British News Channel Touts Amazon Bomb Materials Moral Panic That Ends Up Being About Hobbyists And School Labs
from the oops dept
Moral panics take many forms, from Dungeons & Dragons being a lure to satanism in the eyes of parents to the wonderful theory that playing chess would turn children into violent psychopaths. What these moral panics tend to share in common is the extraction of seemingly nefarious details on a subject which, out of context, are interpreted in a demonizing manner and then exported for public consumption. Thus the public gets often well-meaning but highly misleading information on the terribleness of some innocuous thing.
This practice continues to this day, often times helped along by a media environment desperate for clicks and eyeballs. A recent example of this would be British media’s Channel 4 News finding that Amazon’s algorithm had a habit of recommending a combination of products together that appeared designed for terrorist-style explosives.
Channel 4 News has discovered that Amazon’s algorithm guides users to the necessary chemical combinations for producing explosives and incendiary devices. Ingredients which are innocent on their own are suggested for purchase together as “Frequently bought together” products, as it does with all other goods.
Ingredients for black powder and thermite are grouped together under a “Frequently bought together” section on listings for specific chemicals. Steel ball bearings often used as shrapnel in explosive devices, ignition systems and remote detonators are also readily available; some promoted by the website on the same page as these chemicals as products that “Customers who bought this item also bought”.
Anyone reading this report would reach the obvious conclusion: either Amazon has enough customers trying to make terror-bombs that the algorithm is reacting to that, or Amazon is purposefully pushing and radicalizing innocent product purchasers into bomb-making terror demons. Channel 4 noted that beyond the chemicals needed to produce “black powder” and thermite, Amazon commonly listed ball-bearings, ignition systems, and switch-detonators alongside them as items frequently purchased with those products. Even the saltiest among us would forgive the public reading all of this for losing their minds over the report.
Except, of course, all of this comes along with a perfectly innocuous explanation, as detailed by Pinboard’s Maciej Ceg?owski.
The ‘common chemical compound’ in Channel 4’s report is potassium nitrate, an ingredient used in curing meat. If you go to Amazon’s page to order a half-kilo bag of the stuff, you’ll see the suggested items include sulfur and charcoal, the other two ingredients of gunpowder. (Unlike Channel 4, I am comfortable revealing the secrets of this 1000-year-old technology.) The implication is clear…But as a few more minutes of clicking would have shown, the only thing Channel 4 has discovered is a hobbyist community of people who mill their own black powder at home, safely and legally, for use in fireworks, model rockets, antique firearms, or to blow up the occasional stump.
Yes, making black powder is perfectly legal in the UK, and for good reason. Hobbyists use it all the time. It’s so popular, in fact, because it’s a difficult substance to set off by accident. As for the ball bearings, those go in a ball mill or drum, which is used to mix the powders together and get the particles to a like size, important for their use in black powder. They aren’t shrapnel at all.
The ball bearings Amazon is recommending are clearly intended for use in the ball mill. The algorithm is picking up on the fact that people who buy the ingredients for black powder also need to grind it. It’s no more shocking than being offered a pepper mill when you buy peppercorns.
As for the thermite and the “widely available chemical” the Channel 4 piece goes on about, it essentially describes the chemicals needed to make thermite and magnesium-ribbon. As Ceg?owski notes, this combination produces what is called a thermite reaction. If that term sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you likely performed the thermite reaction in chemistry class.
The thermite reaction is performed in every high school chemistry classroom, as a fun reward for students who have had to suffer through a baffling unit on redox reactions. You mix the rust and powdered aluminum in a crucible, light them with the magnesium ribbon, and watch a jet of flame shoot out, leaving behind a small amount of molten iron. The mixed metal powders are hard to ignite (that’s why you need the magnesium ribbon), but once you get them going, they burn vigorously.
The main consumer use for thermite, as far as I can tell, is lab demonstrations and recreational chemistry. Importantly, thermite is not an explosive—it will not detonate. So Channel 4 has discovered that fireworks enthusiasts and chemistry teachers shop on Amazon.
So, the moral panic ginned up by Channel 4 essentially amounts to hobbyists and chemistry teachers getting a little convenient help from Amazon’s algorithm as they go about their day. Not exactly the “holy shit, everyone is making bombs!” story that the “news” piece wanted to tell, but it has the advantage of actually being true. Perhaps most amazingly is how bereft of common sense the claims by Channel 4 were. After all, were its assertions true, why in the world aren’t there bombs going off in record numbers using these chemical combinations?
If nothing else, however, this story does serve as a nice “anatomy of a moral panic”, as the Idle Words post so helpfully titles this whole episode.