The Smoke Eater For Jan. 9, 2020

Trump cancels the apocalypse, Facebook lets politicians lie, and an Olympic orgy.

Good morning, this is The Smoke Eater for Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, and the only thing I'll say about British royalty is that "King Ralph" is remains tragically underrated.

Quick Hit

Trump pats himself on the back after almost starting a war. Congress is livid the administration thinks it can start indiscriminately killing people who hurt Trump's feelings on Twitter. Facebook has a bad day, then says politicians can lie (as long as they pay Facebook). The 2020 Tokyo Olympic's "sex fest" will be biodegradable.

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No Americans Were Harmed In The Making Of This Film

The Trump administration has decided it won't start a war with Iran. During a press conference Trump stated that Iran, "appears to be standing down," adding no American or Iraqi lives were lost thanks to a, "early -warning system." Rather than drag the U.S. (and everyone else) into war, Trump said the U.S. was slapping more sanctions on Iran. He also called on world leaders to join a peace process, criticized the Obama administration and the 2015 JCPOA -- which limited Iran's nuclear capabilities -- by falsely claiming the agreement increased Iranian nuclear capabilities and its aggression throughout Middle East.

People analyzing Trump's speech seem to be grading it on a curve, noting it has a made-for-TV quality. Personally, I feel that this is his usual gimmick: throw a grenade into a crowd to distract everyone the toilet paper on his shoe.

Ashley Parker writes that Trump's pattern of using sanctions stems from his belief that money is power. Parker paraphrases an anonymous White House official saying, "Trump understands the power of financial penalties and withholding money."

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the Iranian nuclear agreement, went on TV last night to push back against Trump's claims, and provide context to JCPOA's terms. He would know, he negotiated the deal.

The Washington Post reports the "early warning system" Trump bragged about came from deep state intelligence reports, and quotes an unnamed US official saying, "We knew, and the Iraqis told us, that this was coming many hours in advance." Defense Secretary Mark Esper tried to downplay the report, saying the warning came, "literally like right before."

Iraq And A Hard Place

Iran's Tansim news agency reports the regime's usual chorus of sabre rattling blowhards saying the country will take, "harsher revenge" if the U.S. gets trigger happy again. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been on the phone with British and European officials, urging them to condemn the U.S. killing its top general, Qasem Soleimani. In a separate report, a deputy to one of the heads of the Revolutionary Guard said the regime was, like, flexing so hard, bro, and the US, "couldn't do a damn thing." In a related story, three Katyusha rockets fell inside Baghdad's Green Zone; at least one landed 100 meters away from the US embassy.

Here's the transcript of NPR's Steve Inskeep interview with Iran's UN ambassador, Majid Takht Ravanchi.

Meghan L. O'Sullivan writes in Foreign Affairs that the strain on Iraq's relationship with the U.S. can still be saved, provided the Trump administration is willing to act like adults.

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Abbas Milani, writes the fundamental dynamics of any peace accord with Iran have changed with the killing of Soleimani. Internal unrest has been quelled (at least for now), and the success of a recent joint Naval operation with Russia and China concluded with an increase in commitments from all three nations. "Unless both sides decide to de-escalate," writes Milani, "the United States and Iran are moving toward a dangerous and destructive war that will further dim the waning prospects for a working agreement that will convince Iran it is not in its interest to try to develop a nuclear bomb and will also lessen tensions that have reached a fever pitch with the assassination of Soleimani."

"I don't know that they know the rationale."

Tempers were flaring after the administration finally got around to briefing members of Congress about the strike on Soleimani. Upon leaving the briefing, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) told reporters, "I don’t know that they know the rationale. Certainly they didn’t tell me what it was." The same sentiment was echoed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-CO) who described the briefing as a "drive-by notification or after-the-fact, lame briefing" that was "insulting" and "completely unacceptable," adding, "They struggled to identify anything." Lee then announced he was joining Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in supporting a war powers resolution proposed Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) to limit hostile U.S. engagement with Iran. The House is expected to vote on a similar measure later today.

Nerd Rage

During a hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Facebook got an earful from lawmakers about its new policy on deepfakes. The hearing came on the heels of the company's new policy governing doctored videos, which it says will it will ban only under certain circumstances. "Cheapfakes," videos heavily edited to create a false narrative, are just as dangerous, according to Joan Donovan, a research director at the Harvard Kennedy School, a panel witness. Predictably, Republicans complained about censorship, Democrats suggested legislation, and legal eagles tried to pass the buck to a federal agency that's been historically reluctant to do its job. When Rep. Jerry McKerney (D-CA) asked if Facebook would be ready for a third party audit, Monkia Bickert, Facebook’s vice president of global policy management, dodged the question.

This morning Facebook says it had decided not to stop politicians from lying in paid political ads, and that it won't place limits to its microtargeting ad system. The Trump campaign has complained that any attempt to stop politicians from lying was a form of censorship, encouraging supporters to pick up torches and pitchforks. A Facebook spox said its decision was the result of "a different set of issues" with regard to "transparency and users' controls when it comes to seeing political ads." Facebook’s director of product management, Rob Leathern, defended the move saying that while Google and Twitter have limited and/or banned political ads, Facebook was operating on a "principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public."

Fun Fact: The Trump campaign has spent well over $30 million on targeted Facebook ad buys in the 2020 cycle. Data nerds project digital political ad spending to top $6 billion in the 2020 election. Political strategists have cautioned against limiting the ability to target constituents, arguing their low cost makes it easy for cash-strapped down ballot candidates to reach a wider swath of voters, get contact information, and raise money. A 2018 study found that political ad targeting on digital platforms could be a good thing depending on the amount of transparency, but I don't think Facebook's ad targeting is as transparent as it claims. Facebook has been reluctant to disclose just how much information it gathers from users on any of its products, including Instagram and WhatsApp.

You'd be forgiven if you didn't catch the other unnecessary mess Facebook created with the publication of a bizarre piece in Teen Vogue. A Q&A with the company's leading women read less like actual journalism and more like sponsored content. After the Twitterati began calling B.S. and noted the lack of a byline, Teen Vogue edited the piece and labeled it sponsored content. A few hours later it mysteriously removed the label -- leading to more more outrage and confusion -- and finally the thing was ripped down. Because of the Streisand Effect, the sponcon (now confirmed by the Washington Post) has been archived, multiplied, and become a thing. Condé Nast, the parent company of Teen Vogue, says it "made a series of errors" in labeling the piece, but as Casey Newton writes, Facebook might have screwed up by penning sponcon about its integrity. "The thing about your integrity efforts is that you want to promote them with, you know, integrity." Newton  adds, "The whole reason you run sponsored content is control: you script the questions and edit the answers to your liking."

One More Thing...

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic athletes will be sleeping on cardboard bed frames. The beds, explains Takashi Kitajima, the general manager of the Athletes Village, who spoke through an interpreter, can support 440 pounds (200 kilograms). "They are stronger than wooden beds,” Kitajima says, adding that in the event of a wild party, "Of course, wood and cardboard would each break if you jumped on them." During the 2016 Rio Olympics, athletes were supplied with 450,000 condoms, which included 100,000 female condoms and 175,000 packets of lube, and Olympic officials have been passing out condoms since the 1988 games in Seoul. Tabloids have written about sex at the Olympics for some time too. The 2012 London Olympics (the "raunchiest games ever") actually saw Grindr crash when athletes arrived. A 2016 Guardian piece notes the 2008 Beijing games were called a, “sex fest," and quotes a female Olympian from the 2014 Sochi games saying, "Tinder in the Olympic Village is next level." Kitajima says the 18,000 bed frames will be recycled into paper products, assuming there's anything left to salvage.

And now for something and warm fuzzy: IT'S TOPI!

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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. Errors are largely the result of my humanity and an over-caffeinated furry.