On Sunday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used her official government Twitter account to complain that her two-year-old had allegedly ordered a $79.99 action figure by “yelling ‘Batman!’ over and over again at her Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo.
If this were true, it would certainly be a convenient way for Sanders to score some points with her boss, who has repeatedly accused Amazon of not paying fictional “internet taxes” (a confused reference to state sales tax), being a tax shelter, and screwing over the U.S. Postal Service on delivery rates. Also, it would be very bad if a two-year-old repeatedly screaming “Batman!” could in fact end up with an account owner being charged $79.99 for a toy.
However, as TechCrunch noted, despite several attempts, no one has actually been able to replicate Alexa ordering said action figure just because someone yelled about Batman at it. Amazon’s support documentation notes that ordering anything via voice requires making a deliberate purchase request and again verbally confirming the order.
Wary of a prior but extremely sketchy report of a child ordering a dollhouse via Alexa with the phrase, “Can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse,” TechCrunch tested out a variety of commands like “I want Batman,” “Give me Batman,” and “I need Batman.” None of them summoned an Amazon offer until they used the explicit command, “Order Batman,” which prompted Alexa to explain the details of the purchase order and ask, “Would you like to buy it?”
At least one other Twitter user similarly failed to order the Batman action figure by just yelling “Batman Batman Batman Batman!” at an Echo.
It’s definitely possible to trigger Alexa accidentally, though other reports of it placing orders without explicit commands to do so seem largely anecdotal.
To recap, Sanders’ two-year-old may indeed have managed to order the Batman action figure, but probably only by deliberately making the purchase on a device that didn’t have parental controls activated. But even making that leap of faith is a little too generous; Sanders only provided a purchase receipt, not the records of her Echo’s voice commands.
However, Sanders’ tweet did get her a completely fact-check-free shoutout by one of the president’s favorite right-wing talk shows, which is probably worth the time it takes to place an $80 order, screenshot it, and then cancel it.
There are good reasons to be wary about setting up a voice assistant-enabled ad machine in your house, especially one where a two-year-old might be roaming. But Sanders’ account just doesn’t add up, because of course it doesn’t.