Anatomy of moralistic panic

On September 18, 2017, on the 4th TV channel in Britain, a news story went on with the headline "On Amazon," often buy together "ingredients for deadly bombs."

The news claimed that “users looking for a common chemical used in food production offer ingredients suitable for the production of explosive black powder” on the Amazon website, and that “steel balls for bearings often used as shrapnel” is also advertised on this page. as things that users often buy together.

The “common chemical” in the 4th Channel report is potassium nitrate (potassium nitrate) used for marinating meat. If you order a pound bag of this substance on Amazon, you will see sulfur and coal, two other ingredients of gunpowder offered in addition to the purchase of goods (unlike Channel 4, it’s not difficult for me to reveal the secret of this technology by the age of 1000 years ).

The subtext of the news is clear: the algorithms of recommendations from the site are made of people who love to cook at home, radicals who are able to abandon the production of corned beef in favor of the production of shrapnel bombs. What is even worse, apparently, these parts for bombs in the store are buying enough people for the algorithm to reveal the correlation and start giving its gloomy tips.

True, if you search a little, it turns out that everything that Channel 4 revealed is a community of hobby-lovers who independently, safely and legally make black powder for use in fireworks, models of rockets, replicas of ancient weapons or uprooting stumps.

In Britain, making and storing black powder is legal. There are restrictions on storage volumes (100 grams), but since black powder is easy to make from cheap ingredients, it is difficult to ignite accidentally, and it is practically non-toxic, it is often chosen by novice hobby enthusiasts. You only need a ball mill (granulator) - a rotating drum with balls for bearings inside, mixing powders and producing granules of the same size.

All of this led to a terrific assertion made by Channel 4 that, along with sulfur and coal, the Amazon algorithm offers detonators, wires and “steel balls for bearings, often used as shrapnel in bombs.”

The steel balls for bearings recommended by Amazon are obviously intended for the pelletizer. The algorithm recognizes the fact that people who buy black powder ingredients need to make granules. This is no more shocking than an offer to buy a spice mill in the appendage to the pepper.

The fact that these balls are sold for making shrapnel is a journalist’s fantasy. It’s unthinkable for so many bomb making equipment to be sold on Amazon, for the algorithm to start making appropriate recommendations.

The channel was further told that people looking for "another commonly available chemical" are offered ingredients for a thermite mixture consisting of metal powders that, when set on fire, "triggers a dangerous reaction used in incendiary bombs as well as when cutting metal."

In this case, the “commonly available chemical” is a magnesium tape. If you search for such a tape on Amazon, the site will offer you to buy more iron oxide (rust) and aluminum powder, and by mixing them together, you can create a terrific firework - a thermite reaction.


This reaction is shown in any chemistry lesson in high school, as entertainment as a reward for students who had to suffer with the study of oxidation-reduction reactions. Mix the rust and powdered aluminum in the crucible, set it on fire with magnesium tape and watch the jet of flame leaving behind a bit of molten iron. Mixed metal powders are hard to ignite (this is what magnesium tape is for), but when you start the reaction, they burn violently.

The main consumer use of thermite mixture is laboratory demonstrations and entertaining chemistry. What is important, the thermite mixture does not explode.

So Channel 4 discovered the fact that firework lovers and chemistry teachers are procured on Amazon. But weaving an explosive report about terrorism out of these innocent observations, they guaranteed that this news would attract the most attention.

The story of "Amazon teaches how to make bombs" predictably spread through the Internet.

In all these articles, there is no sense of measure or realism. In what universe is an innocent person buying a bag of ordinary sulfur turned into a radical making an improvised gunpowder bomb stuffed with shrapnel using a recommendation service?

Doesn't Channel 4 think that the instructions for making explosives are so hard to find on the Internet that people go down to buying chemicals at random to learn the secrets of gunpowder?

How much should Amazon care about the recommendations given by the site? For example, on the page with an offer to buy ammonia, there are recommendations for purchasing a concentrated bleach with it. Ammonia with bleach reacts with the release of lethal gas, and these substances can be bought on Amazon in unlimited quantities. Does this mean that Amazon is trying to convince customers to chloramine them?

And finally, how many people, according to the 4th channel, buy bombs over the Internet? In order for the recommendation algorithm to offer buyers shrapnel to sulfur, it requires that thousands or tens of thousands of people buy these items at the same time, combining them in one basket. And where are all these terrorists with black powder bombs? And will such a terrorist use an online store where his identity is revealed?

A more balanced journalist would clarify that black powder, like a slow burning substance, is not the best material for bombs. Other combinations are just as easy to make, and they explode much more.

The bomb that exploded in the federal building of Oklahoma, for example, was made from a mixture of agricultural fertilizer and racing fuel. The terrorists who recently organized the bombings in London chose a composition called TATP, or acetone peroxide , which can be easily synthesized from acetone, an affordable industrial solvent, for self-production.

For terrorists who actually use black powder, it is easier to pick it up from commercially available fireworks - this is how a Boston terrorist got explosives for his device. These substances are bought online (which is very easy to track), and then only harmless people who are fond of muskets and rockets carefully granulate the powder from scratch - and they are now threatened by additional cavils.

The low quality of this story did not prevent it from spreading in the manner of weed to other media, gaining additional mistakes along the way. The New York Times omits a statement about shrapnel, but it completely incorrectly describes the thermite mixture as “two powders exploding after mixing them in the right proportions and igniting” (the thermite mixture does not explode).

Vice repeats the unfounded statements of the 4th channel about shrapnel, and also implies that the thermite mixture explodes: "the components used to create the thermite mixture used in incendiary bombs were combined with steel balls for bearings (homemade shrapnel)."

The Independent is generally confused and reports that "if users click on the link" thermite mix ", a pyrotechnic mixture of metal powders, the site shows them links to two other products." They also added the words “mother of Satan” to the article's URL, probably to increase the ranking of the article in the search engines by linking it with the explosive TATP, unrelated to the material.

Slate repeats the words of the 4th channel that Amazon inclines "users to buy balls for bearings that can be used as shrapnel in homemade bombs."

Only the skeptical channel of the BBC took care of consulting with experts who rightly noted that in order to influence the algorithm of recommendations it was necessary that these products be bought by a large number of people.

When I contacted the author of one of these articles to express my concern, they explained to me that the article was written in the morning in deadline mode, and that by that time they had already been working on other, unrelated material. The author cited coverage of this event from other media outlets (including the New York Times), justifying a reprint and the absence of corrections to the statements made in the initial 4th channel report.

The real story in this whole mess is not that the algorithms threaten customers on Amazon, but that the algorithms threaten journalism. Forcing reporters to optimize all stories to increase clickability, not giving them time to check or link the material with the real situation, requiring them to participate in the race to publish articles on all topics, the economy of online media, tied to clickbates , encourages dishonesty and drama. This is especially often manifested in technological topics that are beyond the competence of the journalist.

Journalists have no choice but to chase for clicks. Google and Facebook created a duopoly on online advertising, and the only measure of success in publishing will be whether the story has become viral in the media. Authors are judged by the success of their online articles, and they are constantly forced to make them more eye-catching. Materials on complex technical topics are given to young freelancers who work on a strict schedule. Corrections, if they are made at all, are inserted into the article in a quiet, “ninja-editing” style.

There are no penalties for mistakes, but there is a need to make out stories to maximize the number of views. After the story is picked up by competing media, it becomes impossible to get rid of it. The sheer amount of repeated coverage of the story gives it legitimacy. As the old saying goes, a lie passes half the world, while the truth only shoes.

Earlier this year, when the Guardian published the same ignorant, and more harmful, article about a popular secure messenger, it took the security expert group six months to convince and shame the site enough for the publication to change the article. And the Guardian is a prestigious publication, with an independent public editor (responsible for journalistic ethics). Not every story will be studied so carefully, and not every one will attract such attention as it did with Teen Vogue magazine.

The very same machine learning systems that Channel 4 tried to expose erode the ability of online journalism to perform its task well.

Such moralistic panic not only harms the owners of muskets and rocket modellers. They distract and discredit journalists, making it difficult for them to carry out the main function of control over power.

The real history of machine learning is not how it encourages the manufacture of homemade bombs, but that it is widely used without proper ethical supervision, for use in business models based only on psychological manipulation and mass surveillance. The ability to manipulate people on a large scale is sold to the highest paid and poisons every aspect of civic life, including democratic elections and journalism.

Together with climate change, this algorithmic conquest of the public sphere is the largest information channel of the beginning of the 21st century. We desperately need journalists covering this issue. But the more their professional survival becomes dependent on online publications, the less they have the opportunity to engage in such reports - if they remain at all.


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