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Anatomy of a Moral Panic: Reports About Amazon Suggesting 'Bomb-Making Items' Were Highly Misleading (idlewords.com) 78

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.
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Anatomy of a Moral Panic: Reports About Amazon Suggesting 'Bomb-Making Items' Were Highly Misleading

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  • So the real takeaway is it has uncovered a ring of terrorist training camps being run out of high school chemistry labs? Or am I supposed to fall into the giant vat of irony of this being a clickbait slashdot article? I'm so confused...
  • kudos to Maciej Ceglowski for chasing clickbait and drama media outlets!
  • What? (Score:5, Funny)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Friday September 22, 2017 @01:15PM (#55245831) Journal

    It's hard to believe the internet would hyperbolize something just for fun.

    • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

      You know who hyperbolized things for fun? Hitler, that's who!

    • Have you heard about the dangers of Di-Hydrogen Monoxide? That shit is for REAL!

    • It's hard to believe the internet would hyperbolize something just for fun.

      Well, I was searching for duct tape on Amazon to patch the tubes of the Internet, and the algorithm kept suggesting:

      "Would you like some hamsters along with your duct tape?"

      So I guess the Internet's ideas of fun can be somewhat bizarre . . .

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story" - 1930's newspaper editor

  • hate speech. deadlineism or shortism or pieceism. ism ism, maybe.
  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Friday September 22, 2017 @01:31PM (#55245925) Homepage Journal

    Maciej Ceglowski, a Polish-American web developer,

    ...better known as the owner of Pinboard [pinboard.in] (which recently bought Delicious!), and is somewhat well-known on Twitter [twitter.com] for his snarky, witty commentary. He's not just some random guy with a blog.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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.

    The hell you say, you presumptuous privileged asshole. I went to school in the inner city urban ghetto, where the only memorable thing that happened was that one time the chemistry teacher broke a thermometer and spilled mercury on his hands and had a panic attack. I've never seen thermite in my life.

    Fuck you, slashdot techscum turdbros. Fuck. You.

  • Many years ago when I was at school, the Chemistry Head ran an after school chemistry club. Virtually everyone who went was there to make explosives. Of course, we had to pretend to be doing some sort of worthy science experiment, but as soon as the teacher's back was turned we "liberated" all the interesting chemicals. He must have known, since he would have been re-ordering the ones in high demand, but he probably took the view that any chemistry is better than none. Unfortunately there was a crackdow
    • Bullshit.

      High school chem labs don't have strong enough acids to make nitroglycerine.

      • This wasn't a US High School, and it was ~35 years ago. I think the rules were maybe more relexed then.
      • Bullshit.

        High school chem labs don't have strong enough acids to make nitroglycerine.

        Depends on when. Back when I was taking high school chemistry (1970 or so) the chemistry lab absolutely had nitric and sulfuric acids strong enough to nitrate organics, and the glycerine there on the shelf just waiting to be triply nitrated.

        Other fun stuff: Sodium and potassium metal. White phosphorous.

        Really scary stuff: Hydrofluoric acid. (Not sure about Derek Lowe, but that one is on my list of Things I Won't Work With.)

        I can't say about now; I haven't been in a high school chemistry lab chemical sto

        • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          White fuming nitric acid in your HS lab? Alternatively fuming sulphuric acid mixed with azeotropic nitric acid?

          HS chem labs _don't_ have acids strong enough to make nitroglycerin. If they ever did, your teachers were fucking crazy.

        • by mikael ( 484 )

          I remember those experiments in chemistry lab. Only the teacher did that experiment. Glass jar, water in a perspex box, with the sodium/potassium on a long spoon, dropped in while he was wearing safety goggles.

          One of the most interesting experiment was when I was in a computer lab at college, they had just installed a new extractor fan wrongly, and so it actually extracted the waste fumes from the chemistry lab isolation boxes from the floor below right into the chemistry lab. People were turning interestin

      • They might not now, where you are.

        They did when - and where - I went to school. And it wasn't the only dangerous thing. We were taught evolution too.

  • I was buying a couple kilos of plutonium 239 on Amazon this weekend and Amazon helpfully suggested the right explosive lenses to go with my neutron initiator I got last month. Its like Amazon knows what I want before I want it. A real timesaver.
    • watch out for the stale tritium, the helium in the old crap poisons the boosting

    • Don't forget the Lithium Deuteride! Amazon is missing opportunities if it's not including all 3 in a 'frequently bought together' package.

  • TL:DR (Score:2, Funny)

    by Bodhammer ( 559311 )
    TL:DR - The news media are lazy. stupid fuckwits...
  • From glass coffee pots to the hydrogen peroxide in your bathroom medical kit.
    Pretty shitty terrorists if they're going through the trouble to make gun powder when all they would need to do is look in their garage for the chemicals to make something far more devastating.
    Hell, years ago some dude on the old RogueSci forums used orange tang powder (for the citric acid) as a catalyst to make an organic peroxide based explosive just to prove a hilarious point.

    • by jedidiah ( 1196 )

      Those home made gun powder ingredients on Amazon sound like something that that should also be displayed with a Gorn action figure.

  • you're saying that high school kids are making Bombs. My God, it's worse than we thought! Think of the (bomb making) children!
  • If one ordered potassium nitrate and Amazon's algorithm "suggested items include sulfur and charcoal", how is that not bomb-making ingredients?
    • If one ordered potassium nitrate and Amazon's algorithm "suggested items include sulfur and charcoal", how is that not bomb-making ingredients?

      Theoretically.

      Making black powder that you can get any sort of a bang out of isn't as easy as Captain Kirk made it out to be. Not by a long shot. Voice of experience here.

      My best batch I ran in the rock tumbler for a couple of days. Still, it was green powder. I didn't know about korning way back then, and if you don't do that, it's not going to have much kick.

    • Probably because they'd just spent the last hour searching for 'bomb' 'explosive' and 'gunpowder' before Amazon's algorithms did their thing.

  • Stupidly insane alarmist articles by the media.
    Have thugs, gangsters and drug dealers using firearms? Increase restrictions on Joe and Sally Sixpack. "facepalm:
    Have jihadists setting off bombs? Increase restrictions on Joe and Sally Sixpack? :facepalm:

    You can go to your local hardware store and/or walmart and pick up all of that stuff, stump destroyer, acetone paint remover, 3% hydrogen peroxide, Ammonium Nitrate, Sulfuric Acid, HCL, etc..., under various brand names. Boil down 8 bottles of Hydrogen Pe

    • Boil down 8 bottles of Hydrogen Peroxide in a pyrex pot to one bottle and you'll have 25% Hydrogen Peroxide.

      No, you'll have 100% water [wikipedia.org].

  • I don't think many people here actually purchase or use dangerous chemicals on a regular basis. Certainly, this web developer blogger is not a chemical expert and is not the kind of person the journalist should have turned to for an expert opinion. I might be.

    Generally speaking, chemical companies will not deliver dangerous chemicals to your home. Yes, you can get sulphur, nitrates, and charcoal at a nursery, and other chemicals at the hardware store and drug store, but these are usually in smaller bottles

    • A lot of those chemicals are surprisingly useful. The bomb that started this panic was an acetone peroxide explosive - probably improperly prepared, as it didn't make much of a bang. You need only two reagents to make that. Hydrogen peroxide, and acetone. I purchased a bit bottle of acetone online because I use it to perform vapor smooths of 3D printed objects - exposure to acetone vapor makes them smoother and stronger. It's also pretty good at getting ink stains from clothing.

      • You using for cleaning your fingernails. No shame in that, sweetie.

        • Nail polish removes is diluted acetone. Raw acetone certainly gets the nail polish off, but it'll take part of the skin with it. Plus dilution reduces the flammability.

C for yourself.

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