The Smoke Eater for Jan. 17, 2020

Bean counting, buying guns on the internet, and flooding the zone with B.S.

Good day, this is The Smoke Eater for Friday, January 17, 2020, and you should turn off the idiot box.

Quick Hit

* Trump signs some trade deals, but nerds are skeptical * Who is Putin’s new No. 2 * Twitter’s hashtag problem * It’s only sort of legal to buy guns on the internet * Emo Trump’s toilet trouble * Finding Facebook’s true friends *

: I'll be around Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. day, so keep an eye on your inbox. And, if you're in Chicago, I'll see you at the Women's March (rain, sleet, or snow).

The Smoker Eater is ad-free and reader supported. Please, tip me on Ko-Fi, or subscribe to my Patreon so I can eat food and pay bills!

A Deal, Man

The Senate passed Trump's U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (U.S.M.C.A.).  A number of politicos, particularly those in the South and Midwestern plains states who are vulnerable in 2020, are gushing about the NAFTA 2 pact. Not everyone thinks it's a great idea, particularly 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (but he hates free trade, so he doesn't really count). Nerds who study this sort of thing note the benefits will be modest as, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, it could potentially boosting U.S. GDP by .35 percent and create 175,700 jobs … over six years.

Trump signed his Phase One trade deal with China. Effectively a cease fire in his "easy to win" trade war, bean counters aren't exactly thrilled, complaining that it amounts to more uncertainty for farmers and the U.S. economy. For more, check out the Bob Schieffer on the CSIS podcast, The Truth of the Matter, where Bill Reinsch and Scott Miller joke that Trump will probably throw another tantrum just before the election so the self-described "deal man" can appear strong and competent.

Goddamn It

US troops were injured in that Iranian missile attack on an Iraqi airbase. "Several [coalition members] were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed," according to a statement by coalition forces. A Pentagon official tells CNN a total of 11 service members were injured in the attack. In a related story, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a rare public appearance, leading Friday prayers where he called called US officials "clowns" and Europeans their "lackeys." He than called Iran's missile strikes on Iraqi bases, "acts of God, not man."

Russian To The Top

Russian President Vladimir Putin has named his new Prime Minister. Don't worry if your money wasn't on Mikhail Mishustin, a technocratic money man leading Russia's tax service, he's fairly obscure unless you're part of Russia's economic and political elite, explains Radio Free Europe. Foreign Policy guesstimates that Mishustin might be an effective choice to combat the failures of former prime minister Dimitry Medvedev, and shore up support for a Russian government that's falling faster than the average Russian's disposable income.

Hacking 2020

Logan Lamb, the election security expert who blew the whistle about Georgia's shady paperless voting machines, has filed an affidavit in federal court suggesting voter fuckery may stretch back to 2014. According to the documents, a server responsible for Georgia's elections was breached as early as 2014. Lamb says it's entirely possible this breach was an employee of the voting machine company attempting to patch vulnerabilities, but he's very skeptical.

People are still talking about the fight between senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Aside from generating more clickbait stories about fighting dirty, it's created a debate about whether or not Twitter should kill its Trending Topics. Writing in Bloomberg, Eric Newcomer explains how two anti-Warren hashtags took off after people began criticizing the dust-up rather than supporting it. Emily Stewart follows that thread further in ReCode by noting Twitter's algorithm dumps everything into the same cacophonous elementary school hallway of loud, obnoxious children. The 2016 election showed us how easy it is for bots and bastards to game Twitter's trending system, and prominent techies are now arguing the system should be tossed into the waste bin of well intentioned tech with Microsoft's Zune, Google's Wave, and the Sinclair C5.

Making The World A Better Place

Facebook is actually doing something good. The company's Disaster Maps are being used to coordinate relief efforts for aid workers fighting Australian brush fires. The idea isn't really new, journalists, researchers, non-profits, and other bleeding hearts with free time have been using social media to do crisis mapping for years. This kind of open-source intelligence (OSINT) work has been particularly effective in documenting war crimes in Syria, and tracking water shortages in Haiti.

Twitter says it's sorry for letting advertisers microtarget neo-Nazis after the BBC uncovered the practice. Twitter's ad targeting, the BBC explains, can be used to filter users based on things they say, so for a couple of dollars a dietary supplement marketer can target people suffering from eating disorders just as easily as a hate group can target hate mongering xenophobes. Twitter says it has adjusted its keyword filters to correct the error.

Slate asked a bunch of journalists what they thought were the most 50 most evil companies in tech. All the usual suspects are here, and I'm not shocked that Peter Thiel's Palantir is in the top five, but I'm a bit tormented how many of these companies have business models based off data monitoring/spying.

Colin Lecher and Sean Campbell have a great longread in The Verge about the craigslist of gun retailers, If you wanted to know how people in cities like Chicago can get guns so easily (without just driving a few hours to Iowa, Indiana, Missouri or Wisconsin) you should add this to your weekend reading list.

The Idiot Box

Comcast revealed it's new new streaming service, Peacock. The company is offering ad-supported, ad-fewer and ad-free options in the hopes people won't just rip-off reruns of The Office or the next Battlestar Galactica reboot in order to avoid watching uncomfortable clips of Jimmy Fallon pretending to be funny.

The very talented and funny Nick Lutsko has created another Emo Trump music video, this time about Trump's struggle with toilets.

One More Thing...

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went off on Facebook yesterday, calling the social media giant "shameful" for clinging to a "business model [that] is strictly to make money." She called the company "accomplices" in disinformation campaigns that are, "misleading the American people with money from God knows where," adding "All they want are their tax cuts and no antitrust action against them." Twisting the knife a little deeper, Pelosi said Facebook had "schmoozed" the Trump administration and "didn't even check on the money from Russia in the last election, and everyone thought they should." [Video]

The Trump administration and it's associated political campaigns in 2016 and 2020 have indeed utilized social media, particularly Facebook, to reach an audience unburdened with fact-checks. A total of $81 million was spent between the two presidential campaigns in 2016, the majority of which was spent by the Trump campaign. Over $100 million has already been spent heading into 2020, with Facebook pocketing the largest chunk of that cash, and the Trump campaign is again dominating digital ad spending.

Digital strategies have been around for over a decade now. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was quick to utilize social media as a grassroots organizing tool. In 2008 the Obama campaign spent 10 percent its media budget on digital ad buys. Four years later, the Obama campaign spent 15 percent, out-spending the Romney campaign almost two-to-one over the course of the 2012 election. In 2016, the Clinton campaign dumped hundreds of millions into TV ads while the Trump campaign spent a few hundred thousand on Facebook ads.

The grassroots social media efforts by the Obama and Trump campaigns are dramatically different when placed under modest scrutiny: Obama's digital guru Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, built to function as an organizing tool for supporters in 2008; Trump's digital operation, led by brash huckster Brad Parscal -- who just happened to be simultaneously aware of the internet and friends with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner -- abused a flaw in Facebook's digital marketing system to steal user data on 50 million users, then used that stolen data to target voters susceptible to manipulation and misinformation.

Here's an infographic via Wired if you need quick a refresher on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And, as noted in the Mueller Report, the Trump campaign had some outside help.

That the Trump campaign is again dumping tons of cash into Facebook for digital media ads shouldn't be surprising. Facebook allows politicians to say whatever they want. The right-wing media echo chamber has for years utilized op-ed pages and cable news to fight the inconvenience of facts; now it can can, as Steve Bannon said in 2017, "Flood the zone with bullshit."

OK, now here's a warm and fuzzy critter video!


Follow Dominic on Twitter and Instagram.

The Smoke Eater is ad-free and relies on your tips and subscriptions. It takes a lot of time and energy to put each issue together, so consider tipping me on Ko-Fi, or subscribing to my Patreon.

Questions? Comments? Shoot me an email, or slide into my DMs!