Maciej Ceglowski, a Polish-American web developer, has demolished a news story from earlier this week in which a British outlet Channel 4 suggested that Amazon's algorithm-driven suggestions were helping people find items that are required to make bombs
. Multiple credible news outlets picked the story, including The New York Times, Reuters, BBC, and CNBC. We ran an excerpt from the New York Times' article, which included a newsworthy response from Amazon that it was reviewing its website, on Slashdot
. In reality what was happening was, Ceglowski wrote, the items Amazon suggested would help high school chemistry students with their experiments
. From his blog: 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. [...] The Channel 4 piece goes on to reveal that people searching for 'another widely available chemical' are being offered the ingredients for thermite, a mixture of metal powders that when ignited "creates a hazardous reaction used in incendiary bombs and for cutting through steel." In this case, the 'widely available chemical' is magnesium ribbon. If you search for this ribbon on Amazon, the site will offer to sell you iron oxide (rust) and aluminum powder, which you can mix together to create a spectacular bit of fireworks called the thermite reaction. 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. [...] When I contacted the author of one of these pieces to express my concerns, they explained that the piece had been written on short deadline that morning, and they were already working on an unrelated article. The author cited coverage in other mainstream outlets (including the New York Times) as justification for republishing and not correcting the assertions made in the original Channel 4 report. The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter's area of expertise. And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks.