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Digital media invented the Thanksgiving argument

It’s an apt strategy for pulling in some general-interest clicks

November 27, 2019

8:35 AM

27 November 2019

8:35 AM

Do a Google search for ‘thanksgiving politics’ and the results, well, show a trend.

‘Have different politics from your family? Here’s how to survive Thanksgiving,’ says the Washington Post

‘How to navigate awkward political conversations at the Thanksgiving table,’ USA Today warns.

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‘How to avoid all-out political war at your Thanksgiving table.’ Thanks for the tip, NBC News.

These days, the ‘how to get along with your troglodyte relatives’ news story is practically as customary at Thanksgiving as canned cranberry sauce. If you read a lot of online news, especially if you’re a millennial adult in a liberal coastal city, you’re told to brace yourself — there’s going to be dissent as the turkey gets carved.

Though I don’t have a scientific paper trail, I’ve spent enough years on Media Twitter to be able to chart the phenomenon of the Thanksgiving politics game-plan trend piece back to millennial-oriented liberal news outlets like Mic and Upworthy. Before USA Today and the Washington Post were talking about it, they were. Mic published ‘A Thanksgiving Guide to Winning Political Arguments With Your Conservative Relatives’ way back in 2014, long before anyone would have pinpointed Donald Trump as a serious contender for the presidency. 

A year earlier, Upworthy declared, ‘Democrat? Republican? WHATEVER. When your uncle starts grilling you about politics at Thanksgiving, quote this to him word for word…then help yourself to more potatoes.’ The actual text of the post from Upworthy, which exited to fellow progressive publication GOOD in 2017, has been lost to the code abyss of the internet. (The byline is listed as ‘Paige Worthy’, which seems to be a semi-clever double entendre until you do some Googling and confirm she’s real.)

Facebook’s algorithm changed a few times over the subsequent years, dooming the traffic of many ‘news’ sites that exploited social media virality — famously, those headlines that loved the ‘you’ll never believe what happens next’ trope. But the Thanksgiving troglodyte tutorial didn’t just survive; it broke into the mainstream, as we can see today.

What doesn’t get a lot of attention is the darker, snake-snacking-on-its-own-tail side to the popularity of these kinds of headlines. Liberal, millennial-focused news outlets took a great pride in an us-versus-them narrative, just as conservative outlets demonized the allegedly effete coastal elites. And here’s the thing: it’s profitable. A now-famous (The) Ohio State University study found a decade ago that you likely spend about a third more time with news you agree with. Outrage and anger are more easily sold for profit, so to speak — people are more likely to click on something that seems somehow scary or hyperbolic. All of this leads to more ad impressions.

What we’re left with is an unfortunate catch-22 — click-hungry news sites that spend 51 weeks out of the year sowing the seeds of partisanship between readers and their unwoke families, and the 52nd week publishing traffic-friendly stories about how to deal with those family members over the Thanksgiving dinner table. Even after Facebook cracked down on these hyperpartisan news outlets, the trope of the Thanksgiving battleground remained, making its way into mainstream news publications that see it as an apt strategy for pulling in some general-interest clicks.

Let’s get real: just like marketer-friendly holidays like ‘National Margarita Day’ (which I observe, by the way), the idea of Thanksgiving as a Thunderdome for culture clashes is a media creation. People have always disagreed with each other and broken bread despite fundamental disagreements around how to go about life. Holidays like Thanksgiving, in fact, were frequently seen as grounds for a temporary break from the rancor — to come together in spite of it all. What’s different now is the thinking our differences somehow have to be a source of friction that’s clearly going to come to blows over a family meal, versus any other time throughout the year. 

But this thinking seems more rooted in reality TV than real life; at a large and well-orchestrated meal, the staging ground for a heated disagreement somehow seems more visceral, more meaningful than it would if the table were set with takeout containers rather than gravy boats and fine china. That begs the question of whether we’re effectively making reality TV of our own lives by buying into the clickbait that dramatizes the moments that are the most ripe for conflict.  Can’t we just express our political disagreements over phone conversations and call a truce? That might be more conducive to having ongoing conversations about reconciling our differences than, you know, hurling the mashed potatoes at someone.


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