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 Cegłowski.

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 Cegłowski 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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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 6:33am

    Tell Channel 4 people are buying tons of pressure cookers, certainly to make bombs!

    Ahem. This is rather telling about the journalistic quality of this company.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 6:41am

      Re:

      The Instant Pot community must have all have files on them now. If knowledge is power, the lack of power in the populace is staggering.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ThaumaTechnician (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 10:07am

        Re: Re:

        Funny you should say that:
        I once looked up specs on a right-angle/close quarters drill. I was told that "frequently bought together" were Dewalt drill bits and an Instant Pot.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      anony mous, 18 Nov 2017 @ 4:30pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 6:55am

    Would you like nails with that, sir?

    Next thing you know, people will find out where to buy oxygen and acetylene, or alarm clocks and mobile phones.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Groaker (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 6:57am

    Ball bearings would make incredibly expensive shrapnel. Just the thing for the upscale terrorist who wants to be the envy of his peers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:21am

      Re:

      That's what I thought. Simple scrap would provide much better material.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 26 Sep 2017 @ 3:22am

        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… ‌ ‌ ;]

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 7:00am

    Don't forget Grocery Stores!

    They sell Ammonia and Chlorine! The very core of gas warfare...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      NeghVar (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 10:43am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        R.H. (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:03pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 4:47pm

      Re: Don't forget Grocery Stores!

      They sell tincture of iodine too. If you mix that with ammonium hydroxide (such as found in cleaning solvents) you get an actual high explosive, not just poison gas.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 7:09am

    The way the News tells it, those ball bearings would be more deadly magnetized than in a bomb.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 25 Sep 2017 @ 7:26am

    Holy cow!

    High-school chemistry is the cause of all of the terrorist attacks in the world! We need to stop the spread of this horrible knowledge.

    Stop high-school chemistry - for the children!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ShadowNinja (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 7:42am

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Any Mouse, 25 Sep 2017 @ 7:48am

    Fun fact; Homemade black powder is incredibly hard to get right.

    Not in an accidental explosion way either. If you mess up the proportions or preparation all you get is a slow fizzle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:06am

    Thermite isn't explosive you say? Stupid finds a way

    http://www.wsbtv.com/news/2-georgia-tech-students-burned-in-explosion/241849890

    I know this because I graduated from GT and we were laughing about this for about a week afterwards like how did they manage this thermite is a super stable compound

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:15am

      Re: Thermite isn't explosive you say? Stupid finds a way

      They were probably doing something like thermite on an ice block. Thermite hits ice, ice flashes to gas causing thermite to be sprayed everywhere.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:20am

      Re: Thermite isn't explosive you say? Stupid finds a way

      It might depend on what the thermite was sitting on. The Mythbusters (with the local bomb squad) showed that you'd get a detonation if the thermite were sitting on ice.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ishtiaq (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:15am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:53am

      Re: Piss take

      At least British population has a level head then. US politicians don't seem to have that ability. Your news station on the other hand sounds like they are actively looking for a witch to burn.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ishtiaq (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 9:51am

        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

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Berenerd (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:15am

    Did you know you can buy knives on Amazon? They are about as lethal as black powder (at least in concealable amounts)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    firebird2110 (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:28am

    "Yvette Cooper, chair of Parliament’s home affairs committee, said the findings were “very disturbing”."

    If it wasn't so utterly predictable I might be 'disturbed' by the painfully low standard of journalism and the rent-a-comment reaction of a self-serving, third rate politician.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 8:30am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Al, 25 Sep 2017 @ 9:24am

    Well I don't know, but it must have all got to do with these nitty gritty Nazis who also threw a block of ice + termite on the world trade center

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 9:52am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Sep 2017 @ 10:10am

      Re: Ball bearings are

      Of course, Claymores don't use black powder, but does use steel balls. So yes, ball bearings would do quite well.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously, 25 Sep 2017 @ 10:38am

    Thermite is usually used to weld (train track-)rails together in continental Europe for a smoother ride.
    Of course, in England they whack kinks in the rails with a sledgehammer to go around corners, so Channel 4 is not aware of normal uses of thermite.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Groaker (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 11:07am

    Claymores use bearing balls. Ball bearings are bearing balls in a raceway. That is what makes them much more expensive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Crazy Hong Kong Monkey (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 12:40pm

    The name is Fawkes, Guy Fawkes

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 Sep 2017 @ 4:36pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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