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.

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Companies: amazon

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Comments on “British News Channel Touts Amazon Bomb Materials Moral Panic That Ends Up Being About Hobbyists And School Labs”

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anony mous says:

Re: Re:

I went online and search for how to take off eviction from my public records and most people on different forums kept talking about a professional hacker and how fast, affordable and reliable he is…I then went ahead, and told him my issues with my records. His responds to my mails made me calm and optimistic about the whole thing. I made a down payment for the job and he cleaned my public records in 3 days. What a relief!…Now i don’t have to worry anymore and its so amazing. Fix your credit report by contacting spystealth ‘dot’ org ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com and by the time he’s done with your job, do not hesitate to spread words about his services to people in need of a professional hacker because i’m very sure you’d be glad you hired him for the job.

Aaron Walkhouse (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ball bearings are unsuitable for bombs anyway.

They are brittle and high explosives shatter them to
a powder, the effect worsening with greater diameters.

This is why munitions factories use mild or softened
steel, which would be completely useless as bearings.

Scrap or nails could be good because of that but can’t
produce an even shrapnel pattern of sufficient range.

…The More You Know… ‌ ‌ ;]

NeghVar (profile) says:

Re: Don't forget Grocery Stores!

At a former employer of mine back in late 90’s (a super market). I found an employee cleaning out the large trash cans. As I entered to rear docking area, I noticed him pouring Clorox bleach in the trash can along with a half empty large jug of Mr. Clean multi-purpose cleaner.
“STOP!” I was too late. I ran to him grabbed the trash can and flung it outside the docking area. I then called 911. The store was evacuated and Haz-Mat showed up. I’ll never forget that burning feeling in my eyes and nose.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Don't forget Grocery Stores!

I learned about the horrors of the ammonia & bleach reaction in school and managed to hold in my curiosity to actually see it in action until I was about 20 and helping my mother clean out a big trash can in her backyard one day. I grabbed a respirator and put about a quart of each in that can…I can still remember the burning 12 years later. I should have worn chemistry goggles instead of standard shop goggles. Fortunately, I was prepared with a hose to dilute the solution immediately, I just had to do it once to get rid of the curiosity.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

If we want a moral panic that will actually stop terrorists, lets panic over grocery stores and restaurants.

Both these businesses are aiding terrorists by feeding them. If they didn’t feed the terrorists then they’d starve to death and all our terrorism problems would be solved!

I’d suggest we take the step of shutting down all grocery store sand restaurants suspected of doing business with potential terrorists so that the terrorists will all starve the death.

And for those of you who say we’ll all starve to death to, I guess you’re siding with the terrorists, you freedom haters!

Ishtiaq (profile) says:

Piss take

As I live in England, I just have to say that if your country (wherever that is) is bombed as often as mine is, I hope you remember your piss taking words. And for what it is worth, from where I am standing, I don’t see any panic. Moral or otherwise. But then to panic is not the British way is it.

Just saying

Cheers… Ishy

Ishtiaq (profile) says:

Re: Re: Piss take

Dear AC.

I never said anything about what we laughingly refer to as our government. Please trust me on this, but my “government” probably paid channel 4 to do this story.

They will do anything to stir up any problem which will somehow, “prove” that encryption has to be weakened. For our own good of course.

But, yes. The general population generally just carry on as normal.

Cheers… Ishy

Anonymous Coward says:

After all, were its assertions true, why in the world aren’t there bombs going off in record numbers using these chemical combinations?

Because contrary to all logic and public reporting, the intelligence services are actually doing a great job finding, detaining, and eliminating huge numbers of terrorists before they attack, and are doing it all in secret. They can’t tell us how effective they’re being because that would reduce their effectiveness. We just need to trust that they’re good at scaring tigers^W^W stopping terrorists.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ball bearings are

lousy to use in a ball mill that you intend on making black powder in. Yes, you can use ’em to grind the charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulfur. But for the true enthusiast, they use a ball mill to grind together all three of those ingredients and you really don’t want the balls to be made of steel. Sparks in that situation are a “bad thing”. What they use are lead balls alloyed with Antimony (for hardness). The minor amount of lead and antimony contamination doesn’t affect the resulting “meal powder” is then lightly moistened, compressed into a hard puck, dried, then coarsely ground in a mortal and pestle to make corned powder which is then ready for use.

But Steel Ball Bearings? No way, no how, unless you like unexpected explosions.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Moral panics are good things, they show us the leaders that are to stupid to have the job.

I always love hearing in US news coverage how they found “bomb making” supplies in the suspects house. While it helps turn public sentiment to the idea this is a horrible person out to murder us all… many of them fail to realize I can walk into their home and produce a vast quantity of “bomb making” materials. So many common things can be used in this way & yet have perfectly normal everyday uses.

Sorta sad the public has gotten to the point where even after seeing the media lead them by the nose over & over to the wrong conclusions that they still refuse to question the things reported & wonder if they have an angle.

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