involves using a high-voltage electric current to burn a branch-like pattern in dampened wood.

Reardon wants to increase awareness. She says at the end a recent video, “If I had my wish, YouTube would make policy against dangerous hacks” “They’ve got one against dangerous pranks and dangerous challenges–why isn’t there one for dangerous hacks?”

studio portratit of Ann Reardon (left) and an image of a hazelnut dessert from her cookbook (right.)
A food scientist and dietitian, Ann Reardon (left) has a popular Youtube channel with cooking tips for home chefs.


YouTube told MIT Technology Review that it re-reviewed and reinstated Reardon’s video soon after she appealed the ban; the video was back up by July 2. According to YouTube, it often restores videos that have been mistakenly deleted. Yet it is unclear why Reardon’s video fell foul of YouTube’s dangerous-content policies while the wood-burning videos she warned against remained available to watch.

When MIT Technology Review first approached YouTube about the issue, there were more than 3,000 Google search results for fractal wood burning videos on YouTube. Now there are just over 1,000. YouTube spokesperson stated that YouTube prohibits content that encourages dangerous or illegal actions that could lead to serious bodily harm or death. Upon review, we removed a number of videos and applied appropriate age restrictions to content that is not suitable for all viewers.”

The egg was bigger than before. On July 25, 2019, a Twitter user clipped and shared an unusual video watermarked with the words “5-Minute Crafts.” In the 55-second clip, an egg was placed in a wine glass full of vinegar, and a caption instructed: “Wait one day.” The egg emerged yellow and bouncy, and a caption declared: “Bigger than before.”

The bouncy egg was placed in a glass of maple syrup. It was then placed in blue water. Once again the captions said, “Wait one day”–followed by: “Bigger than before.”

The baffling clip went viral, earning 72,000 likes on Twitter and coverage in New York magazine. With that, the wider world was alerted to the existence of 5-Minute Crafts, a six-year-old YouTube channel that has now accumulated 24 billion total views. Nearly every 5-Minute Crafts video seems to be as absurd and bizarre as the egg that was larger than it was before. The channel shows people putting contact lenses in with cotton buds, peeling apples with a drill, crafting makeshift soldering irons out of lighters, and applying toothpaste to burns (Colgate’s official website warns against the practice).

Reardon first discovered 5-Minute Crafts one year ago, after her viewing numbers dropped sharply following a YouTube algorithm change. Popular YouTubers are often allocated a “partner manager” at the company who offers one-on-one support; Reardon reached out to hers to express her concern at her declining numbers. He suggested that we take a look at some channels that are doing well under the new algorithm. “And that’s when he said, “And that was when I realized that you can’t make some of these recipes.” They’re not real recipes; they’re fake.” In December 2018, Reardon uploaded a video testing out baking hacks from the food hack channel So Yummy and demonstrated that despite the channel’s claims, you cannot whip ice cream and sugar into cake frosting or melt gummy bears into jelly. In July 2019, she criticized the YouTube channel Blossom for posting similar misinformation.

” I received comments from young children saying, “I thought I couldn’t cook.” Reardon states that she tried the video, but it failed. “Mum said that I couldn’t cook right now because I’ve wasted food.” To debunk more clips, she used her undergraduate degree and postgraduate degree in dietetics. But she soon realized that many hacks were not only fake but dangerous.

In May 2019, Reardon released a video about 5-Minute Crafts. She was shocked to see an actor hot glue a toothbrush to his mouth and tried out a recipe for gritty activated charcoal ice-cream. However, she devoted a large portion of the video to a clip where strawberries were bleached. She said that “if some kids actually make this at their home and eat these strawberries white,” before asking her viewers to report it. The clip was removed from the 5-Minute Crafts channel.

Blossom and So Yummy did not respond to a request for comment. Technology Review sent TheSoul Publishing, the company behind 5-Minute Crafts, a list of concerning videos on its channel, including a tutorial on spinning molten sugar into cotton candy with an electric drill; a tutorial on making a glue gun out of a sliced soda can and a lighter; and a video in which a mysterious hand lights antibacterial gel on fire before swiping fingers through it.

Patrik Wikens, VP operations at TheSoul Publishing, stated that the company produces “enjoyable, positive, and original content” and requested YouTube review the 5-Minute Craft videos.

A warning in the description of every 5-Minute Crafts upload reads: “The following video might feature activity performed by our actors within controlled [sic] environment–please use judgment, care, and precaution if you plan to replicate.”

Wilkens said TheSoul Publishing has a “quality assurance” team who review every video throughout its production, “and we adhere to the policies of the platforms where our videos appear.” He added, “Additionally, on a daily basis, we monitor and collect feedback from audiences and partners, making necessary changes and improvements.”

On September 5, 2019, a Chinese teenager died after allegedly attempting to copy a viral hack video. The video, uploaded by Ms Yeah, showed viewers how to pop popcorn in a soda can that was placed above an alcohol lamp. The family of a 14-year-old identified only as Zhezhe said she and her 12-year-old friend Xiaoyu were trying to follow the video instructions when the can exploded. Both girls were severely burned, and Zhezhe died from her injuries.

Ms Yeah, whose real name is Zhou Xiao Hui, paid the families an undisclosed amount of compensation but denied that the girls were copying her video, as they had reportedly heated up alcohol directly inside two cans. She wrote on Weibo, “I used only one can and an alcohol lamp. It is safer.” She said that her videos were not intended to be instructional. The Ms Yeah YouTube channel has 11.7 million subscribers who watch Zhou cook in unusual ways, often with office equipment. She has barbecued meat on a filing cabinet, spun cotton candy on an electric drill, and fried food inside an oil-filled coffee pot. Ms. Yeah did not respond when I asked for comment.

Apart from this incident Reardon has shed light upon egg-poaching techniques that have left many people injured. There are tens of thousands of YouTube videos about poaching eggs in the microwave, many of which are user generated. Microwaving eggs can cause them to explode, and researchers have found that microwaved yolks are an average of 22 degF hotter than microwaved water. Multiple people have been injured by trying to microwave eggs in the UK over the past three years.

Deaths and serious injuries due to craft and cooking hacks remain rare. Fractal wood burning is a different matter.

Reardon first became aware of fractal wood burning after a Wisconsin couple died attempting the craft this April. The practice has been around for many years. The American Association of Woodturners has counted 33 US deaths from fractal wood burning since 2016, but the total is likely higher, because the organization only counts deaths that make the news. A 2020 paper by doctors from a burn hospital in Oregon found a 71% mortality rate after accidents involving fractal wood burning; the paper’s authors called this rate “stunningly high.”

In May 2020, Matt Schmidt, a construction worker, was electrocuted trying fractal wood burning in his garage. Caitlin Schmidt (a nurse at the time) was at work and her oldest son found his body.

“The problem is that literally anybody can watch these videos–kids, adults, it doesn’t matter,” she says. Matt saw a fractal wood-burning video shared by a friend via Facebook. He was so fascinated that he began watching YouTube videos about it.

Matt was electrocuted when a piece from the casing around his jumper cables came loose and his hand touched metal. Schmidt states that Schmidt believes that if her husband was aware of the dangers, he wouldn’t have done it. Her plea is simple: “When you’re dealing with something that has the capability of killing somebody, there should always be a warning … YouTube needs to do a better job, and I know that they can, because they censor all types of people.”

After Matt’s death, medical professionals from the University of Wisconsin wrote a paper entitled “Shocked Though the Heart and YouTube Is to Blame.” Citing Matt’s death and four fractal wood burning injuries they’d personally treated, they asked that “a warning label be inserted before users can access video content” on the crafting technique. “While it is not possible, or even desirable, to flag every video depicting a potentially risky activity,” they wrote, “it seems practical to apply a warning label to videos that could lead to instantaneous death when imitated.”

Fractal woodburning is incredibly dangerous. The American Association of Woodturners has banned this from all of its events.


Matt and Caitlin Schmidt had been best friends since they were 12 years old. Three children are left behind by him. Schmidt claims that her family has experienced “pain and loss and devastation” and will continue to suffer from grief for the rest of their lives. Schmidt says that her family has suffered “pain, loss, and devastation” and will carry on a lifetime of grief.

YouTube told MIT Technology Review its community guidelines prohibit content that’s intended to encourage dangerous activities or has an inherent risk of physical harm. Graphic videos are subject to age restrictions and warnings. The company’s guidelines are enforced by a combination technology and human staff. YouTube has banned dangerous videos that could cause injury or emotional distress. Videos can still depict dangerous acts provided they are in a sufficient educational, scientific, artistic, or artistic context.

YouTube first introduced a ban on dangerous challenges and pranks in January 2019–a day after a blindfolded teenager crashed a car while participating in the so-called “Bird Box challenge.”

YouTube removed “a number” of fractal wood burning videos and age-restricted others when approached by MIT Technology Review. The company did not explain why it does not allow hacks or pranks.

It would be difficult to do this as each 5-Minute Crafts video has many crafts, many of them quite bizarre, but not dangerous. Hack videos can be difficult to judge by human moderators, let alone AI. In September 2020, YouTube reinstated human moderators who had been “put offline” during the pandemic after determining that its AI had been overzealous, doubling the number of incorrect takedowns between April and June.

When a YouTube video is age-restricted for portraying dangerous or illegal activities, the video may–according to Google’s Support pages–“have limited or no ads monetisation.” 5-Minute Crafts is currently the 13th most subscribed channel on YouTube; every week, the channel gains around 30 million more views. Ms Yeah has 11.7 million subscribers and nets a similar number of weekly views.

Shocking or questionable videos are a surefire method to get attention and make money on YouTube. 1661103709701 YouTube is more likely to click away videos that are bizarre. If you find a video that’s too outrageous, please let us know in the comments section. According to Social Blade, a site that tracks social media analytics, the 5-Minute Crafts channel makes anywhere between PS360,000 and PS5.8 million a year.

TheSoul Publishing, which has more than 1 billion subscribers across all its channels, said that as a private company it would not disclose how much it makes from its craft hack videos. Wilkens denied that TheSoul Publishing intentionally creates disturbing and questionable videos. He said: “This isn’t now, nor has ever been, part of TheSoul Publishing’s business model. We strive to be the best digital creator and advertiser.

Bertie Vidgen is the head of the Online Harms Observatory of the Alan Turing Institute. He says that YouTube has failed to warn people about fractal wood burning videos. He says, “If people have died trying to do it, then that’s almost beyond doubt–there clearly exists a risk of injury.”

A fractal wood burning YouTube Short (a video less than 60 seconds long) with 21 million views remains up In it, a pair of gloved hands brush water and baking soda onto some wood before attaching clamps and wires to two nails. The wood starts to burn. YouTube has removed the entire video, but the Short does not have warning disclaimers. Reardon states that the comment section is filled with warnings. Some of them start with “I came to YouTube after watching Ann Reardon’s video.”

“I believe there needs to be something in place that is clear warning to people.” She’s received many thank-you emails since she started her debunking series. “I feel like if nothing changes,” she says, “then it’s important to raise awareness.”

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