UK press doesn't understand chemistry or Amazon, launches bomb-making panic

UK public broadcaster Channel 4 sparked a presswide panic with a story: "Potentially deadly bomb ingredients are 'frequently bought together' on Amazon."

But the ingredients are common black powder ingredients. Black powder is useful for many hobbyist applications ("fireworks, model rockets, antique firearms, or to blow up the occasional stump") but it's not a useful bomb-making compound (that would be TATP, which is also synthesizable from common Amazon ingredients).

They were further alarmed by the fact that Amazon also recommended ball-bearings, characterizing these as "shrapnel." These are used in ball-mills, this being the tool you use when you make black powder.

Channel 4 also notes that people who buy magnesium ribbon also buy iron oxide and aluminum powder — these being the ingredients in popular science-classroom demonstrations.

As Maciej Cegłowski puts it, "Channel 4 has discovered that fireworks enthusiasts and chemistry teachers shop on Amazon."

Finally, just how many people does Channel 4 imagine are buying bombs online? For a recommendations algorithm to be suggesting shrapnel to sulfur shoppers implies that thousands or tens of thousands of people are putting these items together in their shopping cart. So where are all these black powder bombers? And why on earth would an aspiring bomber use an online shopping cart tied to their real identity?

A more responsible report would have clarified that black powder, a low-velocity explosive, is not a favored material for bomb making. Other combinations are just as easy to make, and pack a bigger punch.

The bomb that blew up the Federal building in Oklahoma City, for example, was a mixture of agricultural fertilizer and racing fuel. Terrorists behind the recent London bombings have favored a homemade explosive called TATP that can be easily synthesized from acetone, a ubiquitous industrial solvent.

Anatomy of a Moral Panic
[Maciej Cegłowski/Idle Words]